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Summerside library gets into rhythm with Mauritian drums of defiance

Stephanie Sheppard brought her 15-month-old daughter, Lucy, to celebrate the important role drums played in the preservation of African rhythmic heritage at Summerside Rotary Library last weekend.
Stephanie Sheppard brought her 15-month-old daughter, Lucy, to celebrate the important role drums played in the preservation of African rhythmic heritage at Summerside Rotary Library last weekend. - Desiree Anstey

SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. - Sounds of hands slapping goatskin drums echoed out at Summerside Rotary Library, repeating a beat that transcends the boundaries of race and time, originating from the fingertips of slaves in Mauritius.

Meeley Jeebun, a Charlottetown resident formerly from Mauritius, tapped a melody on the djembe for participants in the drumming circle to follow at an event marking Black History Month.

“Drumming has been passed down in our culture from generation to generation,” said Jeebun, of the Maritime Centre for African Dance. “The British, Dutch and French once ruled our country, and they each brought slaves from Africa.

“Music became an outlet for the slaves to sing away their sorrows, dance around a bonfire on the beach under the stars, and craft their culture. It was an escape from their oppression and a way of communication,” she said.

From powerful and painful, to uplifting and melancholy, music became a communal activity in which everyone participated – good or bad.

Slaves could stay in contact and rebellions could be planned through the beat of the drum.

Restraints were quickly made once their masters realized that drums could wield stories and code. But despite the control, African rhythmic traditions survived.

“Back home we still play the drums for special occasions such as weddings, funerals and prayers. And the beat can be very loud and festive to slow and quiet. It depends on the occasion.”

Jeebun said, “We learn to play the instrument by listening and watching our elders. First you look at how you hold the drum and which part of your hands to use for the three different sounds, so the palm of your hand, fingertips and rim of the drum.”

The boom-bap sounds echo the important role in the preservation of African rhythmic heritage.

Black History Month will be holding another event today, Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. at Upstreet Craft Brewing. Black Christmas will include performances by Scott Parsons and Zach Seals, and trivia with Kendi Tarichia.

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