The Heritage of the Drumset

Article excerpt

The drumset is a 20th-century American instrument whose historical development has largely been the result of African American creativity. It stands today as one of the most widely played, recognized, and powerful instruments used on the global stage.

The trap drumset emerged in the late 1890s, when single percussionists were forced for economic and logistical reasons to operate a multitude of instruments. Snare and bass drums of the concert and marching bands in New Orleans provided a base to which, from 1900 to 1930, other accessories or "trappings" - hence the name traps - were added. This diverse sound palette enabled percussionists to accompany films, theater, and other stage shows and dances. Additions included whistles, cowbells, tympani, chimes, marimba, bells, bird calls, and many other instruments. Early drummers, in their search for new sounds, also adopted the instruments they heard played by Chinese immigrants in urban areas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like the small Chinese cymbal (Bo), large gong (Da Luo), woodblock (Ban), temple blocks (Mu-Yu), and the first tom-tom (Bangu), usually a thick painted pigskin drum head tacked on to a red painted wooden shell.

Later, during the 1920s and 1930s, high-hat cymbals - at first less than one foot high and called low boys (Papa Joe Jones told me in 1981 that he invented the longer rod which brought the high hat to its present, aptly named height, but the Leedy drum company stole his idea and took all the rewards) - bass drum pedals, manufactured mounted and floor tom-toms, and larger cymbals came to be included in the drumset. By the bebop innovation of the 1940s, the drumset had assumed the basic form still in use today - bass and snare drums, tom-toms, high-hat cymbals, and ride and crash cymbals.

In addition to its physical history, I suggest that the drumset has a spiritual heritage traceable to the ancient drum orchestras of West Africa, especially in the coastal rain forest region from Ivory Coast through Ghana, Togo, and Benin to Nigeria, where drumming is highly diversified into variously pitched and timbred drums, bells, and rattles. In these areas there is a master drummer who directs the dynamic interplay of song, dance, and drumming with conversational dialogues (calls and responses). An ensemble of distinct personal drum voices, each with its own pitch range, timbre, and rhythm, specified by tradition, repertoire, and occasion of performance, comes together to make a composite statement. This dynamic living force creates a space for the "gods to descend," for people to connect with each other, with nature, with life, and with themselves. An interplay of coordinated independent voices characterizes the function, sound, and feel of the drumset performer in the African American "jazz" tradition and West African drumming.

The historical genocide of captive peoples and the radically different geographic, social, and political circumstances in the "new world" account for the evolution of this new instrument, which produced an ensemble of multiple sounds, speaking in a composite voice, mirroring the dramatic action of an ensemble, soloist, or dance. Dancers at the Savoy ballroom or tap dancers on the sidewalks of 125th Street in New York interact with the music: Not only do they dance to the music, but they create new rhythms, new music, as a response to what they hear.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, when musical instruments, especially drums (which could be used for communication and revolt, as well as spiritual remembrances and affirmation), were forbidden, African American people used their bodies as instruments. The coordinated interdependence of multiple percussive instrumental voices in a composite statement is found in the "Pattin' Juba" hand-clapping and foot-stomps of African American peoples throughout the South (Jones and Hawes 37-40). Juba is a clapping play similar to the "hambone" patting and movements many Americans learned in the 1950s and '60s. …