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Who Can Hear The African Drums?

A curious tale about the subjectivity of perception and ways of knowing
Who Can Hear The African Drums?

A reader sends in a good piece from Nautilus magazine, by an ethnomusicologist who writes of being deceived by his African drum instructors. Or was he? Alexander Gelfand writes about how he and his wife Ingrid had been in Ghana for a week when they were invited to join with drummers playing for a royal house, on a holy day for the people there. More:

The rhythms played on the big bommaa drums consist of several sets of patterns that are executed in unison by both drummers, each one longer and more complicated than the last. At first, I was able to match Antwi stroke for stroke. But as we moved into the longer and more complex material, things went completely off the rails. Suddenly, Antwi seemed to be adding rhythms that I’d never heard before. I tried to keep up with him, to imitate his hand movements even if I couldn’t quite make out what he was playing.

But I couldn’t. Standing there in front of the assembled royals, the truth slowly dawned on me: The rhythms I was supposed to play in public in Aburi were not the same as the ones that Obeng had taught me in Toronto, and which he had repeated for Ingrid and me during a brief private lesson just the previous day. Instead, they included swathes of material that were radically different from anything he’d shown us thus far; so different that I couldn’t figure them out, let alone execute them, in the heat of the moment. But no one else seemed willing to admit it.

“Alex, what is wrong?” Antwi asked as the two of us sat down next to Ingrid during a break. “You played these yesterday, no problem.”

“The rhythms are different,” I said, still in shock at having totally blown my public debut.


“These rhythms are different. They aren’t the ones I played in Toronto. They aren’t the ones we played with Obeng in our lesson yesterday.”

“Of course they are the same,” said Antwi. “Only faster!”

This kept happening. They couldn’t follow the new rhythms, but kept being told that they weren’t new rhythms at all. More:

I had no choice but to soldier on at the drums. While I did, I also struggled to comprehend what was happening. Eventually I boiled it down to two choices: Either we had radically divergent ideas about what constituted musical sameness and difference, about what gave a piece of music its unique identity and aural signature; or Obeng was intentionally hiding the full rhythms from Ingrid and me for unknown reasons. Was it deception or mental disconnect?

Gelfand then writes about how drumming, in Ghanaian culture, is not just about rhythm, but language. They communicate through drumming. It’s really fascinating stuff. More:

This music was important. Why, then, did Obeng insist on withholding information that would have prevented us from blowing almost every performance we gave while we were in Ghana? Did he have some ulterior motive? Or was there some basic aspect of Akan music that rendered it opaque to us on a fundamental level—culturally, psychologically, or even neurologically?

Gelfand speculates, with scientific backing, that Western-trained brains are simply unable to perceive things that African-trained brains can. There might also be some deception at work. He talks about how African cultures practice modes of concealing sacred information until they trust people to handle it. Gelfand:

We had already experienced this dynamic of concealment and revelation first-hand. During our time together in Toronto, Obeng had never so much as mentioned to me that the smaller instruments in the fontomfrom “spoke” just like their larger cousins. Then, one day in Aburi, when Ingrid and I were at the palace helping Obeng move the fontomfrom drums around, he casually revealed what the iron bell and the three small drums were saying. It was a full-blown conversation:

Wanko a wobeko.
Woto, wobeto.
Wawie moframma kum?
Pren pren, pren pren.

“You will go even if you don’t wish to go.”
“You fall, you will fall.”
“Have you killed the little children?”
“Just now, just now.”

“What does it mean?” Ingrid asked. “Why were they killing the children?”

“It is about the old days, when the ancestors made ‘medicine,’ ” Obeng said. He went on to describe how human beings were once sacrificed at the palace, something I’d previously only read about in anthropological studies and historical texts. Needless to say, we were both taken aback—especially me. For several years, I thought that I’d been tapping out some harmless dance rhythms, when in fact I had been participating in a brief audio play about the ritual slaughter of children.

I don’t know why Kwame Obeng chose that particular moment to enlighten us, but I doubt it was happenstance. Perhaps, unbeknownst to us, Ingrid and I had somehow demonstrated our worthiness.

Read it all. 

Gelfand says nearly two decades after those experiences in Ghana, he still can’t explain why he and his wife couldn’t perceive those rhythms.

The reader who sent that to me said it reminds her of this old post from 2012 on this blog, in which I discussed the experiences of linguist Daniel Everett, who spent years living among a remote Amazon tribe, learning their language so he could translate the Bible into it. (Everett, in his memoir, discloses that eventually he lost his religious faith.) I wrote in 2012:

I find myself this morning taken by a concept that recurs in the book: the subjectivity of knowledge, or, to phrase it another way, the cultural contingency of epistemology. Which is simply a fancypants way of saying not simply that the truths we know are culturally conditioned, but our way of knowing truth is also.

Everett begins his book with a startling anecdote. One morning, he and his family were awakened in their riverbank hut by the sound of the tribe rushing down to the river to see something amazing: a theophany. The excited Piraha were pointing to a beach on the opposite side of the river, where they saw “Xigagai, the spirit” appearing, and threatening the men with death if they went into the jungle. Everett writes:

Even I could tell that there was nothing on that white, sandy beach no more than one hundred yards away. And yet as certain as I was about this, the Pirahas were equally certain that there was something there. Maybe there had been something there that I missed seeing, but they insisted that what they were seeing, Xigagai, was still there.

His young daughter came out to have a look, and like her father, saw nothing. Everett continues:

What had I just witnessed? Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahas’ culture, could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahas that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.As a scientist, objectivity is one of my most deeply held values. If we could just try harder, I once thought, surely we could each see the world as others see it and learn to respect one another’s views more readily. But as I learned from the Pirahas, our expectations, our culture, and our experiences can render even perceptions of the environment nearly incommensurable cross-culturally.

It is a fundamental principle of the Western rationalist mentality that reality is that which can be measured independently. But what if there are some objective realities that require subjective belief to be detected? I wrote back then in that post:

Everett also discusses the practical differences between what he had eyes to see, versus what his Piraha friends could see. He says that often the Pirahas saved him from danger because their eyes could see a threat in the jungle — the pinprick-red eyes of a caiman on a jungle trail at night — that his Western eyes could not perceive. The threat was there, but he could not perceive it because he had not been raised in a culture that valued seeing those things. On the other hand, on the occasion when he would take some Piraha to the city, they were utterly lost and defeated by things (e.g., traffic patterns) Everett could clearly see, and judge, because he’d been acculturated in a particular way.

What if there are realities that are only visible or audible to those who have in some way allowed their minds, through subjective belief or through cultural conditioning, to accept? The evil spirit on the sandbar is a woo-woo instance, but for the sake of argument, what if there really was an immaterial being of some sort there, and the inability of the Westerners to see it is a visual version of the inability of the Western drummers to hear the Ghanaian rhythms?

I don’t know the answer. I’m just throwing it out there for discussion.



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