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Pulse of the spirit: Drums the foundation for diverse rituals, popular culture

Published:Sunday | February 15, 2015 | 2:00 AMAmitabh Sharma
The talking drum, dun dun or gan gan.
The egungan mask
Drums in their different manifestations, from the traditional to the modern.
The Kihemba ngonna drum
The Djemb (talking drum)
The Yoruba (lgbin) drum
Drums on display as a part of 4th Grounation series.
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"The rhythm is in your blood" goes an African proverb, resonating from the beats of the drums, which are not merely musical instruments in that part of the world; their rhythm is embedded in the society's DNA.

"Across the world, of all the instruments associated with black music, the drums are considered emblematic," said Herbie Miller, director/curator of Jamaica Music Museum (JaMM).

The semblance of many modern percussion instruments - from the American trapset to the postmodern drum machine - find their genesis in African drums.

"African drums and drummers have also fostered new rhythms and inspired dances," Miller said. "They have served as the foundation for diverse spiritual rituals and popular culture throughout the Americas."

Bathed in soft yellow lights, some of these traditions come alive at the Institute of Jamaica Lecture Hall at Tower Street in varied shapes and genres, each resonating a different aspect of African tradition and history - their spirituality and masquerade, which creates the faÁade behind the long lineage and fables.

"Symbolically and in reality, drums have had a long history of migration, from the days of slavery to the present," Miller said. "They are at the foundation of cultural and spiritual expressions throughout the diaspora."

In civilisations across the world, music has always been the critical and essential media bridging the mortal souls with varied manifestations of a supreme being.

With a range of materials, shapes, and taboos attached to them, each drum on display at the exhibition embed strains of spirituality in their sanctum sanctorum.

"Drums, unquestionably, represent the spirit, soul and innermost feelings of peoples from Africa and its diasporas," Miller said.

"They set the rhythm of masquerade and dance and encourage and appease spirits."

This dance of the spirits employs the use of drumming, which links the physical being of the human, standing steadfast on terra firma, to a higher energy level.

The exhibition, the director/curator of JaMM informed, is a material illustration of such a manifestation.

The spirituality and rituals are the basis of what will be discussed in the ongoing 4th Grounation series, of which the drum exhibition forms a part.

The exhibits are an eclectic mix of not only the drums, but rituals and symbolism associated with them.

"Using objects, including various drums from Africa and the diaspora, and including other objects of culture such as masks and ritual pieces, we try to give a visual interpretation of the discussion and the music," Miller informed.

"For example," he said, "Cuba's Santeria is represented by a bata drum, and the Haitian voodoo drum and flag provides context for the discussion; although the various drums are from Africa and Jamaica."

The exhibition, 'Call & Response: Drums, Masques and Spirits', according to Miller, illuminates the role of the drums as conveyor of art and philosophy connecting Black Atlantic worlds.

These drums, he said, are mediums of expression, which are creative, artistic, and philosophical and critically chart the contribution of African civilisations to the West.

"The expressions," he said, "are intellectually perceived, and spiritually and sensuously appreciated for the measure of accomplishment and achievement."

amitabh.sharma@hotmail.com