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Breaking the Silence: Beating the Drum, International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 25 March 2009

Drums and Slavery

In sub-Saharan Africa, rhythms, spiritual dimensions and the order of the universe are not generally separated into compartments in the mind of most people. Traditional African societies acknowledge that the drum has a spirit and character that is clearly observable. It is believed by many African communities that voices of great ancestors are hidden inside the wood of trees so they could be accessed whenever men and women need them. African history has been maintained through an oral tradition.

Everywhere, slaves strived to keep the heritage and practice of drums alive. Drums from Cameroon represent various types of African drums. Due to its many peoples and unique geographical location (on the coast, deep in the heart of Africa as well as close to the Sahara), Cameroon is sometimes seen as Africa in miniature. Drums also reflect spiritual, social, ethno-anthropological and artistic perspectives. The historical and cultural significance of drums with regard to the Transatlantic Slave Trade is noteworthy.

During the Passage, slaves were encouraged to beat the drum. The hope was that beating the drum would keep their morale as high as possible. But upon arrival in the Americas, beating the drum was forbidden for most slaves. Slave owners were usually fearful of or could not understand the influence that beating the drum had on slaves. Nevertheless, the drum continued its journey, and accompanied black slaves everywhere they went, influencing or creating new musical and artistic genres, such as the call-and-response pattern first brought to the Americas and the rest of the world through the slave trade and now prevalent in blues, jazz, rock and roll, and hip-hop. But the influence of drums went beyond music. Drums galvanized the fighting spirit of black slaves during the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina or the New Orleans uprising. Everywhere in the Americas, African slaves celebrated their regained freedom by beating the drum. This is what happened on April 12, 1865 as the Confederates were leaving Mobile, when a group of youngsters decided to do something “African” to celebrate their regained freedom. They carved a drum, beat it and its powerful throbbing took them back home. One of them, Cudjo Lewis, said: “After dey free us, you understand me, we so glad, we makee de drum and beat it lak in de Affica soil.” Cudjo Lewis was among the last Africans the Transatlantic Slave Trade had brought to the United States. As their drum symbolized, freedom to them was directly linked to Africa.

The exhibit shows how uniquely important the drum has remained for all, constituting up to this day a strong link between former slaves of African origin and Africa, despite centuries of slave trade.

Very special and rare items, including royal drums are part of the exhibit for which DPI has collaborated with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York. In addition to academic material provided by Cameroon, both institutions have contributed texts and research.