African Drums in the United States

January 3, 2021

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. 

Text, letter

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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. 

A picture containing text, outdoor, horse, old

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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.

Sources

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, 

http://www.yorubadiaspora.org/s/slaveryimages/item/998

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