The Universal Language of the Drum
May 08, 2014
By Ryan Mita
“Is music universal?” It’s one question among many raised by S. Brent Plate in his new book A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects, and a question I struggled with for some time myself.
When I first started practicing capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art informed by live music, I had trouble picking out the tinkling rhythm provided by the lead instrument. Not understanding the rhythm meant not knowing the specific set of rituals involved.
At the time, I was traveling through Japan, and my Japanese was a becoming a burden, rather than an asset. While visiting a capoeira group in Tokyo, I did not want to embarrass my mestre (teacher), or my mestre’s mestre, still leading classes in Brazil at the age of 76.
Thank goodness for the atabaque drum, which clearly amplifies the rhythm established by the berimbau. The tall hand drum stands four feet high and is made of light-colored wood. A system of ropes and wedges criss-cross the drum’s body and connects a metal ring to the bottom of the cowhide head. The rhythm coming off the atabaque was clear: this was Angola. The original game of capoeira, Angola, is set to a slow tempo, with intricate call and response rituals among players.
“Like smoke from incense or the spoken word, the drumbeat is ephemeral,” writes Plate. I could feel that thrumming ephemerality in the atabaque’s beat, focusing me on the moment and the movement. The link to language that Plate implies is not purely metaphorical. In some African cultures, for example, the drum is both a spiritual object and a tool to communicate information, a language of its own with the power to “knit us into the cosmic fabric of the universe, into the social fabric of families. . .and into the rich textures of religious traditions.”
I believe I understand. In that tiny capoeira studio, squatting in front of the atabaque, I felt grateful to the drum that connected me to the movements, to the rhythm of my body, and to people around me. Though we didn’t share a spoken language, we found ourselves sharing something far more profound.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Mita has been practicing capoeira for five years. He is a marketing assistant at Beacon Press.