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The Talking Drums

The Talking Drums

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Bretos introduced me to some other drums: tall atumpans and wide-bellied, pedestaled fotomfrons from Ghana, the cone-shaped turu from Nigeria and the Jamaican signal drum. Another display featured a painted serpentine guiro from Suriname whose scored side delivers a washboard sound, an iron music-maker that must have been a hoe at one time, and a jackass's jawbone. This last-mentioned, which is painted red and green with teeth intact, makes an "incredible" sound, the curator told me.

There is a balafon, shaped like a chaise longue or an Arctic dogsled; it's made from hefty lengths of wood with rows of large gourds underneath to amplify the sound. There is even a large thumb piano the size of a suitcase — with handles, too.

"The idea is," Bretos said, "that the music goes on. Here at the end of the exhibit we have the modern drums. Some are from Howard's collection, some were gifts. We're beginning to do some recitals and poetry readings here. The glass walls are here for better security, but there are also drums you can actually play as you go along." A clutch of contemporary drums mirrors their traditional counterparts across the aisle. The fiberglass and plastic instruments are more tunable and durable than the handmade ones, but "the sounds are very similar," said Marvette Pérez, a curator at the National Museum of American History who worked on the show. The traditional drums "have been reproduced and are played in many different kinds of music — Latin, rock and roll, even jazz. It's part of the transculturation."

Bretos pointed to a set of modern congas bearing the name Poncho Sanchez in black script. "He played these and signed them when he was at the Smithsonian last month," Bretos said.

"He's Mexican-American, but he plays Afro-Caribbean music. That's a crossover right there."

He spoke with pride and delight, adding, "This is our first exhibit. We need some kind of place where these things can happen."

It looks like he's found it.

By Michael Kernan


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