"Piano and drums" by Gabriel Imomotime Okara: A Raditical Analysis
—Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy
Meet Gabriel Imomotime Okara
Gabriel Okara was born in 1921 in Nembe in the Rivers State of Nigeria. After his secondary education at Government College, Umuahia, he became a book-binder. From then on he developed a remarkable personality through personal tuition, reflection and a deep interest in literature and in the language and culture of his people.
Okara is one of the most significant and serious early Nigerian poets. He started writing poetry in the early fifties and still writes. Some of his war poems are among the best of this class of Nigerian poetry. Okara is interested in music and this shows not only in the lyrical grace of his poetry, but also in some of his imagery. The motifs of childhood, innocence and nostalgia also run through many of his poems. He is often concerned about the identity of his people, and throughout his poetry there is evidence of the influence of their traditional folk literature. Indeed, some of his earliest writings were translations of this oral literature, and the subdued tone and rhythm of his poetry are as much a reflection of this inheritance as they are of the poet's withdrawn nature. His first published collection of poetry was The Fisherman’s Invocation.
After the Civil War, Okara served in several important capacities in the Rivers State of Nigeria. He was the first General Manager of the State Newspaper Corporation (publishers of the Tide) which he helped to establish, then Commissioner for Information, which provided him with more insight into human nature. These experiences form the material for his second series of poems Fantasy. He was particularly perturbed by his unjustified and ignominious removal as Commissioner. He later became the first writer-in-residence at the Rivers State Council for Arts and Culture. He has retired from the public service and now spends his time writing children's books for use in schools, and writing poetry. Okara died on March 25, 2019. (Culled from K. E. Senanu and T. Vincent 103.)
Piano and drums
When at break of day at a riverside
I hear jungle drums telegraphing
the mystic rhythm, urgent, raw
like bleeding flesh, speaking of
primal youth and the beginning,
I see the panther ready to pounce,
the leopard snarling about to leap
and the hunters crouch with spears poised;
And my blood ripples, turns torrent,
topples the years and at once I'm
in my mother's laps a suckling;
at once I'm walking simple
paths with no innovations,
rugged, fashioned with naked
warmth of hurrying feet and groping hearts
in green leaves and wild flowers pulsing
Then I hear a wailing piano
solo speaking of complex ways
in tear-furrowed concerto
of far away lands
and new horizons with
coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint,
cresendo. But lost in the labyrinth
of its complexities, it ends in the middle
of a phrase at a daggerpoint.
And I lost in the morning mist
of an age at a riverside keep
wandering in the mystic rhythm
of jungle drums and the concerto.
ANALYSIS OF THE POEM
Well, one has heard too much of the theme of culture conflict in African literature. It began with the Ogbuefi of African Literature, Chief Chinua Achebe; who wrote for us wonderful classics such as Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease. Then writers such as Mungo Beti, Ama Ata Aidoo and Ferdinand Oyono picked up this theme and delibrated on it also. In the above poem, we catch Okara dwelling on the theme of culture conflict too. Culture conflict can be defined as a situation where one finds himself or herself in a confused cultural state as a result of being a product of two or more distinct cultures; which may exist in one environment. In Africa for instance, you see our elite eating their eba and egusi soup with spoons, what happened to their hands? You will meet ardent Christians who can not be shredded from the African cultural beliefs or consultation of oracles and ancestors when necessary. Or have you ever wondered why your parents are quick to assume that it must be the enemies/witches/evil spirit disturbing your peace even before seeking medical assistance whenever you become seriously ill? The inability to operate within a single cultural habitat is what allows for the existence of culture conflict. Most Africans; as a result of colonialism; are victims of culture conflict, the Nigerian man for instance can not define to which extent he is African or an English man. Same applies for the Senegalese, Togolese, Beninese and Ivorian who are part French and part African. Is this not why Sly Cheney Coker and Ngugi wa Thiong'O would want Africans labelled "Afro-Saxons" or "Afro-French" hahahahaha! Those writers and their funny ways!
The poem is; perhaps; also an outcry against colonialism which facilitated the transplantation of European cultures into the African milieu in a bid to make us all "civilised". Anyway, enough of the long talk already, let us dig into the poem itself and see if we can create a trench whence we can hurl stones at colonialism
In the poem 'Piano and drums' by Gabriel Imomotime Okara, the poem persona is at a river bank ('riverside') and (s)he hears the beat of drums which was later followed by the sound from a piano only to find himself or herself enmeshed in the mixture of both musical instruments and not being able to make a definite choice of which he wants to hear. Gabriel Okara is a very clever man and this is why he would not go straight to tell us that majority of us; Africans; are products of two different cultures. Rather, he says so using SYMBOLS of "drums" (representing the African cultural environment) and "guitar" (to represent the Western culture). The persona in the poem reflects our confused personality as educated Africans. Okara is quite fascinated with music, this fascination is reflected in his choice of musical instruments for symbolic purposes. We would also see the musical ordering of his poem when we inspect the poem's structure.
In the first stanza of the poem, the poem persona (I) finds himself or herself at a riverside and (s)he hears the beat of "jungle drums". Now the mention of the word jungle should make us realise that (s)he is not just talking of any kind of drum here. (s)he speaks of the traditional African drums used in the olden days for transmitting messages to distant places. I think Achebe mentioned such a drum and called it 'The Ilo' in his novel, Arrow of God'. This drum is usually beaten during rituals, war, to announce the death of a king or chief and other important members of the community, and it is also used to call the members of a community together and to pass secret messages to them. So when they say the African drum speaks, you should know why this is so. The jungle drums beat that the poem persona hears is for ritualistic purposes, this explains why he labels it 'mystic rhythm', the use of the word 'telegraphing' compares the jungle drums to the telegraphs which is a means of sending long distance messages as the jungle drums does in ancient Africa. The poem persona hears the beat of such a drum at an early part of the morning and it revs up the African way of life in a rush of several images: 'I see the panther ready to pounce/the leopard snarling about to leap/and the hunters crouch with spears poised;' here is a picture of the African way of life; our forebears were hunters who hunted in packs–no one hunted alone, most especially where games as panthers and leopards were involved. There was a sense of communalistic living (togetherness) in the African society.
In the second stanza, the drums beat makes the poem persona's blood ripple and drives him back memory lane to his childhood from the moment when he was a little baby in his or her mother's laps (And my blood ripples, turns torrent,/topples the years and at once I'm/in my mother's laps a suckling;), this period symbolises a period of innocence when Africa was unaware the whiteman's culture or what colonialism was. Then (s)he sees another image of himself or herself walking:
paths with no innovations,
rugged, fashioned with the naked
warmth of hurrying feet and groping hearts
in green leaves and wild flowers pulsing.
The poem persona using the image of path here implies that the African way of life in his childhood days (before Western intrusion) was simple with no innovations (in this sense meaning a stability of cultural values). This image also shows that man was at one with nature as the roads he walks through are not that of tar or made by heavy tractors but the path was made naturally by the 'warmth of hurrying feet and groping hearts/in green leaves and wild flowers pulsing.'
There is an unexpected change in the third stanza as the sound of a piano is suddenly introduced to the poem persona's milieu, the poem persona suddenly hears the sound of 'a wailing piano'. One can assume that the sound coming from the piano is not palatable to the ears since the poem persona labels it wailing. Again the piano is a single one (solo) contrasting vividly with the jungle drums (depicting the fact that the poet wishes to foreground the communalism of the African cultural existence as against the isolation inherent in the Western culture. The piano speaks of complex ways which contrasts with the simple paths in the second stanza. This would imply that while the African way of life is simple and comprehensible to the poem persona, the western way of life is steeped in incomprehensibility.
in tear furrowed concerto
of far away lands
and new horizon with
The above lines further emphasise the complexity of the Western ways to the African and the fact that the piano speaks a foreign language ('of far away lands/and new horizons…) different from that of jungle drums which the African is acquainted with. The sounds of the piano is jagged to the poem persona for (s)he says it comes with 'coaxing diminuendo' and a 'counterpoint crescendo' all of which ends a dangerous point (daggerpoint).
In the last stanza, the poem persona laments his confusion for (s)he keeps 'wandering in the mystic rhythm/of jungle drums and the concerto'. Well, one can't help but pity the poem persona sha, he is in a confused state; he hears two musical instruments speaking, he understands one and flows with it revving up images of ancient Africa and his childhood while the other speaks an incomprehensible language from foreign lands to him. He could not resolve the conflict of choice of which musical equipment he wants to hear and he ends up hearing the two together leaving the conflict unresolved! Haba may God help him to choose quickly because we hear can not wait till when he would make a choice o! Funny enough, the poem persona is a reflection of you who is reading now. Yes you, I mean you. Yes, have you not ever found yourself wearing agbada atop a jean trouser? Have you not been using medicinal herbs cooked in clay pots to supplement your dosage of drugs when you take ill? Have you not been eating your eba with spoons? Have you not been toning your skin with cosmetics to look like an European? How about wigs and hair attachments (hahahaha I just remembered my sister)? So you see, in one way or the other, you are also a victim of this cultural confusion or conflict.
Well, that is enough, let us now discuss the formal aspects of the poem.
— Cultural conflict
A riverside very close to a forest or jungle.
On the issue of form in this poem, there is a lot to be said, well…maybe not that much but there is a lot. First, there is the issue I have with the title, I am not comfortable with "Piano and drums," I like "Drums and piano" better. Why, since the poem persona despises the piano or let us say since it is incomprehensible to him, he should place drums first in the title. More so he began the poems with drums, the piano only came on later.
The poem is built on a four stanza format with each stanza having unequal lines. The first stanza has eight lines, the second also has eight lines, the third has nine lines and the fourth has just four lines. The first and second stanza discuss the jungle drums and it influences on the poet, the third introduces the piano sound into the poem's atmosphere and the last shows the poem persona in a state of indecision leaving the conflict unresolved.
There is no much rhyme except for few places like lines 2 and 5 (telegraphing and beginning), lines 11 and 16 (suckling and pulsing), lines 17 and 19, lines 21 and 24, and lines 22 and 25. Even though there is the obvious absence of much rhyme in the poem, it betrays a peculiar rhythm which adds to its musical effect as we shall later see when we discuss figures of speech related to sounds. Nonetheless, one can not help noticing the preponderance of words that indicate the progressive tense e.g. Bleeding, telegraphing, speaking, walking, hurrying etc. These words provide the poem with a rhythm and adds to the immediacy of the events in it. The description of the sound of the drums and the piano in the first and third stanza respectively are punctuated with commas so as to echo the sounds of both musical instruments: 'the mystic rhythm, urgent, raw/like bleeding flesh, speaking of…' and 'coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint,/crescendo…'
The images in the poem are majorly those of music and almost all are concrete as opposed to abstract. Hence we can say the poet uses concrete images to discuss an abstract issue (culture conflict). Words like jungle drums, leopard, panther, hunters, blood, paths, piano are examples of the concrete images. Words like diminuendo, crescendo are also concrete images that appeals to the sense of hearing.
The poem employs the first person narrative point of view (I), and it uses symbolism to buttress its point; the jungle drum is a symbol of the African culture while the piano symbolises the western culture.
FIGURES OF SPEECH
Figures of speech as used in the poem are used to build images that occur in the poem and they add to the structural and musical beauty of the poem. We shall begin with those that embellish the structural pattern of the poem then move down to the ones that add to its musical quality.
When at BREAK of day-L1
jungle drums TELEGRAPHING-L2
blood RIPPLES, turns TORRENT-L9
like bleeding flesh (L4)
-speaking of (the jungle drums are assumed to have the ability to speak as humans)-L4
-topples the years-L10
-solo speaking of complex ways–L19
coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint,/crescendo…(L 22-3 )
hurrying feet and groping hearts-L15
Figures of Speech Adding to the Poem's Musical Effect
-jungle and drums share the same vowel sound in line 2
-mystic and rhythm share /I/
-bleeding and speaking share /i:/ L4
-walking and simple share /I/ L12
-rugged and naked share /I/ L14
-green and leaves share /I/ L16
-jungle and telegraphing share /g/ sound-L2
-rugged, fashioned, and naked share /d/-L14
-wild, flowers and pulsing share /l/ L16
-lost and mist (st) L26
/l/ alliterates in leopard and leap-L7
/t/ alliterates in turns and torrent-L9
/k/ alliterates in coaxing and counterpoint
/l/ alliterates in lost and labyrinth-L23
/m/ alliterates in morning mist
“at once” is repeated twice to show the quick movement of the apparitions that the poem persona experiences and 'I' is repeated fervently.
“mystic rhythm” is also repeated in the first and last stanza while “concerto” is repeated in the penultimate and last stanza.
Any questions or addendum would be appreciated. Thanks.
Huhm! The End!
See you later now, you know as he dey go now!
Senanu, K. E. and Vincent, T. A Selection of African Poetry. Essex: Longman, 1988 . Print.
Copyright Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2016