Harlem Late Night jazz Presents:

The Drum


The Drum

The Jazz History Tree


Jazz was created in America by African Americans but draws from the ancient African cultural traditions of call and response and ring shout. The first Africans transported to this country came from a variety of ethnic groups with a long history of distinct and cultivated musical traditions. Africans in America also fashioned numerous types of drums and percussion instruments from whatever materials they could gather.

African American slaves cultivated their own music based largely upon African tradition. This music later evolved into field songs, spirituals, blues, and the many genres of what we now call jazz. As such, while the dominant roots of jazz lie in the African American experience, the seeds of the “tree” lie in Africa and the drum.


African drums hold a special place in the history of Africa, and their origins are impossible to know. Some historians believe drum music may have existed in Africa for 50,000 years. In any case, drums hold deep spiritual, symbolic, and historical meaning in Africa. In terms of musical expression, only the human voice, hand clapping and foot tapping was before the drum. Francis Bebey, a noted African Musicologist, states “the drum expresses our inner feelings.” The renowned master African drummer, Babatunde Olatunji, adds “other than the human voice, the drum is the most powerful, provocative, communicative instrument we have”. Babatunde continues…” it is an Instrument used to heal …to bring together people on all levels”.

In African society the drum provides the rhythms of life …of movement….of work….of war…..of love.

Drums are almost always an accompaniment for any manner of celebration or ceremony—births, deaths, marriages—together with a ritual dance. The djembe drum is possibly the most influential and basic of all the West African drums. It dates back to at least 500 AD. The djembe was created initially as a sacred drum to be used in healing ceremonies, rites of passage, ancestral worship, warrior rituals, and social dances. The drum rhythm of the djembe is performed in the evening for most celebrations, especially during a full moon, harvesting time, weddings, baptisms, honoring of mothers, immediately after Ramadan, and countless other celebrations.

In much of Africa, certain drums symbolize and protect royalty and are often housed in sacred dwellings. In fact, you could say the drum was actually the first form of telephone. By using the drum, tribes would communicate with other tribes often miles away. Drums were commonly used to signal meetings, dangers, and other events. The talking drums of Africa imitate the pitch patterns of language and transmit messages over many miles.

During the early years of slavery in America, drums were used to provide rhythm, but they were banned by the early 1700s on most plantations because of the fear that Africans would use them to communicate in a rebellion. Nevertheless, Africans managed to generate percussion and percussive sounds, using other instruments or their own bodies. The drum remains an essential element of the music to this day. As James Brown would say, “Give the drummer some!”

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