Animal, Vestigial, Musical

Dondo and Cell Microtower

We talk within contexts, in groups, in culture, varying with the situation or occasion.  I’m trying to collapse the different levels, and unite modernity with tribal spirit.  At the most basic level, we pass messages as animals.  We smile or show other facial reactions within each other’s sight.  It’s more elementary than language.  It happens between adults and children and even between humans and their pets.  Dogs and cats stare into our faces, trying to connect.

“I’m here.  I see you.  I accept you.  How are you?” 

I began the week with an exercise in highly stylized, symbolic communication.  Mary sang while I played a Gregorian chant at church.  It was written in Latin and titled Adoro te devote by Thomas Aquinas around 1260.  It has many verses, but the tune is a real earworm.  When chant is performed properly, it produces a meditative effect.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the words.

Then we drove to the “big” town of Port Angeles (pop. 30,000) to experience some of the Juan de Fuca Festival of Arts.  I saw an extraordinary instrument used in Gambia and Mali called a kora, being played in a world music group named (of course) The Kora Band.

A kora has 21 strings, is played with the index fingers and thumbs, and it sounds like a harp.  Koras are one of the ancestors of guitars, and there are 1000 year-old songs for them that closely resemble melodies found in Delta blues songs composed by the descendants of West Africans brought here in slavery.

Another fine example of non-verbal communication was demonstrated by Maya Soto, a young dancer-choreographer.  Maya has invented an exciting, original fusion of hip-hop and modern dance.  I’ve not seen anything like it before.

We went outside the theater, where my Mom was dancing at the other end of the emotional spectrum.  She belongs to a Hawaiian dance troupe of mature ladies.  There is a spirit of peacefulness and harmony with nature that projects out to an audience through the performance of hulas.  In a breezy, seaside town built of old wood and concrete, I felt the calm of an island sunset.

(Mom’s in the Middle)

Before we left the festival, I stopped at a stand run by charming visitors from Ghana.  I’m only beginning to study African music, and there are so many unfamiliar instruments to learn about!  I bought a dondo, the kind of “talking drum” played there.  Use of these kinds of drums evolved in West Africa both for communicating over distances, and for songs and storytelling.  Many centuries ago a hereditary class of poet-musicians called jali rose in prominence.  The French called them griot.  These bards were both men and women, and all royal families had to have them.  They exist all over Africa now, and are still respected and employed for important religious and social occasions.  They sing and play many kinds of instruments.

Talking drums are held under the arm and squeezed to alter pitch by means of rawhide strings which loosen or tighten the membrane.  You strike the drumhead with the palms and fingers, or use a curved stick to produce more volume. In the hands of skilled players, they can imitate the pitch patterns of speech.  The traditions of the griot and their instruments were key ingredients in the vestigial brew that inspired the invention of jazz.

On Memorial Day Mary and I had dinner with our neighbors who are building the new megahouse, hosted by our neighbors on the other side of it.  We are acting to build bridges and welcome them to the tribe, because being neighbors is more important and deeper than the differences we may have in politics or religion.  I was excited to see that our host had a djembe, another kind of African hand drum.  He and I agreed to greet the dawn the next day and test out the sound of our drums, playing unseen from two houses apart.

As the gray clouds parted on the morning of our return to work, we played a few minutes of joyful call-and-response.  Our drums shouted our message.

“We are the new drummers!  We are the rural tribesmen!” 

“We are the jali of the woods!”


Filed under Communications, Music

18 responses to “Animal, Vestigial, Musical

  1. jgavinallan

    This is so new to me. New and fabulous…


  2. You posts are always so varied and interesting. I always learn something.

    I LOVE the Gregorian chant. They do induce a meditative state. I have several on my meditation play list. I am now going to look up music utilizing the kora and make a playlist. I think it would be good to write to. Lively, but soothing and not distracting.

    How neat about the drums!

    • I’m happy you enjoyed the article, Debbie. I’m having a really good time scoping out these local summer cultural events, and I love taking things I pick up from them and applying them back in my neighborhood.

  3. Wow. Just wow.

    Believe it or not, I was reading up on this recently. I find it fascinating that people actually communicate via instruments.

    This is a fantastic post, Mikey. Now I want to play a djembe!

  4. Deborah

    More lovely stuff for me to take in over morning tea! I loved the dancing, and also hearing about you and your neighbour playing the drums first thing in the morning. That’s wonderful.

    Re. the talking drum — does the player refer to the strings as being ‘leather’? You describe them as ‘rawhide’ which I looked up for the exact meaning (‘stiff untanned leather’). ‘Stiff and untanned’ suggests the strings might be difficult to work with? And maybe they have to be that way to work properly? The player in the clip makes playing the drum look so effortless.

    • Top of the morning to you, Deborah. Rawhide as we use the term here also refers to soft, leather strings, like the ones I have to tie my boat shoes. I’m up so late! (I wish I was in Blighty, a-way, a-way…)

  5. Gemma Sidney

    So interesting about the drums! They look so ‘easy’ to play but I know they’re not – as with any musical instrument, it’s a skill to be practised over and over… Thanks for another fascinating post.

  6. Good to see you, Gemma, and thanks.
    Well, you are right that it takes practice to play anything well, but drums are immediately satisfying because it only requires striking them to produce a good sound. The dondo is easy to manipulate and responds with little effort. Getting better will be about finesse, which I like since I’m not that strong.

    • Gemma Sidney

      I’m very much looking forward to housesitting for a friend in December – he has an entire room dedicated to all of his musical instruments, including a drum kit. I find it relaxing to (try) and drum a beat 🙂

  7. Gregorian chanting in smokey, candlelit chapels always has me crying on the inside . . . and your dancing mother is an absolute delight!

    Here’s to good tribal relations!

  8. Cool post. I like the drumming with your neighbor. It’s a nice connecting neighborly thing. That kitty has got some piercing eyes and your mom is utterly adorable!

    • Thank you so much. Until recently I haven’t had time to explore much about folk music from other places except by listening to recordings. It’s so much better live, and I’m excited to share it in here and with my neighbors. Dixie (our alpha cat) is so interested in people she’s almost a dog, and I agree that I have an adorable Mom.

  9. lifewith4cats

    I enjoyed this. It makes me remember all the times I went to my own local music fests. All types of music and people enjoying it.
    Its neat that of all the neighbors you could have ended up with you got a fellow kindred spirit of drums. How cool is that!

    • My street has a lot of retired semi-creatives, and others with artsy hobbies. The other drummer is an Optometrist, so he and I are musical health care providers. On the other side of our house live a violinist and her playwright husband. Across from us is another retired journalist, like Mary. We chose for the house, but ended up in exactly the right neighborhood. It’s very cool!

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