/ 19 May 2020

Of drumming, Tony Allen, Charles Mungoshi and my cousin

Tony Allen
Tony Allen (1940 - 2020) performs live on stage at the Melkweg in Amsterdam, Netherlands on 11th March 1988.

In August 1989, I visited my rural home of Mhondoro, a vast territory to the south of Harare comprising  savannah grasslands, infertile, rock-strewn scrubland and dense forest. The month of August has come to be the month of the dead,  when the lives of the dead, both ordinary folk and the nationalist elite, are commemorated in Zimbabwe.

The second Monday of every August is known as Heroes Day, the day on which those who died fighting the racist Rhodesian regime are celebrated. The day after Heroes Day is also a public holiday, known as Defence Forces Day. The two public holidays, together with Independence Day on 18 April, are the triple symbolic props on which former president Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship was founded.

August is also the month in which primary and high school students take their month-long break from school. Because of these holidays, it has come to be the month when the ritual of kurova guva, literally “to beat the grave”, is conducted. The ceremony of kurova guva is one in which a dead adult, then existing in some kind of limbo – no longer with the living but not yet united with their forebears in the ancestral netherworld, nyikadzimu – finally becomes an ancestor. 

The ritual, normally conducted after a year has passed since their death, involves slaughtering a cow and goat, and brewing sorghum beer at the beginning of the week. The beer is known as “chi seven days” because it takes a week to brew. When the beer is ready, there are several nights of incantations, sacred rituals and symbolic acts representing this crossover into another realm; of course, there is also a lot of drinking, eating and music, chinungu.

The Shona call August, the eighth month of the year, Nyamavhuvhu, after the dry winds and gusts that beat down on the highveld and savannah terrain with ferocity and frequency, leaving skins parched, ears clogged and eyes teary from the dust. In August, the draughts and eddies pick up stray leaves and blades of grass torn from their mother plants in the wintry months of June and July, and carry them for a while before depositing them even further away. It is in August that the separation of leaf and twig, blade and tuft that began in winter is completed.

Darlington’s mastery

It was in August that my cousin Darlington, the son of my father’s sister, was in his element. Even though still a teenager, a relative youth and therefore not really expected to take part in these rituals, he had a central role in these ceremonies because of his mastery of the African drum. When he had the drum between his knees, his head slightly upturned and his eyes closed as if shutting out other sensory stimulation, he was like a man possessed. The sound that issued from his hands and the drum willed the audience gathered in the hut into other realms, creating metaphysical force fields in which they communed with their ancestors.

My cousin is much like the character Garabha in Waiting for the Rain, the 1975 classic novel by the late Zimbabwean writer Charles Mungoshi. One night, as Garabha – the village boheme, drunk and ancestor-conjurer – walks from a beer drinking session, he hears the “rumble of a drum”, two drums in fact. Even though Garabha is a long way from where the drums are being played, he knows the language of drums so well that he instinctively realises that the two drums are being played by one person. “They can also be played by two men if they want to talk to each other without using their mouths.” Talking drums.

“Without his being aware of it, his hands are playing invisible drums, all the time to the rhythm of the real drums now going in full up at the village. He knows this particular tune so well that he is irritated with the flat unimaginative monotony of whoever is playing those drums now, because the sound neither drops nor rises where it should, which makes Garabha conscious of his hands playing upon silence, thus creating an irritating vacuum in his head, and, without realising it, he is so angry that his feet are swiftly carrying him towards the source of the sound.”

Garabha had learnt to play drums at the feet of the Old Man, his grandfather, who was also an expert maker of drums. One morning, as Garabha sat watching his grandfather making drums, he felt the itch for one. For “only the sound of the drum can counter this sudden feeling of helplessness in the face of the shortness of time and the futility of laughter. Only the drum will help him understand this thing he hasn’t got words for.” The Old Man tells Garabha, “Your great-grandfather who, if I know anything, sits in you, couldn’t handle the drum the way you do.”   

When he plays, sometimes Garabha himself becomes one with Samambwa, he who has many dogs,   the great ancestor of the clan of which the Old Man has often told him. “He was a giant, red-eyed, wild-haired, without family or friends, having lost them all in a battle with some other tribes in the north. He was a terrible hunter, with over twenty dogs and he lived on meat which he cut into strips and hung in the sun to dry, to be eaten later without salt. For years he wandered about in the great jungles of the north, and being alone, he soon forgot how to talk, even forgot who his parents had been, or where he had come from. And so he found himself among people again, on the shores of the Great Northern Lake. They didn’t like him. They were afraid of him and his dogs, so they gave him presents and asked him to leave their country.” 

An introduction to ancient rituals

For weeks on end that August of 1989,not quite a teenager, I accompanied Darlington to his musical rendezvous and watched him play – my first introduction to ancient Shona rituals. It was by watching him on those endless nights bathed in bright moonlight that I learned to play. 

As Darlington played, older teenagers furtively made for the eaves of the barns or hid behind the anthill on which, as blood raced, they groped and felt each other. As he played, the earthen pot with the brew was passed around and a connoisseur, after drinking a mouthful, would wipe his mouth with the back of his hand and perhaps remark, ndiani abika doro rinonaka so, who is it who has brewed such a delicious brew? 

As Darlington played, sometimes there was a sudden shriek, the sound of heavy breathing and writhing motions, as a spirit crossed the chasm between the netherworld and came to join the world of the living. After interminable pounding, the drum would be taken outside and hung upside down over the fire where it warmed and became taut again before another round.

Towards the close of the August holiday break, I went back home, where there were no drums, but I would still practise on tables or upturned buckets.  Some months later, I started attending a church where the singing was accompanied by a drum. When one day the regular drummer wasn’t around, I said I could play, and so I started playing the drum. Later, when the church bought a drum kit, I would watch the regular drummer play. At the end of the service, he showed me how to do it – how to beat the cymbals and the snare drum while my foot was busy with the bass drum – an exercise in multitasking that I initially found extremely daunting but which I soon mastered.  

Whenever the drummer was not around, I would sit in his stead and play. It was fascinating to my young mind how facility in the African drum was useful in learning to play the Western drums. My relationship with drums lasted for three or so years until I stopped going to church and, with that, my stint as a drummer abruptly ended and I soon forgot how to play. 

Allen’s soft, instant style and signature

When it was announced that the Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, Fela Kuti’s chief collaborator and an accomplished bandleader in his own right, had died on 30 April, it was Garabha and my cousin, now also dead, who I thought of. Allen’s mode of playing – a soft but insistent metronomic style – is, of course, the one which the best of the African drummers have also mastered. If you are too loud, it’s very easy for the drum to crowd out the mbiras, the shakers and the voices from the spaces that they should also fill. If you are too fast, you rush ahead of the voices, and so the best drummers know how to set a rhythm and time signature with which everyone but hopeless stragglers can keep up. 

When Nigerian-born drummer Femi Koleoso went to visit Allen at his Paris base, part homage and part apprentice-learning-from-the-master, they had a session. In his account in The Guardian newspaper, Koleoso played the drums rather violently but the older drummer remonstrated with the younger, “Why is everything so aggressive?” Koleoso replied, “What do you mean? It’s the drums, man, that’s what they’re for!” But Allen had demurred, and so in the first lessons the two did, they played Fela Kuti beats that Allen had played when he was still part of Fela’s band. Koleoso and Allen had played “quietly together, really trying to get inside all the things about music that make a drum beat powerful, apart from sheer force”.

French musician Sébastien Tellier, who once collaborated with Allen, said it was impossible to find another drummer who could play the parts played by Allen on the record they made together. This explains the often repeated story of the several drummers who had to replace Allen in Fela’s band when, after one tour, he remained in Europe to pursue a solo career. Even though with a drummer, just about everyone can see what they are doing, Tellier still described Allen’s way of playing as “very mysterious”, adding, “I guess it’s because he learned to play drums by himself. He didn’t take lessons, so he created another way to play.” 

Remarking on Allen’s playing, Koleoso said, “None of us [drummers] can make a beat sit down and groove like he did. It’s so weird, because it’s not even that hard. You’ll look at the notes, what he’s doing, and you’re like, right, I can play everything in the right place. But when he does it, it just sounds better. Like when a really great narrator reads a sentence, it just has an authority to it that you couldn’t give, even if you can read the same sentence. He had a special gift.” 

When the Shona are grasping for reasons to explain a special gift or an extraordinary ability like the one Allen, Garabha and my cousin had, sometimes they ascribe it to spirit possession or to a great ancestor. 

Now Allen has entered the netherworld of the ancestors after a decades-long career in which he set out and defined, together with Kuti, the sonic parameters of what came to be known as Afrobeat and also gave us classics such as Roforofo Fight, Shakara, Sorrow, Blood and Tears; and in which, as bandleader, he set down his own classics like Lagos No Shaking, Secret Agent, Film of Life and many other albums; and in which he explored jazz, as in the albums Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and the recently issued Rejoice, his collaboration with another ancestor, the trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

This article was first published on New Frame