Sometime in the late 1930’s, the government in another of its persistent and futile attempts to suppress African cultural survivals, decided that the colony would more easily be governable if drums and other traditional musical instruments were outlawed. The colonials must have sensed, and correctly, the importance of music in the cultural independence and political resistance of the African masses. I would, of course, encounter this phenomenon again in the American South. But at least the George Wallaces and Ross Barnetts of that world never tried to outlaw our spirituals and freedom songs. Though I’m sure they must  have often wished they could have.

So in Trinidad by legislative fiat an African could be jailed for possession of drums and other musical instruments? Not a gun, not a grenade, or some dynamite, but a drum? I have often tried, and failed, to visualize the campaign to enforce that law. In implementation of this policy, did armed police and soldiers–the governor’s minions–surround African communities and conduct house-to-house searches? And for what, those threats to public order, drums, tambourines, maracas, and marimbas? Did they kick  down the doors to shacks with guns drawn: “Freeze. You’re under arrest. Seize that drum!”

So, suddenly deprived of their traditional instruments of musical expression, Africans resorted to their creativity and whatever materials lay to hand. In this case, the fifty-five-gallon steel drums used to store oil at the refinery.

These they took and cut to varying depths. Say nine inches down for an alto pan, two feet deep for a tenor pan, and twice that for a bass. Then on the top they would heat and pound out a number of raised areas, each of which when struck would produce a precise musical note of a certain pitch. Over the years the brothers experimented with ways to refine the basic instruments and to create others. The result is what is today known the world over as the Trinidad steel band: an ensemble of musical instruments of great range and flexibility, capable of playing not only calypso and other forms of local popular music, but the most complex and demanding of jazz compositions or any form from the European classical tradition you care to name. A sound immediately recognizable in the distinctive, liquid purity of tones and the fluency of its musical lines.

Hey, as you may have noticed, I can’t pretend to be an ethnomusicologist. I’m a revolutionary. But that description should give you a fairly accurate sense of the accomplishment represented by the creation of the steel bands.  And remember, this unique innovation and the musical tradition it evolved into came directly out of the determined and indomitable will of Trinidad’s African’s to resist colonization and to maintain their culture.

Excerpted from Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggle of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture)

Official languages in Africa Afrikaans Arabic ...

Official languages in Africa Afrikaans Arabic English French Portuguese Spanish Swahili other African languages (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the chapter The Language of African Literature:

[…] African languages refused to die. They would not simply go the way of Latin to become the fossils for linguistic archaeology to dig up, classify, and argue about the international conferences.

These languages, these national heritages of Africa, were kept alive by the peasantry. The peasantry saw no contradiction between speaking their own mother-tongues and belonging to a larger national or continental geography. They saw no necessary antagonistic contradiction between belonging to their immediate nationality, to their multinational state along the Berlin drawn boundaries, and to African as whole.  These people happily spoke Wolof, Hausa, Yoruba, Ibo, Arabic, Amharic, Kiswahili, Gikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Shona, Ndebele, Kimbundu, Zulu or Lingala without this fact tearing the multinational states apart. During the anti-colonial struggle they showed an unlimited capacity to unite around whatever leader or party best and most consistently articulated an anti-imperialist position. If anything it was the petty-bourgeoisie, particularly the compradors, with their French and English and Portuguese, with their petty rivalries, their ethnic chauvinism, which encouraged these vertical divisions to the point of war at times. No, the peasantry had no complexes about their languages and the cultures they carried!

In fact when the peasantry and the working class were compelled by necessity or history to adopt the language of the master, they Africanised it without any of the respect for its ancestry shown by Senghor and Achebe, so totally as to have created new African languages, like Krio in Sierra Leone or Pidgin in Nigeria that owed their identities to the syntax and rhythms of African languages. All these languages were kept alive in the daily speech, in the ceremonies, in political struggles, above all in the rich store of orature – proverbs, stories, poems and riddles.

Africa Reading Challenge

January 19, 2012

Kinna Reads is hosting a year-long Africa Reading Challenge. The goal of the Challenge is to read

5 books.  That’s it.  There will be no other levels.  Of course, participants are encouraged to read more than 5 books.  Eligible books include those which are written by African writers, or take place in Africa, or are concerned with Africans and with historical and contemporary African issues. Note that at least 3 books must be written by African writers.

I will be participating in this Challenge. My initial list of 5 books (subject to change) is as follows:

Wives of the Leopard by Edna G. Gay

Why Are We So Blest? by Ayi Kwei Armah

Idu by Flora Nwapa

For Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria by Cheryl Johnson-Odom and Nina Emma Mba

Aké by Wole Soyinka

For more information about the challenge (including reading suggestions) visit Kinna Reads

I don’t know if the Heinneman African Writer Series (AWS) was one of those Chess record label deals where the artists didn’t get paid according to the value of their work to the music appreciating audience but rather according to the skinflint economics of record label owners. I haven’t researched it so I can’t say. I can say I sincerely hope not because I am thankful for it connecting me to so many African writers they’ve become part of my interior landscape.

For instance, earlier today, I was mopping my floor and for no reason I can think of one of the stories in Grace Ogot’s Land without thunder crossed my mind. In a beautiful story called the old white witch, a group of african nurses go on strike because they’ve been ordered to carry the feces of patients and that is against their cultural practices. As their spokeswoman, Adhiambo (but called Monica by the white missionaries who run the hospital) says:

Long before you came, we agreed to nurse in the hospital on the understanding that we were not to carry any bedpans. We want to be married and become mothers like any other woman in the land. We are surprised that senior members of the staff have sneaked behind us to support you when they know perfectly well that no sane man will agree to marry a woman who carries a bedpan. A special class of people do this job in our society. Your terms are therefore unacceptable, Matron.  You can keep your hospital and the sick. And if being a Christian means carrying faeces and urine, you can keep Christianity too – we are returning to our homes.

I don’t know why this occurred to me in the midst of cleaning but it is a fine, fine story. Land of Thunder is full of such stories. Click the book cover to visit Ogot’s Amazon page.


A more thorough review of Land without Thunder