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Here come the drums: Occupy Wall Street's soundtrack of choice is pure protest tradition

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That same drummer at Occupy Wall Street getting kicked by NYPD officers. Photo by Giles Clarke
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A drummer marching in Occupy Wall Street the day of the infamous pepper spraying Photo by Peter Harris
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Performance by Danza Azteca Teokalli de Houston Photo by Chris Becker
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A friend of mine in New York City who lives relatively close to where the Occupy Wall Street protest is taking place tells me that in the camp there is “lots of drumming, but no other music."

Regarding the constant and, from what I’ve heard online, not-too-shabby drumming, one of the protestors, a musician named Gio Andollo, said, 'For some reason, that’s been what has been getting a lot of media attention [...] I think it’s because it’s an easy way for them to discredit what we are doing."

Andollo was referring to a recent Daily Show segment that compared the protest to Tennessee's Bonnaroo music festival. "But if it wasn’t drumming, it would be something else. They’d still be calling us hippies and trying to discredit us in any way that they can."

The drum and its drummer is an iconic image loaded with meaning. In Western culture, we love the drum. But we also fear it. Throughout our country’s history, drumming has been banned over and over again in an effort to control enslaved and oppressed people as well as smart alecky and relatively privileged students from schools like Columbia University (an institution with a long history of student protests).

The Burru drummers of Jamaica, the panmen of Trinidad and musicians who dared to play ‘drums of African origin’ in 1900 Havana were all treated by the then-governing powers as criminals. Describing New Orleans circa 1700, author and musician Ned Sublette writes in his book The World That Made New Orleans, "There is no question that Africans gathered to drum and dance, in assemblies that were feared by whites, who were always wary of an uprising.”

Slapping or striking the stretched skin of a drum can indeed produce an experience that goes beyond groovy rhythm with a sweet tone. Drumming, no matter how our current media wants to spin it utilizing stereotypes and terms like hippies and hipsters, inspires spiritual awakening and revolt. Consider for a moment that the site of the Occupy Wall Street protest is where an estimated 15,000 enslaved and free Africans were buried during the 17th and 18th centuries. For the moment, as my friend reported, we only hear the drumming. Did this drumming awaken these ancestral spirits? Or did they, before the drumming began, somehow compel these protestors to camp out in a park located in New York City’s financial district?

Here are three examples of the drum and its role in societal and political upheaval:

Drums of War

This past week I asked some friends who play drums to offer me their thoughts about their instrument and its role in the culture of protest. Everyone pointed out that the drum has always been used in times of battle and war. The volume of the instrument, on its own or multiplied in an ensemble, is terrifyingly effective in communicating by way of rhythms and their tempos information, directions and commands.

The now-defunct ensemble Different Drums of Ireland considered the history of their country’s percussion instruments, especially the lambeg, a huge bass drum associated with Protestantism, and the bodhran, a handheld frame drum identified with Catholicism, and combined them in performance. The resulting music, besides being incredibly fun to listen to, is a statement of purpose, a key to enlightenment. It’s a simple idea, combining drums from different tribes and cultures, and one you can really run with when considering any combination of instruments and the history those instruments carry with them.

Different Drums of Ireland in performance:

Drums of Pleasure

Hearing fife and drum music of the Mississippi hills for the first time can be a shock, especially if you have no context for the music’s militaristic texture. This is music born out of the fife-and-drum corps that marched into the battles of the eighteenth century (think the famous spirit of 76’ image of three marching musicians) but harkening back much, much further in time to pre-Christian celebrations of the body, pleasure and the earth. Dangerous stuff. This music today sounds both ancient and funky, and it is played out of doors as a celebration.

Here’s a brief staged performance for film by two drummers and a fife player:

Drums of Protest

“Here come the drums!” That’s the shout you hear from Public Enemy’s Chuck D after a brief montage of documentary-like voices, including one artificial pitch shifted down to an ominous drawl, speaking of slave ships and the horrors of the middle passage. From there, Chuck D and hype man Flavor Flav, who adds layers of deep comedy to the proceedings, deliver “Can’t Truss It,” one of the most intense raps ever put to tape, with lyrics that take the listener back and forth through time and encapsulate the experience and legacy of the slave trade.

The literal “drums” Chuck D speaks of (I say “literal” because every line in this rap is loaded with poetic subtext) come from the groundbreaking production crew The Bomb Squad and the turntable technique of Public Enemy’s DJ, Terminator X. The precursors to the track's production date back to mid 1970s, when New York City artists DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaata (to name just a few) took the mechanics of Jamaican sound system and, with two separate turntables and a mixer, created a entirely new way to drum. Regarding those early days of what we now know as hip-hop, Sublette writes, “Turntable manipulation was a new art form, while rapping was old as the hills.”

Here is an incredible live performance of “Rebel Without A Pause” that features Terminator X turntables throughout:

No doubt drumming will continue to be heard at the barricades, night and day, as the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to gain momentum.

Special thanks to Ned Sublette, Robert Hardin, Gregg Pinera, and Spike the Percussionist for their input.

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