Included in the first section of Yusef Komunyakaa’s 1998 collection, Thieves of Paradise, “Ode to a Drum” describes an African drum maker talking to the gazelle he has killed, while nailing the gazelle’s hide to wood, and the music that results from the drum he creates. The poem was also included in the album Love Notes from the Mad House, Komunyakaa’s musical collaboration with saxophonist John Tchicai.
“Ode to a Drum” represents many of the themes and subjects Komunyakaa has been known to address in his poetry, particularly the importance of music among African Americans and in African American history. With its short lines, jazz-influenced rhythms, and conversational diction, the poem is also written in a style representative of many of the poems in Komunyakaa’s extensive oeuvre. Having grown up in the Deep South listening to blues and jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong and Ma Rainey and having been greatly influenced by such jazz legends as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, Komunyakaa fuses the rhythms of blues and jazz into many of his poems. Since he grew up in the segregated Deep South, Komunyakaa’s poetry often addresses African American issues and historical subjects.
While “Ode to a Drum” is, on a literal level, about a drum maker talking to the gazelle he killed in order to make his drum, it is also a poem about the power of music in the African and African American traditions. The drum maker has killed the gazelle to create the drum, but once the drum has been finished, it can burst into song, giving the gazelle the power to rise up once again, this time not as the hunted but as the hunter.