A Brief History

Part 1: From Africa to South Carolina

This article is not a comprehensive coverage of the history of drums in the United States. There is still much research that needs to be done in that area. This brief piece is to broaden our understanding of African rooted drum traditions in the United States, as well as to suggest some areas that can be researched further. 

African drums in the United States have an interesting and convoluted history. However, much of this history has not been explored, because there is a prevailing belief that makes this history invisible. The commonly held belief is that African drums were outlawed in the United States during slavery and as a result they and their traditions disappeared or were recast in other forms. 

In this narrative the moment of change is the rebellion of enslaved Africans that took place in 1739 near the Stono River in South Carolina. Since this event occurred 120 years after the first African people set foot in British North America, we can start with the assumption that between the early 17th century and the year of the rebellion, African drums did exist on American shores. If they had not existed or had only been known from this rebellion, there would have been no need to enact a law against them. African drums and drum traditions were present in British North America during the 17th and 18th centuries.

One example of this early use of drums comes from Somersett County, Maryland where in the early 18th century there was a complaint lodged that enslaved blacks were: 

“Drunke on the Lords Day beating their Negro drums by which they call considerable Number of Negroes together in some Certain places.” (Epstein, 47)

There is a good bit of information in this brief comment. The first thing mentioned is “Drunke.” And this drunkenness is located “on the Lords Day,” making the transgression that much greater to the person complaining. What did this observer mean by drunk? Were the celebrants under the effects of alcohol, or were they just exhibiting strong emotion in response to the drums that were being “beaten”? Since the observer is outside of the culture of the “Negro” drummers, it could very well be the latter meaning. 

And what is the significance of “The Lord’s Day” – Sunday – to the enslaved? This was often a day that they had to themselves, not only in the Chesapeake region but throughout the south. This was a time when they were able to gather together for religious or cultural practices. In some instances, the enslaved went to a market to sell produce, buy gifts and in some instances, play music and dance. 

This was clearly one of those gatherings that the writer observed as he clearly mentions that the drums were used to call considerable Number of Negroes together in some Certain places.” This is recognition that drums were used for communicative purposes, in this case to bring people together. We should keep this in mind when we consider the rebellion in Stono, South Carolina.

Since it is clear that drums did exist at one time in North America, this raises the question of how did African drums come to America? Research indicates that drums were brought from the African continent along with the people who were brought in shackles. It is posited that African drums were one of the instruments that were at times brought on board the slave ships to provide rhythm for the dancing or “exercising” of the captive Africans. This practice of having the captured Africans move to musical accompaniment was common during the years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. According to Daniel Epstein, 

“. . . the prevailing practice for more than 150 years – from 1693 to 1860 – of encouraging the captives to dance aboard slave ships as a means of preserving their health.” (Epstein, 7). 

During the majority of the middle passage the captured Africans, particularly the men, were kept below deck in very unsanitary conditions that were cramped and crowded with little room for movement of any kind. At various times during the voyage they brought the Africans up on the deck to dance. While the dancing may have been entertaining for the whites on board the slavers, the purpose was more for the physical and mental health of the captured Africans. 

“Dancing served the twofold purpose of providing physical exercise in a limited space and of combatting the widespread danger of depression, a recognized forerunner of suicide or revolt.” (Epstein, 7-8) 

It should be clear, however, that this practice was not engaged in primarily out of concern for the well-being of the Africans being held captive. The slave traders first concern was their profits. Africans who were in poor physical or mental health brought a small price if they were purchased at all. The concerns about depression among the captive Africans was also about profits, on the one hand as suicide means a loss of profit. Depression could also lead to revolt by the captives and the possible death of the slave traders. So, the slavers had the Africans dance, or at least move to some music. A brief, but clear description of this practice is provided by a slave ship captain, who wrote in his journal on March 15, 1827:

“ . . . men, women, girls and boys are allowed to unite in African melodies, which they always enhance by an extemporaneous tom-tom on the bottom of a tub or tin kettle.” (Epstein, 11)

It is significant that this description references “African melodies.” Since there is no mention of other musical instruments, we can assume that the melodies were created by singing. In West Africa, instrumental music, dance and singing are an inseparable trinity. In this instance the singing has rhythmic accompaniment played on a cooking vessel, which could mean that there was not a drum available. But this was not always the case. 

“Sometimes a drum was carried on the main-deck, to the music of which the men sung and danced.” (Epstein, 11)

From these descriptions we can see that African musical instruments and traditions came with the Africans on the slave ship. And since the Africans were left on the American shores the drums no doubt remained on the American shores with them. It is not known what may have happened to these drums, but there is no doubt that they existed. 

Another way that African drums came to exist in North America is through the Africans themselves. As music scholar Bernice Johnson Regan has said, “the only way to eliminate the drum is to eliminate the drummer.” Drumming, it has been observed is a “remarkably ‘concealable’ Africanism,” for it is a “motor skill, a learned musical skill, and hands are all that are required.” Africans utilized their collective knowledge to recreate the instruments they knew in Africa, the drum being one of the main ones. (Morgan, 583)

The system of African enslavement that came to characterize North America developed over the 17th century and it continued to evolve over the next century and a half. During the first 120 years of an African presence on the shores of North America (1619-1739) there were limited restrictions against the use of drums by the enslaved. There were hints of concerns about drums both before and after the events at Stono. 

I suggest that the idea that drums and drum traditions disappeared from African American cultural life is an overstatement. It seems more likely that even in places and times when the laws banning their use were most actively enforced, these traditions, rather than dying, were transformed in synchronized forms. That the rhythms were transferred into other forms such as pattin’ juba and hambone is only a portion of the story. In some instances, their use was restricted to specific celebrations. In other cases, the techniques were transferred to European drums and percussion instruments. 

In looking at African drum traditions in the U.S. South Carolina is significant. Approximately 40% of the Africans who came into the United States during the years of the transatlantic slave trade entered through the port of Charleston. The large number of Africans in South Carolina, particularly in the low country, provided the climate for African cultural retention. In the early eighteenth-century drums were used fairly openly in South Carolina. A northern visitor to the Waccamaw rice plantation reported that 

“On my first waking, the sound of serenading violins & drums saluted my ears, and for some time continued . . .During almost the whole of the second and third afternoons, the portico was crowded with these dancers . . . fiddlers & drumming . . .” (Malone, 44) 

While the sounds of fiddles and drums may have been novel to the visitor, the fact that he heard it when he woke up suggests that this music was not an unusual occurrence, even if it was a performance to create a specific image of plantation life for the visitor. Whatever the reason the music included drums. So, drums, and thus drummers, existed on this plantation. Was this plantation unique? Was the open use of drums common on other plantations at the time? South Carolina is also significant because it is seen as the place where African drum traditions came to an end. 

The Stono Rebellion

In the United States, it is often cited that drums and drumming was dealt a crippling blow following an important act of resistance by Africans in Stono, South Carolina. 

“On a Sunday in 1739. a group of Angolan Africans gathered and . . . they calling out Liberty, marched on with Colours displayed, and two Drums beating, pursuing all the white people they met with, and killing Man Woman and Child, . . .” As their numbers continued to increase “they halted in a field and set to dancing. Singing and beating Drums, to draw more Negroes to them.” (Epstein, 39)

It was at this time that the patrollers came upon the group and a battle took place. It resulted in more than twenty whites, and twenty Africans were killed before they scattered. Many of the runaways were captured and shot in the following weeks, but the insurrection was not considered quelled for a month. (Rath)

This rebellion illustrates the many ways that African music and performance traditions were represented in North America. First, they were recognized as being from Angola. Next, they marched with colors flying and drums beating. Finally, they stopped in field where they dancing, singing, and playing drums. (Morgan, 455-456; Richard Cullen Rath, “Drums and Power)

In 1740, in response to the rebellion, the South Carolina legislature passed a new and stricter Slave Act which banned the use of “wooden swords, and other mischievous and dangerous weapons, or using or keeping of drums, horns, or other loud instruments, which may call together, or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs or purposes.”(Epstein, 59)

This section of the act is significant in that it links dangerous weapons with drums and other loud instruments. This is a recognition of the ability of Africans to use drums and loud instruments such as horns, to communicate information; to call people together and perhaps mobilize them to rebel. That this act was followed by a slave trade moratorium prohibiting the importation of enslaved Africans from Africa or the West Indies for 10 years indicates an effort to limit the presence of Africans who understood the power of drums as well. 

The section of the law banning “drums, horns and other loud instruments” is usually taken to mean that the drum went out of existence in the United States; that the drum’s rhythms were recast into the hand clappin’ and foot tappin’ of the praise house, the percussive beauty of hambone and pattin’ juba, the rhythms of tap dance, especially the style called hoofin’. In a myriad of other ways, the argument goes, the rhythms that were once articulated by the drum were now brought to life from other sources. But is that the case? Is there a causal relationship between the South Carolina law banning drums and the development of these other rhythmic art forms? Given the percussive nature of African music and dance is it not possible that these other percussive techniques would have existed and developed independently? (Malone, )

And what is meant by drum traditions? Often, African drums are only considered as hand drums and the various African drum traditions that involve the use of sticks or paddles on the drum are overlooked. And there is limited attention paid to the aesthetics of drumming; the concepts of sound and rhythm that inform the way that Africans play drums, whether with hands, sticks or a combination of both. 

Another issue to consider is the law itself. What are laws? We know that laws are created to address activities and behaviors that are seen as problematic by those in power. The passage of a law does not tell us about the enforcement of that law, or how long it was actively adhered to. For example, as early as 1721 the South Carolina Assembly passed a law prohibiting slave dances, “particularly when drumming was featured.” Yet dancing and drumming, and whites concern about that dancing and drumming continued through the decade of the 1730s. (Morgan, 582-583)

Another question is about the geographic spread of the law. Was this law followed anywhere other than in the area of Charleston, South Carolina? Other southern, slave states through the late 18th and the 19th centuries passed laws to  prevent Africans in America and American Africans from drumming and dancing or gathering in crowds. But it is the 1740 South Carolina law that is always identified as the reason African drum traditions in North America were lost. However, in 1805 a tutor in the district of Georgetown, South Carolina, reported hearing drums as enslaved people danced for whites during the Christmas holidays. This is a distance of only 55 miles north of Charleston and is more than sixty years after the 1740 law. Did adherence to the law not extend fifty miles? Or was the law no longer being actively enforced after fifty years? (Morgan, 583) 

Let’s come at this from another direction. There is a drum that was collected in Virginia around 1730 (see photo). We know of this drum because it was acquired by Sir Hans Sloane, a slaveholder in Jamaica, and was part of the collection of artifacts that became the foundation of the British Museum when it was founded in 1753. It is the oldest African American object in that Museum. Initially, the drum was categorized as a Native American drum. However, it clearly is not. First recognized as an African drum by a British museum curator in 1906, it was subsequently revealed to be an Akan drum from the region of present-day Ghana. It seems to be an Ashante apentemma, a member of the kete drum family. It is the only drum in the ensemble that is played with the hands rather than sticks. The drum, with a body made of wood from Africa and a North American deer hide head, attached with wooden pegs and strips of hide from Africa, is believed to have been brought from West Africa to Virginia as part of the slave trade sometime in the early 18th century. (BBC A History of the World: Episode 86)

A picture of an African drum
Description automatically generated
Drum found in Virginia, c 1730s

There are several things to consider here. First is the drums arrival in Virginia as part of the slave trade. This supports the idea that drums were brought from Africa aboard slave ships. On those ships they were most likely used for rhythmic accompaniment for Africans to move to. Once the human cargo had reached the shores of North America there would be little reason to keep the drum on board, so like the Africans, it would be left. 

Secondly, it seems possible that it was in the possession of someone with knowledge about that specific type of drum. The fact that its head was of North American deer hide suggests that it was replaced in North America. Whoever put the new head on had to have an understanding of the tuning system for that particular type of drum. The new head also implies that the drum was possibly still in use.

Thirdly, the 1740 South Carolina law banning drums for the enslaved. Based on the information available the drum arrived in Virginia before the rebellion in Stono and was there for some time. Was its existence threatened by the South Carolina law, or perhaps another law formed closer to its home? Could it have been acquired by confiscation as a result of a ban on drums? Or was it literally driven underground, only emerging when it was put to use? Whatever the case it is possible that the existence of drums in the British North American colonies did not end with the passage of the famed 1740 law. Their use may have become more surreptitious, which would also make it more difficult to document their continued use. 

Also, since the information that exists about drums comes from reports by observers who were outside of African and African American cultures. It is possible that they did not always understand what they were seeing and thus did not provide accurate descriptions. In the 1770s James Barclay, an overseer on a plantation in the South Carolina low country made the observation that enslaved people enjoyed dancing to the music of the “Bangier.” At first look this seems to be one of the many spelling variations for the banjo, an instrument of African origins that was utilized by the enslaved. But his description of it being played does not fit the banjo. Barclay said that the musician playing it sat on the ground with it between his feet and he beat on it “very artfully with two sticks, as we do on a drum.” This is clearly an African drumming tradition that he is describing. (Morgan, 582)

In part 2 some other references to African drums and traditions will be considered.

Sources

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

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.

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 (Arlinton, TX: Texas A&M Press, 2000), 99–130. 

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

The British Museum/BBC – A History of the World

Episode 86 – Akan Drum

Akan drum (made early eighteenth century). Made in West Africa, found in Virginia, USA

http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/about/transcripts/episode86/

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