Perfect Sound Forever

instrument exhibition
see notes below for instrument descriptions


A dig through history by Jason Gross (March 1997)

Enduring Rhythms was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from October 1996 to March 1997 by Ken Moore, Associate Curator and Administrator of the Department of Musical Instruments, who provided the pictures and notes about the exhibition for these articles.

Normally I would have to be dragged into a museum against my will after being forced to go so many times when I was a kid. But... when I heard that an exhibition was going on about African instruments and how they evolved in the States, I knew I had to see this. Although the tour and area it was set up was kind of small, the story behind all of it was enormous. Imagine hundreds of years of history with all the oppression and courage symbolized in 'simple' musical instruments.

God, what a learning experience. The construction of instruments was anything but primitive- beautiful and expressive sounding. Images were carved into many of the instruments with intricate detail/craft, unlike the uniform quality of factory made models which were also on display along side them. Although the newly manufactured commerically made instruments were obviously more durable, there was a certain charm and authenticity to the older instruments on display. For instance, the sound you heard of tradition bata drums that you heard on the accompanying audio guide was a lot more expressive (and beautiful looking) than the factory made bata models. Ditto for the djembe and other instruments on display.

The instruments were also fascinating for their contexts and uses. Take the slit drums- they could produce coded messages, carried for over 15 miles. Try that with an electric guitar. Geroge Clinton called his drummers in Parliament 'african telephone operatators'- you think he was kidding? You knew your mom had to love you if she accompanied her storytelling with a lamellophone (thumb piano). If you really wanted to be a fashion plate, you could always wear a Igkeghun (crotal bell) as an ornament and make some music while you're at it. If that's not exciting enough how about using your pots (bonga) as percussion instruments?

Another remarkable thing that you're bound to notice when studying these instruments is how all of the African music would influence Western music that we hear everywhere today. A Martinique gourd banjo from Sub-Sahara Africa is where we got the country music banjo. Xylophones were brought over to Guatamala but originated from Africa. The agogo bells that you hear in a lot of jazz and Latin music originally came from Togo. The 21-string kora from West Africa is much more intricate than a violin in range. And on it goes.

Looking at all of these instruments, you're amazed not only at their power, their meaning, their whole history and the way they represent the aspirations and courage of a whole continent but their lasting power and influence on the culture of today. How could anyone have possibly imagined jazz, blues, rock or rap (when you think of chanting over drums, you could be talking about early RUN-DMC just as easily as an African mass) without any of this coming before it and still informing people today? It would be impossible. Luckily, all of this did come about and it survives today as a reminder of where we've been and where we're likely to go.

Instrument descriptions from picture above:

bottom: Nekpokpo: Zaire, Barambo peoples, 19th-20th century. Four tones, combined to imitate spoken phrases, are produced by striking the sides and ends of this instrument, carved in the form of a bush cow. Players using cylindrical wooden beaters occasionally 'ride' the cow when it is used to accompany dance.

Top right: Slit Drum, Zaire, Mangbetu peoples, 19th-20th century. This elegant tulip-shaped slit drum is suspended at an angle from the player's shoulder. This rare decorative model, called ukele by the Lombo people of Zaire, is trimmed with brass tracks.

Top left: Ndungu, Central Africa, Lombo or Vili peoples, 19th century. Long drums like this one are used in southern Gabon, the Republic of Congo, and Zaire to accompany ritual and dance. Played with hands or sticks, a drum may be held above the head by carriers with the drummer in front, or in the back during processions, or slanted to the ground and straddled between the player's legs.

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Also see: an interview with the curator of Enduring Rhythms, Ken Moore and his descriptive notes about the exhibit.