Main content

Episode Transcript – Episode 86 - Akan drum

Akan drum (made early eighteenth century). Made in West Africa, found in Virginia, USA

We think of jazz as the music of joyous rebellion and cool, the syncopated swing of an African-American musical tradition that came to dominate the twentieth century. But this music goes much further back. It has dark roots in the terrible days of the Atlantic slave trade of the eighteenth century. The mix of the musical influences in jazz echoes the triangular trade in slaves between Europe, Africa and America. Drums were at the heart of this early history, brought on slave boats from Africa to the Americas, and the music that the enslaved Africans brought with them gave them a voice for their condition - a new language that offered solidarity and solace. Today's object is one of those drums, and its biography is a brief chapter in the story of slavery.

"The drum itself represents to me the idea of voyage, and crossing. I crossed the Atlantic to be here, and the drum did too. It represents for me that passage of my ancestors, and the ancestors of a good number of black British citizens as well." (Bonnie Greer)

"If you were able to get one with you and take it with you to the New World, it would have been a kind of source of memory, which you could take with you. And that's one of the things that people taken into slavery tried to hold on to." (Anthony Appiah)

This week we're looking at the eighteenth century, and especially at what happened when Europeans encountered non-Europeans all over the world. Not one of the objects that I've chosen is from Europe itself, but all in some way reflect the great European Enlightenment project - both its ambitions and its failures. It's often a troubling history, since many of these "dialogues" between Europe and the world ended in oppression and destruction, the fracturing of whole societies. One side wrote down what was happening, the other could not. So, if we want to hear the story from the non-European side, to recover the voice of the silent people, we must go to their objects. And in this programme, luckily, the object can speak:

I am just now listening to the sound of a small drum, and if it weren't too fragile to be played, this is roughly the sound the Akan drum would make. It's the earliest African-American object in the British Museum, indeed possibly the earliest African-American object anywhere. From this drum - made in Africa, taken to America and then sent on to England - we can trace the story of one of the biggest forced migrations in the history of the world, when millions of Africans were shipped to America as slaves. These utterly dispossessed people were allowed to bring no things with them, but they brought of course the music they already had in their heads, and one or two instruments came as well. And with these came the very beginnings of some of the world's most vibrant sounds . . . African-American blues and jazz.

The Enlightenment enterprise of gathering the world's knowledge was in full swing when the British Museum opened its doors for the first time in 1759. The founding collection was mostly the legacy of the Irish doctor Sir Hans Sloane, and it included scientific instruments, plants and minerals, stuffed animals and various intriguing objects from all round the globe, gathered to allow a comparative study of societies. It was Sloane who had the drum brought to England, and here it is in front of me.

It's about the size of a small keg of beer, so a bit over a foot (30 cm) high, and the wooden sides have been carved with simple decoration of striped bands. It was collected in Virginia around 1730, and in the eighteenth century it was labelled by the British Museum as an American Indian drum. And an American Indian drum it remained until 1906, when a curator in the museum realised that it couldn't be any such thing - it looked to him much more like a drum from West Africa. Seventy-odd years later, his hunch was confirmed through scientific examination carried out by colleagues at Kew Gardens and here at the museum. And we now know that the main body of the drum is carved from wood of the tree 'cordia africana', which grows in West Africa, while the pegs and the cords that hold the skin of the drum taut derive from wood and plants also from the same region. This is unquestionably a drum that was made in West Africa, and then somehow travelled from there to Virginia.

The first African slaves arrived in British North America in 1619, brought to the American colonies on European-owned ships to provide labour for the ever-expanding plantations. At first they were put to work cultivating sugar and rice, later tobacco, and finally - and most famously - cotton. By the early 1700s, the trade in enslaved people had become the most lucrative business between West African rulers and European traders. Anthony Appiah, who teaches at Princeton University in the United States, has heritage from both sides:

"I always like to tell people that I have slave-traders on both sides of my family, both my English ancestors and my Ghanaian ancestors were involved in the slave trade, or some of them. You have to understand that it was a trading relationship. Most of the Africans who went into the slave trade were either slaves already, or were captured and enslaved by other Africans. As the trade developed, by the eighteenth century, in a place like Asante where I grew up - and where the drum comes from - they had become very dependent on the slave trade as a form of trade, and they were going out in warfare, capturing large numbers of people and sending them down to the coast, and exchanging them for the goods they were getting from Europe. Which would have included guns - which made it possible for them to then proceed with more warfare."

Overall, it's estimated that around twelve million Africans were transported to America from the trading stations of West Africa, and both Europeans and Africans profited from the trade. This is one of those moments in history when we are truly united by a common inhumanity. The drum comes from the Akan people, a group which includes the Asante and the Fante kingdoms. It was probably part of a chief's drum orchestra - a key element in the music and dance that were fundamental ingredients of court ceremonial and social life.

We assume that the drum was taken on a slave ship - but not by a slave. Slaves took nothing. It may have been a gift to the captain, or taken by an African chief's son - we know that they sometimes sailed with the slavers to America as part of their education. Once on board, the drum would have had little to do with the joy of communal music-making. Drums like this were used for what was grotesquely called "dancing the slaves".

"As soon as the Ship has its Complement [of slaves], it immediately makes off. The poor Wretches, while yet in sight of their Country, fall into Sickness and die. The only sure means to preserve 'em, is to have some Musical Instrument play to 'em, be it ever so mean."

Slaves were taken up to the decks and there forced to dance to the rhythms of the drum, to keep them healthy and to fight depression - which the slave captains knew could lead to suicide or to revolt. Drumming was a useful instrument of control.

Once in America, on the plantations, the slaves were allowed to drum and to make music for themselves. But slave-owners soon grew anxious that drumming, once again used to forge community, would not prevent rebellion, but incite it. In South Carolina in 1739, for example, drums were used as a call to arms at the outbreak of a violent slave rebellion. It prompted the colony to prohibit drums by law and to classify them as weapons.

Hans Sloane, who had this drum brought to London, was himself a slave-owner in Jamaica, and he published one of the very first transcriptions of slave music. It's a precious document, and allows us to get a taste of it . . . Sloane described the slaves' instruments, and explained why the authorities in Jamaica had also banned them:

" . . . [slaves] formerly on their Festivals were allowed the use of Trumpets after their fashion, and Drums made of a piece of a hollow Tree. But making use of these in their wars at home in Africa, it was thought too much inciting them to Rebellion, and so they were prohibited by the Customs of the Island."

This Akan drum, collected for Sloane around 1730, might well be one of these confiscated drums. The material stretched over the drum is deer-skin, almost certainly North American, and this opens up another intriguing possibility for our drum. The complicated relationships between Native Americans and African Americans in the eighteenth century are often overlooked, but there was in fact a good deal of contact, including intermarriage. Some Native Americans owned their own plantations, and had their own slaves - both Native American and African. It's a history that's rarely mentioned, but it adds another intriguing dimension to that eighteenth-century museum label, describing this as an American Indian drum.

The story of this drum is a story of global displacement. Enslaved Africans transported to the Americas, Native Americans forced westward by slave plantations. The drum itself taken from Africa to Virginia and - in the latest phase of its life - taken by a slave-owner to London. And here, in London, an extraordinary thing has happened. For, like the drum, the children of the slaves have now also come to England. Descendants of those once involved in the slave trade - British, West African, African American and Afro-Caribbean - now all live together in the same cosmopolitan city. The Akan drum has, in a way, become a typical twenty-first-century Londoner.

The American-born playwright and critic, Bonnie Greer, is now a British citizen. Here she is:

"As a person of African descent, and also having Native American ancestry as well, it represents those two strands of myself, and of many African Americans, and many people from the Caribbean as well. The thing that's remarkable about these objects, for us who were taken - and forcibly - from our environment, is that these objects have travelled with us, and they've actually become what we have become, and they have accompanied us here to live in this place, and to thrive in this place. And, because we are part of that object, and it's part of us, it's quite right that it is here."

This drum is a record of many dialogues. The object for the next programme takes us to a simpler, but still contested, dialogue . . . it's a feather helmet from Hawaii.

But today I want to leave Anthony Appiah with the last word on the drum, to consider how we all - British, Africans and Americans - might now view this painful shared history:

"When you see an object like this it invites interpretation, but it doesn't require any particular interpretation. And so you can think of it as an object that condenses the memory of all the horrible, ghastly, wicked things that happened in the slave trade. Or you can think of it as an emblem of the possibilities, of holding on through all that trauma to something worth holding on to, and coming out of it with an object that is both old - because it comes from Africa and has a history of Africa - but also new. Because it's now a new world thing, which has a new meaning in the new world, drawing on the old meanings but moving beyond them. And that optimistic way of reading the object I think is the one I'd like to hold on to, and leave with, because it's what the new world needs to do - it's what the whole world needs to do!"