The Drum Heard ‘Round the World: How Rhythm, Song, and Dance Helped Form an African-American Identity

In Central and West Africa, drums served as the rhythmic foundation for emotional expression of all kinds. West African djembe and dundun drums varied depending on geographical area, but the drum and its cultural significance was a unifying factor between the many cultures, ethnic groups, and languages present in the area. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, many of these traditions were brought to the New World as a way to communicate under the noses of European slave traders. Drums, in particular, served to bridge the gap between otherwise unrelated groups of African slaves as a familiar method of expressing shared emotions and sensibilities.

Traditional West and Central African celebrations often called for drums as a foundation for participants to connect with each other through different aspects of life. In a ring shout formation, people would sing, holler, dance, and add their own interlocking rhythms to form a complex, collaborative exaltation. Drums were used for many purposes; they were used to signify incoming danger, express collective emotions, and connect spiritually with community members and with the Divine. Because many slaves were intentionally held together with a mix of unfamiliar ethnic groups to intentionally hinder communication, drums and music became a common lingua franca. In this way, a whole new form of togetherness could be achieved without the slave owners’ knowledge.

Many of these African traditions translated into uniquely African-American forms of music as communication over the course of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The movement of enslaved peoples across the sea also brought about the movement of African cultural rhythms, as seen in the video below showcasing a Geechee Gullah ring shout performance from Georgia. Familiar African musical practices allowed for the development of field hollers, call-and-response songs, work songs, and spirituals, which were an outgrowth of cries, moans, and hollers (Cox 2020). These eventually branched out into blues, rock, jazz, and hip hop. While these genres differ from each other in many ways, they are all part of a holistic African-American culture, uniquely created from a shared experience in the New World and a shared origin in African musical traditions. This new African-American take on music would likely not have been possible without the already established tradition of the drum, song, and dance.

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