There Are No Coincidences: A Tale of Synchronicity
It was the first time I'd seen the magazine and I picked it up mostly to see if it might be a good venue for a project I've been working at, on and off (though more off than on), for years - a tribute to saxophonist Jim Pepper. But there it was, barely an inch square - The African Beat - and even though the little picture was black-and-white, I could see the brilliant red of the original.
This story actually starts some 20 years ago, when I'd seen drummer Milford Graves in concert (once in solo performance and once with a bass saxophonist whose name I can't remember, though I can still him hunched over that Brobdignagian horn). Both performances happened in very intimate surroundings, rooms with seating for barely 100 people, if that many, so each event was a truly magical experience that is nearly as clear a memory as if they had happened just last month.
Graves began his solo performance off-stage, chanting and whistling well before he emerged from behind the curtains at the far right. Gradually his performance became more intricate, more advanced, as the whistling gave way to bells, the chanting replaced by slaps to his chest and then by old African hand drums. Little by little every few minutes he would put down one old drum and pick up a newer one, never pausing, never missing a beat, never losing the rhythm.
At some point, the chanting and body-thumping transformed itself into shouts and cries. By the time he finished, he was furiously playing a mixture of R&B, hard bop, and rock and roll on a full modern drum set, complete with high hats and cymbals, all accompanied by a series of shouts and scat singing. The opening sounds of the whistling, the ringing bells, the chanting, the grunts and screams - all of this had seamlessly turned into what sounded like a full orchestra of drums. It was only when he stopped suddenly, like quitting a habit cold turkey, with no tapering off, and the silence overwhelmed the awestruck audience, that we realized we had just been taken on a guided tour of the history of drumming, indeed of music - from the first humans who copied the sounds of their own hearts and the singing of birds, to bebop and rock.
It was a full-scale, full-throttle performance that seemed like it happened in an instant, but in truth had lasted closer to 45 minutes. It was a Grandmother Hurricane of drumming, and the audience was the little Caribbean island that it had inundated. It felt almost anti-climatic when we recovered our wits, lifted our jaws from the floor, and broke into wild applause and shouts.
The closest thing I've ever heard to that performance on record was Blakey's The African Beat.
After that awesome performance by Graves I went home with his chanting turning over and over in my head. I had only been able to make out a few words from a shouted recitation that had punctuated the drumming at one point. "Tradition says," he yelled over his pounding of the drum heads, "Tradition says before the drum was...", and the rest was lost in the crescendo of his playing. With those few words, I found myself writing a poem that I called Before the Drum. It begins: "Tradition says/before the drum was the bird/was the bird came before the drum/was the bird's feet the wing's flutter/was the heart beat of the bird/came before the drum..." - and goes on to end with: "Tradition says/Was First the Drum/Tradition says/before the drum was the drum/was the drum came before the drum/ The drum says/Comes the Drum."
Some time after writing the poem, I was listening to The African Beat (for perhaps the hundredth time). When Solomon Ilori's "Ife L'ayo" ("There is Happiness in Love") came on, I found myself reciting the Before the Drum poem and surprised myself with how it so neatly fit the rhythm of the recording, almost as if I had deliberately written it with "Ife L'ayo" in mind. (I had not.)
I subsequently had the opportunity to work with a jazz dancer/choreographer on a program that paired her original group dance to my recitation of the poem, with "Ife L'ayo" playing behind it all. After that performance, the dancer presented other versions of her choreography with different groups of dancers, but always with someone reciting my poem, accompanied by "Ife L'ayo."
The poem itself is dedicated to Milford Graves, since he was the original inspiration. But it could just as easily have been dedicated to Art Blakey and the Afro-Drum Ensemble, since it was their music that gave it life.
Item: For the Igbo people of Nigeria, tradition is an ever-changing, evolving, growing thing. It is an event, something that changes each time it happens. It has been said that Igbo culture "...is always reaching for a pure lyric moment." (from the novel Graceland, by Chris Abani)