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Akan drum:
the drummer is calling me

12 August – 10 October 2010
Free

Exhibition closed

Room 3

The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Objects in focus

Supported by

Discover the drum that travelled from West Africa to Virginia through the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The Akan drum is the oldest African-American object in the British Museum, brought from West Africa to the Colony of Virginia as part of the slave trade around 1735. ‘Akan’ refers to an ethnic and linguistic group from West Africa which includes the Fante, Asante and Akuapem, and its culture is most apparent today in Ghana.

The drum was acquired by Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection formed the basis of the British Museum when it was founded in 1753. Broadcaster, playwright, and British Museum Trustee Bonnie Greer has been involved in the creation of the display, and it focuses on two main themes – the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the origins of African-American music.

The first part of the display describes the journey of the drum from West Africa to the Colony of Virginia, relating the suffering and displacement of peoples as a result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

This journey would have typically included the practice of ‘dancing the slaves’, where enslaved Africans were forcibly exercised on board the slave ships, a practice in which it is likely this drum would have played a part.

The second part of the display examines the massive influence of African and African-American music on most popular music from the 20th century onwards, including jazz, blues, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll.

Further information

The drum is one of the objects featured in the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 series
A History of the World in 100 objects

Akan drum
  • 1

    Akan drum. Made in West Africa and collected in the American colony of Virginia probably between 1710 and 1745.‘The drummer is calling me’ is a quote from the poem Limbo by Edward Kamau Brathwaite (b. 1930). In it, he likens the practice of ‘dancing the slaves’ to a limbo dance in Africa.

  • 2

    Talking drums, Ghana, 1936. © Trustees of the British Museum

  • 3

    Picking cotton, Pulaski County, Arkansas Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Lomax Collection, [LC-USZ62-124414]

  • 4

    African Americans working, Charleston, S.C.: Cotton warehouse, drying cotton, about 1879. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington [LC-USZ62-68076]

  • 5

    African Americans working, Charleston, S.C: Street venders, 1879 by the Kilburn Brothers Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-USZ62-68072]

  • 6

    Jitterbugging in a juke joint, Saturday evening, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi by Marion Post Wolcott 1910-1990, Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division [LC-DIG-fsa-8c36090]

  • 7

    True lovers of the muse, by William Henry Jackson 1843-1942, Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-D401-9117]

  • 8

    Old African American man posed walking with a stick and a banjo. About 1905. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-46755]

  • 9

    Baptist congregation, Alma Plantation, False River, La. 1934 July by Alan Lomax (1915-2002) Lomax collection of photographs depicting folk musicians, primarily in the southern United States and the Bahamas. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-DIG-ppmsc-00321]

  • 10

    Man posing holding a drum, Cat Island, July 1935 by Alan Lomax (1915-2002) Lomax collection of photographs depicting folk musicians, primarily in the southern United States and the Bahamas. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-DIG-ppmsc-00492]

  • 11

    John Canoe and friends, Bahamas, 1935 by Alan Lomax (1915-2002) Lomax collection of photographs depicting folk musicians, primarily in the southern United States and the Bahamas. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [ LC-DIG-ppmsc-00506 ]

  • 12

    Young men and women humming a spiritual at UCPAPWA (United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America) meeting, Bristow, Oklahoma. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [reproduction number, LC-DIG-fsa-8b22390]

  • 13

    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., half-length portrait, facing front. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Lomax Collection [LC-USZ62-126559]

  • 14

    The Last Drummers, performing on the New York City Subway. Drumming groups like this are found on the subways, subway stations and streets of urban centres around the United States. © Devorah Romanek 2010

Akan drum. Made in West Africa and collected in the American colony of Virginia probably between 1710 and 1745.‘The drummer is calling me’ is a quote from the poem Limbo by Edward Kamau Brathwaite (b. 1930). In it, he likens the practice of ‘dancing the slaves’ to a limbo dance in Africa.


Akan drum  playlist

Commentary by Devorah Romanek, Exhibition curator

To listen to the playlist you will need to have a Spotify account or alternatively you can download individual tracks in iTunes.Get Spotify account 

1. Ceremonial drums, Unknown artist
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The drum tells the story of the creation of numerous forms of music and dance, starting with the drumming and dancing of West Africa through many variations of dance and music born of the enormous impact of slavery in the Americas and particularly in mainland North America.

 

2. Akonoday, Unknown artist
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Drums are essential in most forms of African music. They are played in West Africa for ceremonial, celebratory and social occasions, carrying and communicating great spiritual, social and political power and significance.

 

3. Boll Weevil, Irvin (Gar Mouth) Lowry 
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The work song is sung about the specific work at hand, such as picking cotton. The boll weevil, a menace to cotton crops, arrived in the USA in the late nineteenth century and by the 1920s had infested all cotton-growing areas to devastating effect. However, such a song could also carry a strong subtext, with the implication of a troublesome pest being meant to portray an overseer or slave or plantation owner.

 

4. Job Job, Vera Hall and Dock Reed
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After the abolition of slavery the number of African-American churches grew quickly, and at this time the Spiritual moved from fields and meeting houses into these churches, to eventually become Gospel music.

 

5. 2-stepping place, Othar Turner and The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band
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Fife and Drum is one of the most widespread forms of African creolised music across the wider Americas. It was and is played alone, or as part of the larger celebration known as Jonkonnu, Junkanoo, Jonkanoo, Jankumu and John Canoe. The origins of this celebration are in the name of a West African Chief and it is related to modern winter-time carnivals and festivals.

 

6. Georgia Buck (Georgie Buck) (Never let a woman have her way), Banjo, Dink Roberts
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The banjo is an instrument that developed from the African instrument the Banza. In addition to new forms of music arising from the experience of slavery, new forms of dance were born, such as the buck dance of this banjo piece. Buck dances and buck and wing dances picked up the rhythms of drumming, particularly as drumming became widely banned on plantations in the American colonies beginning in the 1740s. Buck and wing dancing was ultimately supplanted by its later cousin, tap dance.

 

7. The fox, Unknown artist
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Variations on African-American slave music proliferated onto urban streets, with migration to Northern cities, particularly after the Civil War. These proliferations took a wide range of creolized expression, from double dutch jump roping to bucket drumming.

 

8. Let 'em jump, Pete Johnson 
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The two most well known genres to emerge from the history of slavery are the Blues and Jazz. Blues and Jazz are distinctly North American musical evolutions, but carry with them influences from all geographic regions of the African Diaspora in the Americas, having strong reliance upon such African-based musical devices as call and response, syncopation and improvisation. This particular piece is an example of a type of Blues known as Boogie Woogie, being more up-beat than most forms of Blues, and forming a bridge to Big Band style Jazz.

 

9. Good Golly Miss Molly, Little Richard
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Rock ’n’ roll is the marriage of blues, gospel and country music, with added instruments and electric amplification. It was African-American artists such as Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Little Richard who originated this music, which was later popularised with white audiences by white musicians, such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles, when they began ‘covering’ the work of African-American artists. Rhythm & Blues, born in the 1930 and 40s, is an urbanised form of African-American music, taking hold in large Northern cities, such as Chicago and New York, where Jazz had earlier found a home.

 

10. Keep that Hi-De-Hi in your soul, Cab Calloway
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Big Band Jazz began in the 1920s and was popular through the late 1940s, with New York City, Chicago and Kansas City being the urban centres for this style of Jazz – the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York City being perhaps the best known venue for this type of Jazz. Big Band Jazz features large ensembles of instruments, and is highly scored, with the least amount of improvisation of all of the types of Jazz, though there usually are improvised solos by musicians and singers. One type of improvisational singing in Big Band Jazz is called ‘scat’, a type of singing for which Cab Calloway was famous.

 

11. I have a dream, spoken word, Martin Luther King Jr 
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The African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s has strong links to spirituals and gospel music, and has been described as ‘the greatest singing movement’ ever to happen in America. Many of the movement's great orators and activists were also preachers, or were influenced heavily by the preaching in African-American Baptist churches. One hears this influence in the cadence and references of impassioned oratories of people like Dr Martin Luther King Jr. or Fannie Lou Hamer.

 

12. Bitches Brew, Miles Davis 
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Jazz has travelled and continues to travel many roads. One of the greatest Jazz musicians and innovators is jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Miles Davis helped to develop Bebop, Cool Jazz, Modal Jazz and Jazz Fusion, and his work is full of, to quote Jazz historian Reuben Jackson, “...funky, sqwauling and introspective glory...”. There are many groundbreaking aspects to this release, but Bitches Brew’s greatest innovation is probably its dense and layered rhythms, with the use of two or three drums as well as other instruments taking up the rhythms in this piece.

 

13. Foxy Lady, Jimi Hendrix Experience
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The music of Jimi Hendrix, sitting within the genre of rock music of the 1960s and 70s is often not thought of in the larger story of African American music. Still, his story and his music in many ways exemplify the complexities of the African-American story and musical experience. Born James Marshall, Jimi Hendrix was of African-American and Native American descent. Though the music he played tends to sit outside African-American music history, his role as an innovator and improviser sits firmly in the middle of that story, having begun his musical career playing blues, and moving on to rock and psychedelic rock.

 

14. Papa's got a brand new bag, James Brown
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James Brown began his musical career singing gospel in South Carolina at a time when Jim Crow, the term used to refer to the laws that enforced segregation in America, was still going strong. He later began to perform R&B music, and the sub-genre of R&B, Soul music – Brown was later known as 'The Godfather of Soul'. It was with this song, Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, that the further subgenre of Soul, Funk music, was born.

 

15. Single Ladies (put a ring on it), Beyoncé
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Contemporary R&B is of course related to the earlier African-American genre of R&B, but reflects many of the influences of music, mostly African-American music, that have come in between, such as rap and hip hop.