The Beat of Your Own Drum | Mythology and Music in Ancient Africa

If you believe in the theory of evolution like I do, then Africa holds a special place in human history as our very first home. Based on the remains of skulls and fragments that were discovered there, homo sapiens first appeared on the scene some 160,000 years ago. Africa is the second-largest continent on earth and makes up one-fifth of the earth’s landmass. To give context, Africa is bigger than the US, China, India and Europe combined.

The incredibly diverse continent of Africa is home to humanity’s earliest mythologies and storytelling traditions. During ancient times, their stories were told in approximately 800 different languages and dialects. The ancient Africans had no word for ‘religion’ and the closest translation for their spiritual beliefs is ‘The Way of the Ancestors‘. Spirituality played an important role in their daily lives and people viewed society as a continuum of seen and unseen realms that co-existed alongside one another.

In the ancient African view of the world, the physical world is where people are born, where they reside and from where they will one day have to depart. This physical world blended together with the ancestors, deities as well as the world of unborn children. To the ancient Africans, this did not translate to a belief in polytheism in the way that it is defined by scholars today. In contrary, there was a common belief in a universal Supreme Being that created everything.

This Supreme Being resided in the heavens and was assisted by a team of messengers, ministers and even child spirits. Mother Earth, as a physical phenomenon, was described as the ruler of the natural world. She governed over the rains, earthquakes, mountains, waterfalls, forests and animals–all of which contained their own spiritual essence that was honoured in a place that is presently described as our very first home on earth.

The Drum

Archeologists have discovered drums in the African continent which date back more than twenty thousand years. Drums were made from a medley of materials which included animal skulls and skins, antlers, bones, wood and even seashells. These drums were considered sacred and were used by shamans during rituals and ceremonies.

When African artisans made drums, they first made an offering to the spiritual essence that resided in the tree that they cut down for its wood. It was believed that the spirit of the material lived on in the object that it was made out of. Specific sequences of drumbeats functioned as a form of language which was used for communication purposes. Developed and used by cultures living in forested areas, drums served as an early form of long-distance communication and also played a vital role in ceremonial and religious functions.

Yoruba Drummers. Image credit: Melvin Baker

Drums in ancient Africa were used to send messages to the spirits as well as cajole people to get up and dance. Dances were often led by the drum and during these events, rituals and ceremonies were accompanied by chanting, storytelling and singing. Music was a medium which was used to honour the spirits in both celebratory events as well as rites of passage like marriage, birth and funerary rites. Given the vastness of the African continent, the traditional music of Africa is rich and diverse and each region and nation boasts its own distinct musical tradition.

For centuries, the people of Africa used drum telegraphy to communicate with each other from far away. When European expeditions came into the jungles to explore the local forest, they were surprised to find that the message of their presence had already been communicated prior to their arrival. A drum message can be transmitted at the speed of 100 miles in an hour. You would, however, only understand the message if you knew how to identify ‘the drum sequence’ in which it was communicated.

The Beat of My Drum

In our universe, everything is vibrating, is in motion and has a rhythm. A rhythm is anything that repeats itself over and over in time. The moon’s cycles, the birth of spring and even the arteries of the human body are examples of rhythms that continuously repeat themselves.

There are a myriad of rhythms that each of us experience on a daily basis. Our own personal rhythm, the familial and societal rhythm in which we find ourselves as well as the cosmic and planetary rhythms that govern our entire universe.

It could even be said that creating a drum is an ingenious way to influence these rhythms for human purposes. From individuality, to the larger community, to the vastness of the cosmos–may you have the good fortune to walk to the beat of your own drum.

By Eugene

I am passionate about politics and the preservation of the land and Her peoples.

1 comment

Leave a Comment