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.
Komunyakaa, the author of “Ode to a Drum,” is an African American poet, born to working-class parents in rural Louisiana. A profoundly intellectual man who spent time in Vietnam as a correspondent, Komunyakaa addresses a wide range of social, political, cultural, mythical, and intellectual issues and themes in his poems. His poems are often written in conversational tones and often use jazz-inspired rhythms and diction in some significant ways reminiscent of the poems of Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka, among many others.
“Ode to a Drum” takes on themes of African music and traditions that are familiar to readers of Komunyakaa’s poetry, and, like much of his work, the poem can be read on several levels. On a literal level, the poem is an account, through the eyes of an African drum maker, of the making of a drum: the killing of a gazelle, the stretching of its hide, the nailing of the hide to the carved wood, and the resulting music from the drum. On another level, “Ode to a Drum” is about the importance of music, particularly the drum, in traditional African societies: The drum maker refers to trouble in his home that the drum will help to drive away. But because of Komunyakaa’s own background, one can also read into the poem the powerful influence that music has among African Americans. The gazelle, an animal of prey, is dead at the beginning of the poem, but by the poem’s conclusion, through the transformational powers of the drum maker, it has taken on the form of a panther, one of the most feared predators on the African continent. Likewise, African Americans long held down through years of racism and oppression can metaphorically rise up, not as the “hunted” but as proud “hunters,” like panthers. Although no direct correlation is implied in the poem with the 1960s and 1970s political and cultural black power group, the Black Panthers, one only needs a basic understanding of African Americans’ history of political struggles to understand how this image can resonate among American blacks.
Odes have a long and storied tradition in poetry. From the Greek meaning “song,” the form’s earliest known examples were written by Sappho around 600 B.C. Among the most famous odes are those of John Keats, the British poet whose “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” are among the English language’s finest examples. While Komunyakaa’s “Ode to a Drum” does not share the elaborate stanzaic structures or technical formality that odes have been known for, it does share the ode’s proclivity for addressing important sentiments and ideas. And like “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” this poem takes a physical object—in this case, a drum—as the basis for examining those important issues. By offering an ode to a drum, Komunyakaa is extolling the historical, spiritual, and cultural significance for Africans and African Americans of this simple but powerful instrument.
Though “Ode to a Drum” has strong lyrical tendencies, as do most of Komunyakaa’s poems, the prevalent mode here is narrative. The poem tells a story, from the second-person point of view, of the making of a drum. The first lines of the poem— “Gazelle, I killed you / for your skin’s exquisite / touch”—are straightforward and set the stage for the narration. The voice is that of an African drum maker, talking to the spirit of the gazelle as he begins to build his drum. The process of the drum making involves the killing of the animal for its hide, the scraping of the hide, and the stretching of the hide on a flat board, as mentioned in line 4.
Standing above the results of his latest hunt (“the meat here at my feet”), the narrator, in a near apologetic tone, explains to the spirit of the gazelle the reasons for his latest kill—the hungry prayers of his child. It is not anger but necessity that compels the drum maker to hunt. These lines provide a clear picture of the respect the narrator has for the animal kingdom. He goes on to compare the killing of the gazelle several weeks earlier to a sexual act, and at the same time he reminds the gazelle of the purpose of his death: “I broke you as a woman / once shattered me into a song / beneath her weight.” Just as the man was “shattered . . . into a song,” he “broke” the gazelle into a “grassy hush” that will soon, through the drum, also turn into song. Although African music predated and provided the ultimate influence for American blues, Komunyakaa, with the inclusion of the image of a sexual relation with a woman, juxtaposed with verbs like “broke” and “shattered,” has instilled a touch of the blues into the poem.
On a literal level, these lines continue the narrator’s description of his drum making: the tightening of the lashes, the shaping of the hide, and the tacking of the brass nails that help hold the hide in place. However, these lines also underscore the profound belief that the drum maker has in the metaphysical aspects of the drum. Images of body parts are used in the drum’s descriptions: a ribcage, the “body’s drum,” and the carved ebony face of the drum. As the drum begins to take its final form, the drum maker sees the gazelle becoming “whole again.” In fact, by the act of shaping the hide around the drum’s body and securing it, the drum maker ensures that no “ghosts” can “slip back” in. The gazelle, though no longer in the form of an animal, has begun to take the form of the drum. One more thing to note in these lines is the imagery of the predator that makes its first appearance in the poem. The drum maker compares the lashes he is tightening to “bowstrings.” Up to this point, the gazelle has been the prey; from this point forward in the poem, it will gradually become the predator.
In the poem’s final ten lines, the motivation of the drum maker makes itself known. There is “trouble” in the area, and he must drive it away. As in American blues, the trouble includes poverty: “no kola nut, / palm wine, fish, salt, / or calabash”— all staples to the drum maker and his community. But now, with the help of the drum, he can drive those troubles away, and through the act of killing the gazelle and the making of the drum, he has turned the hunted gazelle into a panther, one of the most feared predators on the continent.