Ode to a Drum Themes
Although drum making exists as a craft and as an art form around the world, references to the gazelle clearly place this poem on the African continent. This is important to Komunyakaa’s sense of his own identity as an African American. A subtext of the poem is that of political and cultural rebirth, or reincarnation. Just as the gazelle was defeated in the hunt, Africans were defeated at the hands of white colonialists. But like the gazelle who was given new life as a panther through the music of the drum, Africans will also rise up strong again with the help of their music and culture.
No direct mention of slavery is made in the poem, but through the evolution of the gazelle from existing as a preyed-upon and hunted animal to a mighty and feared panther, along with references to the “trouble” that exists on the river (the primary way slave traders traveled inland to procure their slaves), Komunyakaa has placed the existence of slavery in the background to the poem.
Cycle of Life
Through the drum maker’s gifts, the gazelle has been given a new life. The drum maker also makes reference to his reverence for animal life by telling the gazelle that it was not “anger” that made him kill, but rather it was a need to feed his child whose prayers for meat did not go unheard. In this way, the drum maker recognized the cycle of life that he and his family, along with the animal world, were a part of.
Traditional African cultures relied on rituals in their everyday life. The art of crafting a drum, and drumming itself, was a part of rituals that were necessary to keep villages safe.
Man versus Nature
In traditional African villages, men relied on their ability to hunt in order to survive. Without strong and successful hunters, a village could not survive. However, although the hunter found success in a kill, the poem clearly shows the reverence Africans have for the animal kingdom. The drum maker in “Ode to a Drum” has the highest respect for the gazelle, and part of the reason for his craft is to make the gazelle “whole” again through the making of a drum from the animal’s hide.
African American Identity
Like Africans before them who were colonized by white Europeans, African Americans suffered their own forms of colonialism through slavery and segregation. After segregation was ruled illegal in the 1960s, the legacy of that history remained, and Komunyakaa addresses that legacy in many of his poems. In “Ode to a Drum,” just as the gazelle evolves from a defeated animal to a proud and mighty panther, African Americans, through the strength of their culture, can do the same.
Faith and Spirituality
The drum maker is not simply a craftsman; he is an integral part of his people’s belief system. There is great power given to the drum—the power to drive evil spirits away and the power to unite people through song. The drum is an essential component of that belief system, which Komunyakaa brings out through the drum maker’s talk with the spirit of the gazelle.