A Brief History

Part 4: Into the 20th Century

Late 19th century artwork

There are also indications of the continuation of African drums and drum techniques in unlikely places. In the book The Drummer’s Path, Sule Greg Wilson provides one of those examples. In his book he presents a photo of the cover of 1900 sheet music for the song Camptown Races. This song, written by Stephen Foster, was published in 1850 and became a staple of minstrel performances. Minstrel shows were created to both mimic and mock Black people; they were performed by white men with faces blackened by burnt cork or black shoe polish. Black-faced minstrelsy was built on misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Black people and Black culture. 

Foster who built a career writing minstrel songs wrote the lyrics in an exaggerated stereotype of Black language. So, in the cultural landscape of white America this song was connected to Black people and would be marketed as such for various commercial purposes. One of those, at the turn of the last century, was sheet music. It is no surprise that the sheet music would be presented with a stereotyped illustration of Black people. In this case the exaggerated images are placed at a racetrack. In addition to the horses and the people engaged with them are a group of women. They are nicely dressed, wearing hats, and carrying parasols which indicates that this is a social event. 

A vintage photo of a group of people posing for the camera

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Sheet music cover for “Camptown Races,” c. 1900.

While this illustration provides clearly stereotyped images of Black people, if you look through all of the activity in the foreground you will find at the top center of the illustration two musicians performing for the crowds. Even though they have less detail these background figures do not reflect the stereotypes typically used to represent Black people during this era. It is possible that these figures are more representative of what the artist may have actually observed at some event.

The two performers represent a continuing African sensibility about drums and drum techniques. The musician on the right is playing a banjo, an instrument with African roots that was most closely associated with Black people during the 19th century; an instrument that was also being disconnected from its African roots as it was adapted by whites at the end of the 19th century. Left of the banjo player is a drummer. He is playing a large drum, which he has turned on its side and is playing it with a stick in his right hand while using his left had to muffle the skin to modify the sound. This technique is common in African drumming, such as with the dundun family of drums used by the Malinke people of West Africa. Additionally, the two performers have conical shaped hats that are similar to hats worn by drummers and musicians in West Africa. (see detail)

Detail from Camptown Races

This single illustration, appearing at the start of the 20th century, demonstrating African drum technique, points to a possible line of continuity for African drumming in the U.S. One additional set of examples will add to this. 

Drums and Shadows (1930s, Georgia Sea Islands)

This book, Drums and Shadows, is a collection of interviews with formerly enslaved Black Americans conducted by the Federal Writer’s Project on the sea islands off the coast of Georgia during the 1930s. First published in 1940 these interviews are peppered with commentary about drums and drum traditions. Some of these remembrances are from what parents and elders have told them; some memories are from their own lived experiences over the previous seventy or so years. A few examples from that book follow. The interviewers reportedly felt it was important “to try to represent the pronunciation” so they took care to “faithfully transcribe” the dialect of their informants. This is seen in the quoted passages that follow. (Drums and Shadows, xxxix) 

There are few, if any, extant drums used by African descendants in the United States. This does not mean that the drums did not exist. Drums are made from organic materials – wood and animal skins – which are in abundance in an agricultural society. But more significantly drums are born of the minds and hands of the drummer or drum maker. As Bernice Johnson Reagon has said, “the only way to eliminate the drum is to eliminate the drummer.” As long as people have knowledge about how to make or play drums, the tradition continues to exist. 

Knowledge of how to make drums is one of the topics that is addressed in these 1930s interviews. Several people, such as Wallace Quarterman in the Darien community, spoke about how drums were made. 

“We makes drums out uh sheep hide but we gottuh dry um an stretch duh skin obuh. Some makes it out uh holluh lawgs wid skin obuh duh en an some ub um is as long as tree feet.” (150)

This describes a drum body, often a hollow log, with a sheep skin stretched over one end. At three feet in length, it is a good size drum. This style of drum was corroborated by F.J. Jackson of Grimball’s Point who also provided more detail about the drum’s construction.

“we made duh drum frum hollah beehive lawg. I tell yuh how we done it. Yuh cut duh lawg an tak a deah hide an stretch obuh duh hole. Den yuh cut a hoop ban dat could lock roun duh lawg. Den yuh cut strips uh deah hide an make bans tuh hole duh head cuvvuh tight.” (101)

The use of a log is the same but instead of a sheep skin, a deer hide is used. Mr. Jackson also provided information about the construction of the drum using a hoop and deer hide lacing to hold the drumhead in place. We get a sense of the drums from the descriptions of how they are made. The use of hollow logs is significant. It takes time to carve out a newly felled tree and time was not something available to the enslaved. A hollow log only had to be fitted with a head from one of several animals. Such a drum could also be deconstructed and easily made unseen. Shadwick Rudolph on St. Mary’s provided another description of drum construction that provided a possibly significant detail. He said, 

“I seed em make home-made drums theah too. They stretch a sheep-hide ovah a roun bucket.” (194)

A sheep skin is used, but in this instance, it is stretched over a bucket. On most farms and plantations, a bucket would be a common article. To use it to make a drum which, after use, becomes a common household article again is ingenious. A drum hidden in plain sight. 

The testimonies of the people interviewed by the Federal Writer’s Project demonstrates that knowledge about drums continued into the twentieth century. Describing the meeting they had with Brownville resident James Collier the interviewers said:

“In Brownville we found a man who knew how to make the old time drums. He made one for us out of a hollow log across the end of which he tightly stretched a goat skin. He fastened the skin to the log by means of a number of wooden pegs. Unlike modern drums, this one was taller than it was wide, measuring about eighteen inches in length and ten inches in diameter.” (62)

Again, the body of the drum is a hollow log, but unlike the other drums mentioned this drum uses a goat skin. This is significant because a goat skin is thinner than either a sheep skin or a deer-hide, so it gives the drum a brighter sound. The size of the drum – eighteen inches in length by ten inches in diameter – seems to be of a higher pitched drum than those previously mentioned. Additionally, the skin is attached to the drum by pegs, a distinct method of mounting and tuning drums and different from the previous methods described.  Clearly there were a variety of drums being made and used, at least in the Georgia Sea Islands.

Further information about making drums comes from a conversation with Uncle Jack and Uncle Robert, two residents of Wilmington Island.

“Duh ole drums wut duh Africans make wuz make out ub a skin uh some kine uh animal stretch obuh a holluh lawg. Dey didn eben take duh haiah off duh skin. Jis put it on datta way.” Here Uncle Jack spoke up, “Ain so long sence dey stop makin drums. Wen I wuz a young man, we use tuh make um. Dey was fo-cawnuhed sometime and wuz cubbuh wid a skin. Dey wuz bout fo feet high. At duh fewnal wen we beat duh drum we mahch round duh grabe in a ring.” (107)

The drums again had a body of a hollow log with an animal skin stretched over one end. That they did not take the hair off of the skin seems to indicate that the drums were played with sticks or beaters of some kind; hair is usually removed from drums that are played with the hands. The “fo-cawnuhed” drum Uncle Jack speaks of sounds like the gumbe drums played in various American African maroon communities. They are called “four-cornered” because the bodies of these drums are made with a square wooden frame, which makes them distinct from the usually round shape of drums. These square drums have made their way to Africa where they have been adopted in several countries. He also mentions that drums were played at funerals which the people marched or moved to. In the 1930s Uncle Jack says, “Ain so long sence dey stop makin drums.” It is not clear how long ago this was, but it is possible that he meant in the twentieth century. 

Lawrence Baker from the Harris Neck community provides more details about how the drums were made and played. 

““Dey use tuh alluz beat duh drum an blow duh hawn wen somebody die. Dey beat two licks on duh drum, den dey stop, den dey beat tree licks. Wen yuh beat dat, yuh know somebody don die. Lots of duh drums wuz home-made. Dey wuz made out uh goat skin aw coon skin wut stretch out obuh hoops. Deah wuz two sizes uh drums. Deah wuz duh big barrel drum. It wuz highuhn it wuz cross. Den deah wuz a lill drum frum twelve tuh fifteen inches wide an bout eighteen inches high. Duh udduh drum wuz duh medium size, kine uh un between du udduh two. Duh big drum wuz duh one dey beat at duuh wake. Dey use drums at dances an meetins, too.”  (155)

The drums described here are made with goat skin or coon skin and used hoops to stretch it over the drum body. And although the informant says there were two sizes of drums – a big barrel drum and a little drum – he also describe a medium size drum that was between the other two. Since he provided the dimension of the smaller drum (twelve to fifteen inches wide and about eighteen inches high) we can visualize the possible sizes of the other two drums. 

As with the previously quoted testimony, Mr. Baker mentions that drums were played at funerals. He provides some details about the rhythms played (two licks followed by a pause followed by three licks) to announce a death and the use of the big drum being played at the wake. He also mentions the use of horns which, like drums, were part of the 1740 ban.

Uncle Jack of Wilmington Island also described the drum rhythm played at funerals. He said, We call it duh dead mahch. Jis a long slow beat. Boom-boom-boom. Beat duh drum. Den stop. Den beat it agen.” (197) Playing drums to let the community know about one’s passing from this life and playing drums to mark ones passing to the afterlife are significant uses of the instrument. But drums were not only used for death notices, wakes, and funerals. Ben Sullivan of St. Simons Island gives us a sense of the use of the drums for other purposes. He said, “I membuhs we use tuh hab drums fuh music an we beat duh drum fuh dances.” (180) The use of drums for dances is clear. The connection between drums and movement or dance is a central element of West African performing arts traditions. The comment about the use of drums “fuh music” raises questions. When was drum music played? And where was it played? 

The use of drums for both the celebration of life and the celebration of death is corroborated by Isaac Basden of Harris Neck. 

“I recall wen dey beat duh drum tuh call duh people on Harris Neck tuhgedduh fuh a dance aw fewnul. Cose, dey hab a diffunt beat wen dey call um tuh a settin-up aw fewnul frum duh one dey use tuh call um tuh a dance.” (122)

In addition to the uses of the drum, Isaac Basden explains that the rhythms, or drum calls, are specific to the event they are announcing. One of the most interesting comments that both reflects the communicative power of the drum and connects to the main reason for the 1740 drum ban, came from Rosa Sallins of the Harris Neck community. She said:

“Yes’m I membuh bout how some time back dey use tuh beat out messages on duh drum. Dat wuz tuh let us know wen deah wuz tuh be a dance aw a frolic. Wen de hab a dance obuh on St. Catherines, dey beat duh drum tuh tell us about it. Duh soun would carry obuh duh watuh an we would heah it plain as anything. Den duh folks heah beat duh drum tuh let em know bout it in udduh settlements.”  (130)

Using the drums for sending messages over a wide territory was at the heart of the fears that led to the enacting of laws against the use of drums. This twentieth century informant speaks of how “dey use tuh beat out messages on duh drum.”While the example given is the announcement of dances or frolics, the informant mentions the sound carrying across the water that separated the islands and how they “would hear it plain as anything,” and then pass the message on to other communities. This is the power of the drum that challenged slaveholders and slaveholding communities. This is the power that forced the drum into hiding. But this is also the power that allowed the drum to continue to live. 

At Sandfly, Ophelia Baker, also known as Madam Truth, related that “her father had been one of those who beat thuh drum and thumped out a regular message on it, a message that could be heard for miles and was clearly understood by all those who had heard it.” (91)

As mentioned earlier, the interviews that brought these memories forward were conducted in the 1930s. This is almost two centuries since the 1740 laws in South Carolina were passed. The Sea Islands of Georgia are part of the region that today is designated as the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Corridor. This corridor also encompasses the area where the Stono Rebellion occurred, less than 200 miles north of St. Simons Island.

This raises a number of questions, such as did the practice of banning drums extend into Georgia? Did Georgia create laws banning drums? How long was the 1740 law enforced? How effective was the law if there were still memories of drums and drum traditions two centuries after the law was passed? 

We must keep in mind also that these interviews took place at a time of rebirth or renaissance for African drum and dance traditions in the United States. People were being exposed to African drumming and dancing through performances by Asadata Dafora or by taking classes with Ismay Andrews in Harlem, New York or Charles Holston Williams at Hampton Institute. Dancer/anthropologists like Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham were researching, teaching and presenting dance and drum forms from Africa and the Caribbean. And African rooted rhythms like those from Cuba were being danced to and played to in the U.S.

Hopefully this essay has demonstrated that African drums and drum traditions did not cease to exist in the United States. First of all, the 1740 law in South Carolina was not strong enough to impact the American colonies that stretched up and down the eastern seaboard. The possibility that the 1740 law, or other similar laws, were not strictly enforced must also be considered. And in places where such laws were enforced drumming and dancing only disappeared from view but not from existence. And through the grafting of African musical sensibilities onto military drum traditions, African drum skills were brought out into the open. African drumming not only continued after 1740, but left its mark across the American musical landscape. 


Sule Greg Wilson, The Drummers Path, Moving the Spirit with Ritual and Traditional Drumming, Destiny Books, 1992.

Georgia Writers Project, Drums and Shadows, Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, University of Georgia Press, 1940

Early African musicians in Europe

The Black Perspective in Music

Vol. 1, No. 2 (Autumn, 1973), pp. 166-168 (3 pages)

Published by: Professor J. Southern (Managing Editor-Publisher)



A Brief History

Part 3: Drumming in the Military

One type of drumming that provided an opportunity for the continuation and development of African drum techniques, but which is generally overlooked, is military drumming. African descended drummers played for military bands in the US from the 17th century to the present and created a style of drumming that was distinct. 

Black drummers were a visible part of the colonial American landscape and seem to have filled a variety of roles. For example, on October 5, 1765 two young Black drummers marched through the streets of Philadelphia beating “crepe-festooned” drums to call the citizens to a town meeting. Whether these young men were employed by the town or hired for this specific duty is not clear. Either way they were probably known as drummers in Philadelphia. (Southern, 29)

African Americans have been playing martial music in North America since the early colonial era. After the mid-seventeenth century when white fears limited military service to white men, black men were allowed to enroll “only as drummers, fifers, trumpeters, or pioneers.” (Southern, 43) In addition to playing drums, African Americans had skills and knowledge about making drums. A document from the era of the American Revolution provides a sense of that. In 1777 Prince Hall, the future founder of the African Masonic Lodge, provided Colonel Crafts with five drumheads. (Kaplan, 183)

Prince Hall bill for drumheads

During the era of the American War for Independence the rhythms that soldiers marched to and the cadences they responded to on the battlefield were often played by African descended drummers. That there were so many skilled Black drummers using their talents in the military suggests that there was a drum tradition in existence in the decades after the famed law that banned drumming. It is interesting that a good number of the drummers who found their way into the military were from South Carolina.

In the forty years before the American Revolution there was one African drummer from South Carolina listed as a “runaway.” Between 1775 and 1780 there were 20 Black drummers in South Carolina who emancipated themselves. All of them were from Charleston, the area where the drum ban was enacted. While the recognition of their being drummers in the advertisements for their return indicates a continuation of drumming, it also indicates that their musical talents were known to those who wrote the advertisements; the same people who were charged with enforcing the law against drumming. 

It is significant that all but one of the drummers, the “Negro Bob” who drummed for the South Carolina revolutionaries, joined Hessian regiments. The Hessians were soldiers from Germany who the British hired to fight with them against the Americans. Serving with them came with a promise of freedom for enslaved persons. This was clearly an incentive. 

At least eighty-two people from the colonies joined the Hessian forces during the Revolution. Of these eighty-two, fifty-two were drummers, and thirty-five of the latter were black. Twenty-seven of the recruits, or about one-third of the total, were from the Charleston plantation area. Twenty-four of the Charleston recruits were black, of whom nineteen were employed as drummers, two as fifers and three as laborers. Only one of the Hessians could be identified as African-born. (Rath, 119)

More than half of the drummers who joined the Hessian regiments were black (35 of 52) and the majority of Blacks who came from the Charleston area were drummers (19 of 24). The fact that two of the Black men served as fifers brings to mind the drum and fife ensembles that would become popular in southern Black communities. 

There may have been incentives in addition to freedom that drew Black drummers to the Hessian regiments. No particular facility on the drums was required to become a military drummer for the revolutionary forces. The main task was to send loud, simple coded instructions by means of rudimentary drum patterns. The same is true of the traditional drum and fife units in the British military. But the German military bands were considered to be the best in the world from 1750 to the turn of the century. German military units had been caught by the craze for “Janissary” music which had been slowly sweeping westward through Europe from 1720 onwards.

In theory, the Janissary style was derived from Turkish military music. For instruments it used several large drums, tambourines, triangles and high-pitched flutes and reeds. In Europe, Africans became the preferred musicians for Janissary corps, especially as drummers. They were acclaimed as such and changed the drumming pattern from the Turkish form to what a regimental leader labeled “modern cross-handed drumming.” 

“Janissary” performances included stick work, agile dancing, rhythmic virtuosity, and strict adherence to time. Dressed as flamboyantly as possible, with marching that was actually a stylized form of cadenced dance their movements included leaping and contortions as well as the throwing and catching of drumsticks and the adroit handling of batons and jangled sticks.”

Virtuoso skill, which took years of practice to develop, was a requirement for this style of musicianship. This is a testament to the skill level of African descendants from the low country. Without knowledge and mastery of drum techniques, they would not have been able to find positions in the Hessian “Janissary” bands. (Rath, 119-122; “Early African Musicians in Europe,” 166–168; Malone, 130-131)

Young black men continued to provide cadences for the military during the Civil War. In the Monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment in Boston, an African American drummer is leading the troops. The 54th was the first African American regiment to be part of the Union Army in 1863, and is known for its battles in South Carolina, most notably at Fort Wagner. Henry A. Monroe and Alexander Johnson were two of the five drummers that were enlisted in the 54th

A picture containing outdoor, building, sitting, box

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Monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, Boston, MA

Henry Augustus Monroe of New Bedford, MA was possibly the youngest drummer in the Union Army. When he played the directions for the maneuvers of the 54th during the Battle of Fort Wagner he was 13 years old. 

Henry A. Monroe

Alexander Johnson, also of New Bedford, MA, was one of the best-known drummers in the army. When he joined the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Regiment at the age of 16 he was the first African American musician to enlist in the U.S. military. In addition to this distinction, he was regarded as one of the best drummers in the military because of his skills. After the war Johnson continued playing the drum. At the age of 70 he said he could still “drum with the best of ‘em.” He also taught drumming and just about every drummer who marched the streets of Worcester, MA had taken lessons from him. And he created the first drum and bugle corps in Worcester. The drum corps with its 21 snare drums and one bass drum was able to “make things shake.” He told an interviewer that he had “beat a drum every day he has been able since childhood” which indicates how much playing the drum was part of his life. 

(https://battleofolustee.org/pics/alexander_johnson.htmlhttps://blackthen.com/alexander-h-johnson-civil-war-drummer-boy-massachusetts-54th-regiment/; Sneade)

Photos of Alexander H. Johnson
(left when enlisting in 54th/right as Drum Major of New Bedford’s Drum & Bugle Corp)

Another image of Alexander Johnson provides an illustration of the continuation of drumming. Three musicians, standing in the street, surrounded by lots of people, seem to have been performing. Taken around 1900 the picture depicts a banjo player, a fifer, and at the center of the trio is Johnson, the drummer, dressed in a military uniform. Though used by early military musicians, fife and drum bands had become a common type of music in Black communities during the 19thcentury. The banjo was a central instrument of the African American repertoire from the 17th to the 20th century. They, without doubt, represent an African American music tradition. 

After the Civil War there were many African American groups that grew out of the military marching band traditions. The Jenkins Orphanage Band founded in Charleston, SC in the 1890s is one such group. Another is the Florida A & M University marching band – The Marching 100 – which was started in 1892 and continues today.

These moving musical band tradition usually include a distinctive drum section marked by its musicianship and showmanship. The rhythmic variation called “the big four” developed out of this tradition in New Orleans at the start of the twentieth century. Usually associated with Buddy Bolden, this rhythm became a foundation of jazz. It is also this drum tradition that gave birth to the “Boom-Bap-Boom-Bap” of much of Black popular music today. 

In the final section the continuation of African drums and traditions into the 20th century will be examined. 


Sidney Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution 1770-1800, The New York Graphic Society, LTD. 1973.

Richard Cullen Rath, “Drums and Power: Ways of Creolizing Music in Coastal South Carolina and Georgia, 1730-1790,” in Creolization in the Americas: Cultural Adaptations to the New World, ed. Steven Reinhardt and David Buisseret (Arlington, TX: Texas A&M Press, 2000), 99–130. 

Early African musicians in Europe, The Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Autumn, 1973), pp. 166-168 (3 pages),Published by: Professor J. Southern (Managing Editor-Publisher) https://www-jstor-org.ezproxysuf.flo.org/stable/1214453?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents

David “Chet” Williamson Sneade, The Rhythm of the 54th, Sunday, January 31, 2016, in Jazz Riffing on A Lost Worcester http://jazzriffing.blogspot.com/2016/01/the-rhythm-of-54th.html

Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans, A History, second edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 1983. 

Henry Monroe, African-American Drummer Boy, Faces Enemy Fire On the Civil War Battlefield

Alexander H. Johnson, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry https://battleofolustee.org/pics/alexander_johnson.html

Alexander H. Johnson: Civil War Drummer Boy of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, Black Then, Discovering Our History

A Brief History

Part 2: From the Plantation to Congo Square

The Old Plantation (watercolor, late 18th century)

A group of people standing in front of a building

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The Old Plantation (watercolor, late 18th century)

This watercolor painting was made in the late 18th century by slaveholder John Rose who owned a plantation in Beaufort County, SC. It is thought to be a representation of activities that he actually witnessed on his plantation. (“Plantation Dance, South Carolina, ca. 1785-1795”, Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora)

Though the man dancing with the stick is in the center of the painting he is surrounded by the musicians whose rhythms and melodies he is dancing to. To the left of the dancer are two women who are playing what has been identified as shekeres. To the right is a man playing a type of banjo and another playing what seems to be a drum. While the other instruments each have a significant history, it is the drum that is the focus of this discussion. 

The drum-like instrument being played looks like an overturned gourd making it an idiophone rather than a membranophone (a drum with a stretched skin). While this is not an actual drum, it is clearly a substitute for a drum, similar to what may have happened on board a slave ship as described earlier. 

But of equal importance to the instrument is the style in which it is being played. The way in which he is using the two sticks is a drum technique. It has been likened to the playing style of the Nigerian gudugudu drum, a member of the dundun family. The continued use of drum techniques albeit on a drum substitute seems to indicate that drum culture was not pushed out of existence. 

It could also be argued that the absence of an actual drum is evidence that the law banning drums was effective. But it should also be recognized that this scene took place during the day in the presence of the plantation owner. The 1740 law said that “all masters, overseers and others may be enjoined, diligently and carefully to prevent” the use of drums. Did John Rose, the plantation owner, not consider this to be a drum? Or was he just lax on the enforcement of the ban? The fact that this is at a plantation in Beaufort, SC, which is less than 70 miles from the location of the Stono Rebellion raises questions about how far the law banning “drums, horns, or other loud instruments” spread, how effectively it was adhered to or enforced, and for how long. 

While by itself this is not a definitive example of the continuation of drum use after 1740, the fact that it is located so close to the source of the much-referenced ban, raises questions about the general claim that the law eliminated drums as an instrument used by Africans in America and American Africans.

Celebrations using drums were also taking place outside of the south. The most well-known of these – Pinkster and Election Day – throughout the 18th century and into the 19th. Although the beginning influence of these celebrations were events recognized by white colonists, by the second third of the 18th century African descended people had made them their own. 

Pinkster Festival (upstate NY near Albany)

The African American celebration of Pinkster started in the 17th century as a celebration of the Dutch Pentecost (Pinksteren in Dutch) in New Netherlands, the Dutch colonial settlements in New York and New Jersey. Over the years the spring celebration attracted the participation of African Americans and by 1790 it was considered to be an African American celebration. 

While the celebration began the Monday following the Pentecost, only a small number of Blacks were in attendance on the first day. The following day, when Black royalty made their appearance, Blacks came out in the thousands. And the celebration went on until the following sabbath.

Description of the festival say it was centered around Pinkster Hill, the present-day site of the New York State Capitol. The festival was presided over by an African born in West Central Africa named King Charles. As the Master of Ceremonies, King Charles was responsible for directing the event which included dancing and drumming. A significant and distinct part of the festival was the dancing, and the main instrument used for dancing was the drum.

The drum played at the festival was made from a wooden eel pot with a cleanly dressed sheepskin drawn tightly over one end. The drum was made and played by a former slave named Jack Quackenboss who played a drum he made “by stretching a sheepskin over an eel pot” and set the rhythm for all the dancing. A description of the drum in use by Jack Quakenboss says:

“Astride this rude utensil sat Jack Quakenboss, then in his prime of life and well known energy, beating lustily with his naked hands upon its loudly sounding head, successively repeating the ever wild, though euphonic cry of Hi-a-bomba, bomba, bomba, a full harmony with the thumping sounds. These vocal sounds were readily taken up and as oft repeated by the female portion of the spectators not otherwise engaged in the exercises [that is, dances] of the scene, accompanied by the beating of time with their ungloved hands, in strict accordance with the eel-pot melody.” (Southern, 56)

The important element of this description is the use of a drum to provide music for dancing. The description of the drum, however, does not seem to be accurate because the material used in the construction of eel pots was generally too porous and not durable enough to serve as the body of a drum. The shape of the drum – cylindrical – probably reminded the describer of an eel pot, and not being familiar with African drum traditions, they did not have the language to describe the drum as its own entity. 

Another description of a Pinkster celebration in 1845 comes from an 1857 novel by James Fenimore Cooper: 

“Nine tenths of the blacks of the city, and of the whole country within thirty or forty miles, indeed, were collected in thousands in those fields, beating banjos, singing African songs. . . The features that distinguish a Pinkster frolic from the usual scenes at fairs. . . however, were of African origin. It is true, there are not now, nor were there then, many blacks among us of African birth; but the traditions and usages of their original country were so far preserved as to produce a marked difference between this festival, and one of European origin. Among other things, some were making music, by beating on skins drawn over the ends of hollow logs, while others were dancing to it. . . This, in particular, was said to be a usage of their African progenitors.” (Epstein, 49) 

This description provides a great deal of information about the Pinkster Festival. The description opens with a commentary about the large number of Black people who attended the festival. The majority of Blacks within a 40-mile radius were drawn to the area resulting in thousands being in attendance. More importantly is the recognition of the Africanized nature of the celebration, particularly the musical elements. The reference says they were singing African songs, but there is no further information about what made the songs they were singing African songs. Were they being sung in African languages? Or was it merely because the songs were sung by Blacks and were not familiar to whites? And “beating banjoes” creates an image of a playing technique that incorporates the drumhead body of the instrument. Lastly, and, most significantly, dancing to drums made from “skins drawn over the ends of hollow logs.”

A later description of the festival describes Old King Charley, reputedly well over one hundred years of age at the time, no longer dancing, but instead playing the drum. His drum was described as being made from a box with a sheep skin head. The drumming was accompanied by the singing of “some queer African airs.”

In 1811, the city of Albany banned the festival, possibly because by that time it was attended by thousands of Black people who came in from the rural areas around Albany and from as far as New York City. 

Pinkster, however, was celebrated all along the Hudson River Valley, as well as in Brooklyn and on Long Island. In Manhattan Blacks from as far as thirty to forty miles away gathered in City Hall Park by the thousands for a celebration of Pinkster. The three-day celebration was a time when Black people sang African songs, strummed banjos, and danced to the music of drums constructed by drawing skins over the ends of hollow logs. (Malone, 46-48; Southern, 57)

Negro Election Day (New England)

Negro Election Day, Election Day, or ‘Lection Day as it was known, while coinciding with many colonial communities, elections in New England, was an Africanized celebration by the early 18th century. 

Celebrated from about the 1740s to about the mid-nineteenth century, it began as a recognition of Black community members who had come from royal families in Africa. It evolved into a ceremonial election of Black kings and governors for their community. The coronation of the elected officials would be marked by a parade, which was clearly African and African American. The members of the procession would each be dressed in their most elegant and elaborate attire, celebrating in fashion with the same intensity as the overall celebration. Carrying banners and flags, in most places the parades would be accompanied by fife and drums, though in more elaborate processions other instruments might also be played. 

Following the parade there would be a celebration, which stretched over five days. A central feature of the celebration was the dancing and the music that energized it. A brief description of the music illustrates the Africanized nature of the celebration.

Every voice in its highest key, in all the various languages of Africa, mixed with broken and ludicrous English, filled the air, accompanied with the music of the fiddle, tambourine, banjo and drum. (Southern, 54)

The falsetto singing, in African languages and Black Vernacular English, and the use of four instruments with roots in West Africa are clearly described by this observer. 

(Malone, 45-46; Southern, 53-54: White, 16-19)

John Canoe (North Carolina)

Dressing for the Carnival by Winslow Homer (c. 1877).

The John Canoe festival was generally celebrated at Christmas and on New Year’s Day by enslaved and free Black people in North Carolina, though evidence of its celebration has been found as far as Virginia to the north. A synopsis of the descriptions of the John Canoe is provided by Jacqui Malone

Led by John Canoe, the king of the festival, participants paraded through the town to the accompaniment of cow horns, musical shouts, bells, laughter, yells, and the beating of drums, triangles, jaw bones, pots, and pans. As they danced along, the paraders sang in antiphonal chorus, responding to a leader’s rhythmical songs. (Malone, 45)

The central figure is that of John Canoe who is the “king of the festival.” He was described as being dressed in a colorful costume made from “tatters,” or scraps of colorful material sewn to their clothes. Some descriptions have him wearing a frightening white mask. While John Canoe was the head of the festival, he was joined in the parade by other colorfully dressed young men including some who dressed as women. This celebration, like other African celebrations in the Americas, included the three elements of African performance art – oratory (in the form of song), music, and dance.

This entourage, accompanied by music from a variety of instruments, would dance, sing songs, and tell stories as they moved either from plantation to plantation or from house to house in their community. The instruments and the sounds from those instruments demonstrated the Africanized nature of the celebration. Cow horns, rib bones, and jaw bones reflect an African method of using animal parts as instruments; bells, triangles, and of course drums were significant to much of West African music; the use of pots and pans are possibly a replacement for drums or an effort to enhance their sound. And the singing, described as antiphonal, was made of short phrases sung in a call and response pattern between the lead singer and the chorus, composed of the other paraders and celebrants. And the music and song was accompanied by dancing, which was called (by white observers) jerking, gyrating, elaborate and grotesque, adjectives commonly used to describe African dance.

In return for their performances they demanded money or some form of payment from observers, white people they encountered or the people in the homes along the parade route. The procession would last all day and was followed by a party that lasted all night. The celebration of the festival ceased at end of the nineteenth century, as a result of opposition from the authorities and the elite class of African Americans.

While the descriptions of the instruments used does include drums, there is no information on the type of drums. One source suggested that fife and drum music was used in the festival in some places. The drums used in fife and drum groups was a large, deep voiced, kettle type drum. While this may have been one of the types of drums used, it may not be the only one.

(Epstein, 131; Malone, Southern; Steelman)

Congo Square and Louisiana

African people in Louisiana used their free day of Sunday to gather for the purpose of selling and exchanging goods, and dancing to drum music. New Orleans’ Congo Square was famous as a place where African people gathered to play drums and dance to their rhythms. Congo Square was not the only place in Louisiana where African people gathered to play music and dance, but it was the best known. Because the performances there were open to the public, it was an attraction for travelers to New Orleans and it is through their eyes that we have most descriptions. A description of drumming in Congo Square in the early 19th century says:

An old man sat astride of a cylindrical drum about a foot in diameter, & beat it with incredible quickness with the edge of his hands & fingers. The other drum was an open staved thing held between the knees & beaten in the same manner. They made an incredible noise. (Epstein, 97)

This presents a drum ensemble of two hand drums. One is a large, long drum that the drummer sits on to play. The other is a smaller drum held between the knees. 

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A drawing of drums seen at Congo Square (c. 1819)

A description of a gathering of Africans on May 1, 1808 provides an additional view. Described as “a Sunday morning in New Orleans” it told of,

“twenty different dancing groups of the wretched Africans. . . . They have their own national music consisting for the most part of a long a long kind of narrow drum of various sizes, from two to eight feet in length, three or four of which make a band.” (Epstein, 52) 

The large number of “dance groups” suggests Congo Square where Africans gathered by tribal identity and played and danced within those groups. At celebrations in other colonies and states such as Philadelphia and New York, Africans danced and drummed in tribal groups into the 19th century. (Southern, 57) But New Orleans Congo Square was the best known of these gatherings. As described earlier, drums provide the music for the dancing. The drum ensemble here consists of three or four different size drums. 

In 1819, Benjamin Latrobe who was visiting New Orleans was drawn to Congo Square one Sunday afternoon by “an extraordinary noise.” The “thunderous din” that he heard came from:

“echoes of percussions of hundreds of hands and sticks on drums, gourds, and hollow, cotter-shaped, wooden blocks, al backed by the plunking of a variety of banjo-like instruments made from calabashes affixed to long fingerboards.” (Johnson, 2)

He described a gather of 500-600 black people, formed into a series of clusters, that were each formed into circles with the largest being about 10 feet in diameter. In the middle of the circle or on one edge of each circle two or three musicians sat or squatted. The dancers, moving to “the rhythm of the circle’s music, song, and chant,” either danced around them or in front of them. 

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A depiction of Congo Square, notice drummers at right, (c. 1880)

His description of the dancing is consistent with those of other visitors to Congo Square in the 19th century. The music that was danced to made generous use of drums and percussion instruments that used drum techniques. 

One factor that made the drumming in Congo Square so well known is that it was legislatively permissible. While laws allowed for the visibility of this venue, this does not mean that this was the only venue. A description by Isaac Holmes in Louisiana 1821gives the impression that gatherings such as those at Congo Square were a common occurrence in that region. 

In Louisiana, and the state of Mississippi the slaves have Sunday for a day of recreation, and upon many plantations they dance for several hours during the afternoon of this day. The general movement is in what they call the Congo dance, but their music often consists of nothing more than an excavated piece of wood, at one end of which is a piece of parchment, which covers the hollow part on which they beat; this and the singing . . . of those who are dancing, and of those who surrounded the dancers . . . constitute the whole of their harmony. ((Epstein, 53; 132-133)

The gatherings occur on Sundays, the day that slaves had to themselves. In this general description the observer says the participants are doing the Congo dance. His ability to name a particular dance suggests that it was a dance that was commonly known, or at least commonly associated with the drumming and singing that are also part of the description. 

However, just as in other regions of the southern United States drums were not always played for celebratory purposes. In1811, in St. John the Baptiste, about fifty miles north of New Orleans, one of the largest but little-known uprising of enslaved people occurred. An army of 

“nearly 500 men and women. . . . divided into companies commanded by officers. Their objective was the sack of New Orleans. They were goaded to a frenzy by the beating of drums and iron kettles, accompanied by the barbarous shrill notes of reed quills.” (Epstein, 52)

As in Stono, South Carolina seventy years earlier, the drums, along with “iron kettle” and “the barbarous shrill notes of reed quills” were used to encourage and excite those engaged in the rebellion. This did not result in the end of drumming in the region, though efforts were made to legislate against drumming by African descendants. It was not until 1849, over forty years later that in St. John’s Parish, Louisiana enslaved Africans were prohibited “from beating the drum or dancing after sundown.” (60 Epstein) 

This coincides with the era that saw the end of African gatherings in Congo Square. In the 1850s a number of factors such as the use of the square for militia drills, the mandated surveillance of the dances by the police and the passing of the African born generations, led to the final days of Congo Square. The dance gatherings continued but in New Orleans they were private, while dances were also held on plantations in the rural areas. In 1880 or 1881 a man named Lofcadio Hearn reported that he saw, “in a wood yard on Dumaine Street, two men beating bones and sticks on drums made from ‘a dry goods box and an old pork barrel’.” They were accompanied by some men and women chanting an African song while others danced with “tin rattles on their ankles.”  (Johnson, 48) 

What is significant in this description is the location. A wood yard is usually not on the beaten track, so even though it is in public, its location provided some privacy. He also does not mention anyone being present other than the men and women who were participating. The instruments being used – a box and a pork barrel played with bones and sticks – suggests an impromptu gathering. The addition of the singing and dancing with ankle rattles illustrates the traditional African structure of the event. It also shows that in African cultures even spontaneous events have ceremonial elements. 

The Author at Congo Square

In Part 3 African drum traditions in the military will be considered.


Dena J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, Black Folk Music to the Civil War, University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Jerah Johnson, Congo Square in New Orleans, Louisiana Landmarks Society, 1995.

Jacquie Malone, Gimme the Kneebone Bent, The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance, University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Phillip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Low Country, The University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans, A History, second edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 1983. 

Bennett L. Steelman, John Kuners, Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell, University of North Carolina Press, 2006. https://www.ncpedia.org/john-kuners

Shane White, “It was a Proud Day”: African Americans, Festivals and Parades in the North, 1741-1834, Journal of American History, June 1994. 

“Plantation Dance, South Carolina, ca. 1785-1795”, Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed December 27, 2020,