“Piano and Drums” by Gabriel Okara
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“Piano and Drums” is a poem that accurately explores the trying conflict of merging a traditional culture with a new, modern civilisation. The author Gabriel Okara, who also doubles as the narrator in the poem, responds to the drums as his tribal heritage and the simplicity of youth, while he sees the piano as the foreign customs irrelevant to the black society, with the complexity of experience.
Throughout “Piano and Drums”, Okara’s choice of diction is used to show his response to the two kinds of music. Firstly he seems to link the drums with the time-honoured tradition of the African past life. In the first stanza, Okara responds to the drums as if they were in battle, perhaps against the unfamiliar settlers; the “jungle drums telegraphing” indicates an old way of communication, as telegraphing literally means to transmit messages, and “jungle” connotes primitive yet majestic, and something that the narrator is not afraid of. The fact that the drums are “telegraphing” shows that Okara understands them and is comfortable with their way of communication, which contrasts to the “wailing piano” and “tear-furrowed concerto”.
A piano is seldom described as “wailing” and a classical piece of music is not usually “tear-furrowed” which suggests that the narrator does not appreciate the complexity of the piano as he is unaccustomed to it. This links to the narrator’s response of the piano articulating the new European ways of living and the drums expressing his home land. This image of the drums is furthered by “panther ready to pounce”, and “leopard snarling about to leap” which is energetic and youthful diction. Both the panther and leopard symbolise the part of the untouched Africa but the “pounce” and “snarling” signify that the their world has been changed, and the relationship between nature and people has been unbalanced by the arrival of a new society. Okara’s use of “leap” seems relevant to the fact that the traditional culture is ‘leaping’ into a new way of life without their knowing.
In addition, these images contrast with “the hunters crouch with spears poised”, showing that the “hunters” and “spears” are alien to this jungle/life. “Poised” implies that the hunters are assured and composed and that they understand what they are about to do. The fact that they are ready to attack if need be, shows the narrator’s response to the ‘invaders’ as he does not comprehend their ideas and must wrestle with the thought that he must share his beloved home land with a new way of life. Okara’s use of diction in Piano and Drums highlights his reaction to the two kinds of music as a contrast between two cultures.
Furthermore, Okara uses a range of language techniques to convey his reaction to the piano and drums. To begin with, the drum’s rhythm is described by a simile, “raw like bleeding flesh” to once again give the impression of a youthful and basic race. “Raw” suggests that the sound of the drums is powerfully imposing without anything added to it, while “like bleeding flesh” is important as it shows humanity is still living and beautiful even if it is bleeding. This shows the narrator again views the drums as his country and beliefs. Moreover, Okara uses a flashback which seems to have an effect of once more showing his reaction to the drums, as he recalls the younger days of the Africans and their lives which were enhanced by the beauty of their country.
In the flashback the raconteur is “walking simple paths with no innovations”, again illustrating the image of a clear-cut past without the worries of sharing your country with so-called foreigners and a straightforward life consisting of only the basic human needs. “Walking” relates to the journey the narrator is travelling through which seems to link to the repetition of “riverside” in the first and last stanzas of Piano and Drums. This has an effect of uniting the stanzas to maybe show that there is hope in the uniting of the two nations. During the flashback, Okara uses personification in “wild flowers pulsing” to hint at the fact that he believes the jungle and his older way of life is very much alive to him.
“Wild” connotes freedom and existence which again links to the idea of the drums recalling his previous days as a child. Okara also uses neologism when he created the word “daggerpoint” when he describes the piano as ending in the middle of a phrase. This again points to the narrator’s analysis of the piano as complex and representing the perhaps extraneous nation. The author’s use of language techniques during Piano and Drums particularly shows the narrator’s response to the two kinds of music to distinguish between the first culture and the new, modern society.
Lastly, arrays of sound techniques are used by Okara to articulate his reply to the piano and drums. The enjambments throughout the poem give it a very fast tempo to possibly show that the changes in culture happen so fast. This links to a large usage of commas which have a drum-like effect on the rhythm of the poem, “blood ripples, turns torrent, topples…” to show that the rhythm lives inside the narrator. The alliteration of the ‘t’ also has a harsh effect to again emphasise the beat of the drums. This differs from the piano as the sibilance of “solo speaking” almost sounds evil and out of place compared to the drums. The fact that the solo is “speaking” compares to the “drums telegraphing” again showing the different effect the two kinds of music have on the narrator- one as his own, older way of communicating and the other the new, modern way that he doesn’t seem to truly understand.
This idea of the piano is furthered with Okara’s use of complex internal rhyme in “coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint, crescendo”, which are all complex musical ideas to continue his view of not fully comprehending the piano and outside race. Finally, the use of alliteration in “lost in the morning mist” makes one again consider the idea of a battle between two cultures as “morning mist” gives the impression of the early morning battle scene. It also indicates uncertainty and the audience are made to understand that the narrator will continue to move between the two cultures, whether he understands them or not. The use of sound techniques in Piano and Drums highlights the narrator’s view of the two kinds of music as again two separate identities.
To conclude, Piano and Drums is effectively used by the author Gabriel Okara as a way of expressing the difficulties presented to him and his people as they go through a change in their society by the arrival of others. He makes the audience contemplate a view on society through another man’s eyes with startling results, which causes them to appreciate the difficulties in such a drastic change in a way of life.