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Poetry: “Piano and Drums” by Gabriel Okara

13 May, 2009

Here’s the poem:

Piano and Drums

When at break of day at a riverside
I hear the 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 the 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,
crescendo. 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.

Gabriel Okara

[Source: Touched With Fire: an anthology of poems, compiled by Jack Hydes, p.27]

Piano and Drums is quite clearly a poem about the cultural dichotomy of traditional and Western cultures in post-colonial Africa, but the raw emotion of the poem makes it an expression of confusion that anyone tied to more than one culture (which is a lot of people in this day and age of globalisation) can relate to. Even failing that, the imagery of the poem is powerful enough to express his confusion – we can almost feel Okara’s indecision seeping through the page.

Okara’s metaphors are simple but fitting: the drums represent traditional African life, while the piano represents the Western world. What I love so much about the writing in this poem is how his reaction to each “instrument” is portrayed. Both the first stanza (drums) and the third stanza (piano) are arranged in a similar way. There are essentially three parts to each one. First, we hear the sound of the instrument. In the case of the drums, it has a “mystic rhythm” that is “urgent” and “raw”. As for the piano, it is said to be “wailing” and “a tear-furrowed concerto” is being played. We get an impression that while it is seductive, it is far more complex and multi-layered. Next, we find what the music “speaks of”. The drums speak of primal life. The piano, on the other hand, speaks of “complex ways” and of “far away lands and new horizons”. Each stanza closes with his base reaction to hearing each instrument. The drums induce memories and images of hunting in a primal lifestyle, and the simple life with natural beauty surrounding him that he can lead in that culture. The piano, while seductive, turns it to be too complicated for itself.

The expression of those ideas only works on the level it does because of the way each line of the poem flows into the other. Although it appears simplistic, exposition is handled very well here, in a way that many authors of prose could learn from. As the poem begins, the drum beats recall in him the primal nature of traditional life as a hunter-gatherer. The placing of the word “telegraphing” here is interesting due to its difference from the rest of the diction in the stanza. It conveys to the reader a subtle feeling that Okara is no longer part of the beating of the drum; it is implied to be a kind of message  – although it brings out raw and fresh emotion in him, it is telegraphed, not played in all its purity.

As the hunters stand poised to take action, Okara’s memory shifts from a situation of primal aggression to memories of his childhood. He revels in remembrance of being in his “mother’s laps a suckling”. Here there are “no innovations”; paths are shaped by the pulse of life in all its simplicity and glory.

However, his love of the drumming is not strong enough to prevent his distraction. In a mere moment, his focus is on the “wailing piano / solo”. The complexity of the piano is seductive; the “far away lands” and “new horizons” present a counterpoint to the simplicity of his reminiscing of traditional life – but its complexities reach a point where it stops abruptly, lost in itself.

It might sound at this point as if Okara has already made up his mind to follow the path of the drums, but he still finds himself lost. This confused me the first time I read the poem, but on re-reads it makes perfect sense. Despite the fact that the piano seems to crumble upon itself, he is still seduced by it – its arrest at a “daggerpoint” almost adds to its layered and complex nature, which is what attracted Okara to it in the first place.

The last stanza, seemingly calmer and more restful in its rhythm than the first three, feels to me as if fueled with raw, pure emotion. He is lost, wandering aimlessly as the music of the two instruments meld around him. Confusion surrounds him and, for the moment, he succumbs to it.

 

I always got the feeling that this poem was the kind that would be interpreted slightly differently by each reader. I also wonder whether I love it so much only because I can relate to it to a small extent. So, go on, leave a comment. Tell me what you think.

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67 Comments leave one →
  1. Ladi Gbajumo permalink
    10 June, 2009 3:50 am

    I will like to agree with your interpretation of the poem as a man totally confused between western culture and African culture.
    One of my best poems till date,the use of excellent literary languages and figures of speech is un marched in my book till date.
    I throw my hat to Gabriel okara on should fantastic brain of though.
    Literature at its best.

  2. Kerry Pocock permalink
    8 August, 2009 9:39 pm

    I can’t say I loved the poem at first, but it has drawn me in, if that is possible? I see it as more than just comparing traditional African life with the western world, but with all people… a choice between the old, simplistic ways of life and the modern, fast pace world of internet, facebook, appliances etc…
    We’ve gone from a very social world to an anti-social world where we get together with friends over the internet. Where is the simplistic way of life – getting together with people, learning social skills and learning form the old and wise. Now, if I don’t like what you saying – I go off line. We tend to long for the old, fun ways of living ( get togethers, picnics, riding bikes etc…) but compelled, as if “at a dagger point” to join the rest of the world in the lonely world of cyber space.

    • Ashmin permalink
      20 November, 2012 9:36 pm

      What is the main theme of this poem

      • Francis Mould permalink
        19 May, 2014 6:57 am

        Conflict of culture

  3. 10 November, 2009 3:10 am

    I like the interpretation of this poem.This is great work.To Okara you are poetically endowed Imust confess this.Well done.

  4. mofiyinfoluwa permalink
    11 November, 2009 2:49 am

    THE POEM SSSSSSTTTTTTIIIIINNNNNKKKKK””””SSSSSSS

    • mofiyinfoluwa permalink
      11 November, 2009 2:52 am

      I WAS JUST JOKING D POEM IS NICE

    • sofi permalink
      25 November, 2010 10:52 pm

      I agree!!!!! YOU ARE RIGHT!!!!! this poem STINKS!

      • ALFRED BENJAMIN BAIDEN permalink
        16 May, 2012 9:09 am

        I wonder why a human being would describe this poem as a stinking one. I think you need to identify yourself properly. For all we know, you are a racist.

        • 10 September, 2012 5:52 pm

          i agree… though I was not an african I have felt the beauty of the poem….. we have used the poem in our afro-asian literature program.. ijt ius part of my course and I found it so nice to read and analyze… long-live to all the african writter.. keep up the good work….

  5. 2 December, 2009 5:18 am

    The poem waz of great help in my research, a grade 3 category

  6. 28 December, 2009 4:39 pm

    what is the mood of the poem?

  7. Omolola permalink
    20 March, 2010 7:29 pm

    The poem is basically talking of modernism against tradition……………..sees western rule as being strange.

  8. omaha permalink
    4 May, 2010 6:39 pm

    what would you think about the interpretation that it is a comparison between human beings and the animal world??

    first stanza panther/leopard hunter.. both powerful

    second stanza baby flowers.. both innocent

    third stanza as an expression of confusedness of the speaker.. –> hunting.. human kill animals although they are so similar etc…

    last stanza: similar to beginning of the first stanza.. repetition.. always starts over again.. that there is no hope that it will ever stop.. mystic rhythm= the piano (humans) and the drums (= animals) fit to each other i.e. result in a rhythm. but why are they still killing = central message

    very thankful for any comments

  9. sebo permalink
    4 May, 2010 9:53 pm

    I got this poem for my English paper 1 exam in the IB today. From what I have read, it seems that the commentary I wrote was not far off from the actual meaning. Great poem overall.

    • omaha permalink
      4 May, 2010 9:56 pm

      so did I… just checking how far off my interpretation is…

  10. sebo permalink
    4 May, 2010 10:11 pm

    Personally, I think this poem could portray many images which could be far from the truth of what the poet intended. Though, for the IB there is no “right” or “wrong” answer as it is your own interpretation and as long as you have backed up your ideas and thoughts with explanations, you can always get a good grade.

    • omaha permalink
      5 May, 2010 2:41 am

      hahaha ok cheers. good luck in maths tomorrow…

  11. Sebo Fish permalink
    5 May, 2010 2:44 am

    I got exactly what is written here, however what i believe that the poem was, additionally about was the the drums weren’t from africa but from south america. I deduced this by the use of concerto (a latin based word) also panthers and leopards are found in rain forests i.e. south america. However leopards can be found in Africa. But also i wrote how it discusses the transformation of the author. However i do have a friend who discussed this poem to be the birth process… A very valid interpretation i might add if you read the poem carefully…

  12. 5 May, 2010 2:49 am

    Mhm, your friend must be a genius! I have just re-read the poem and find that interpretation to be completly valid. This poem continuously refers to the early phases of life!

    What is his name, his email??

  13. IB Student permalink
    5 May, 2010 3:36 am

    I have written my IB English A1 Standard Level Paper 1 Commentary on this today and I thought it was an amaising poem to analyse. The use of language, personification and other literary features really conveyed the spirit of the Western World…

    • paul permalink
      5 May, 2010 4:20 am

      Well done, seems to me you captured the essence of this piece. Good luck with your grades. P.

  14. Laurence permalink
    5 May, 2010 3:51 am

    I agree on the surface with your original appraisal. I just had an exam with this poem as the extract under scrutiny, and i came to a different conclusion. The music is a metaphor for the life of a close friend of the speaker. One who he grew up with (second stanza), but who as they separated, lost faith in his own existence (lost in the labyrinth of his own complexity) and ended his jerking life upon a dagger point. The telegraphed bloody message, is a true message, the message delivered of the suicide.

  15. IB Student permalink
    5 May, 2010 5:20 am

    If anyone is interested to read what Okara has to say about his own poem, I found an interesting extract of the interview on

    http://www.nigeriavillagesquare.com/articles/achebe-foundation/achebe-interviews-36-gabriel-okara.html

    Here the part of him talking about Piano and Drums:

    AZUONYE: I’d like to turn back to your poems, if I may… We are very fond of reading certain poems, either because of the magic of their lyricism or whatever else individual students find fascinating. One of the poems that my students and I have particularly enjoyed is Piano and Drums. I have often wondered whether you find this poem as fascinating as the rest of us, and if so, could you tell us why?

    OKARA: Well, that particular poem is about change—change brought about by the West and its encounter with our indigenous civilizations. By that I mean, the impact of Western ways on our own indigenous ways. In the first part of the poem, I was listening to the drums and thinking old ways and so on, you know. And then in the second part, I am listening to the piano….

    AZUONYE: The wailing piano music…

    OKARA: And then the music stops at a dagger-point; by that, I mean the fights, the dissensions, the tension going on in the Western hemisphere—Western countries—the wars going on there:

  16. saman fernando permalink
    22 May, 2010 1:20 pm

    its a brilliant work by Okara.

  17. 25 November, 2010 10:56 pm

    Hi! my name is Mary Palazon and i wanted to tell you that on saturday i am getting married and i have chosen this poem (which i added music to iT) to go into church! all followers of Gabriel Okara are invited!!!!
    XOXO

  18. Rose Oliver permalink
    2 March, 2011 3:10 am

    i an a really big fan of Okara and love most of his poems. i think they are easy to understand.

  19. 19 March, 2011 2:39 am

    Job well done. That’s a great work and it will really help those who need information about this work.Okara is really great.

  20. docs4real permalink
    7 April, 2011 6:37 pm

    l luv d poem,it’s really captivating.i must say a big well done 2 d poet b’cos d poet emphasise more on culture….okara u ‘re great

  21. Aman S Imani permalink
    1 May, 2011 3:04 pm

    Hey!
    I loved your interpretation of the poem. The interpretation is profound and tackles myriad aspects of the poem.
    The poem is brilliantly written. It draws the readers attention and makes the reader’s mind grapple with the meaning of the poem for hours on end.

    In conclusion, brilliant literature from Okara and extraordinary criticism by Kumarhk.

  22. foli permalink
    26 February, 2012 7:20 pm

    its nice but don’t know the meaning

  23. 13 March, 2012 2:17 am

    I did read the poem for the first time today @ school damn it was one trick of a poem but as I went through it again I realised it was more beautiful with words kinda strange to me

  24. Tonderai permalink
    13 March, 2012 2:26 am

    Whoo,,Actually i was pretty much confused when i first read the poem but after going through it again and again,the sense of it came out and the result,,i jst fell in love with it!

  25. Olive olovely permalink
    19 March, 2012 3:26 am

    That is perfect,its exactly what i was looking for

  26. Chawes permalink
    30 April, 2012 7:25 pm

    Great poem!!!!!

  27. ALFRED BENJAMIN BAIDEN permalink
    16 May, 2012 9:02 am

    This is a great poem by all standards. I really love it.

  28. 26 June, 2012 9:49 pm

    There is no such definitive thing as a panther, and the cats that generally are described as such live in the Americas NOT Africa. Accordingly, anyone with a smidgeon of knowledge of the animal kingdom coming to this poem with no preconceptions – particularly regarding geography – would find it illogical to ascribe its autochthony to Africa, despite its author’s avowed intent. A more logical analysis – from an “unseen” point of view, which is the context of its setting in an IB English exam – would be a dual allegory of a both a person growing up and having at some critical point to deal with unfamiliar complexity (and perhaps retreating from the challenge) and a less developed country (African, Central/South American, or even Asian/Australasian) being faced with the difficulties of integration into a global community of greater sophistication. Pep (Unless of course, the author is deliberately dragging in an intentional but incorrect ambiguity regarding the USA revolutionary leftist organisation.)

  29. 11 July, 2012 8:05 pm

    I want to know Okara’s handling of any major trend in this poem.

  30. anitha permalink
    21 September, 2012 9:39 pm

    it is very useful for searchers.thank u

  31. BRIZZYBRIDE PHUKUBYE permalink
    18 October, 2012 8:57 pm

    I REALLY LOVE THE POEM AND I LEARNT SOMETHING ABOUT IT………. THANK YOU OKARA

  32. 2 November, 2012 10:26 am

    Good

  33. Zaza K. Roberts permalink
    8 December, 2012 7:51 pm

    I am doing the poem now in English 409-Seminar in African Literature. It’s really interesting. My teacher says exactly what you have posted above. Your summary has added flavor and enriched my knowledge. Thanks!

  34. maryam permalink
    5 January, 2013 5:30 pm

    Piano aπϑ drums is a beautifully expressive poem. Any ordinary reader should get it’s meaning but reading your post makes it more meaningful. You did a really good job here. Thanks.

  35. Naseeru Taneemu Annuree permalink
    20 January, 2013 10:47 pm

    Wow!! Nice work… I love your explanation of this poem. I found it helpful when I thought I could not. Thanks for sharing with us. Looking for more from you… Thanks.

  36. hamoud hussein permalink
    10 February, 2013 7:32 pm

    your analysis is good as it has assisted me to get a base for intensive reading

  37. 8 March, 2013 9:23 pm

    I just want to know the themes used in the poem

  38. 24 April, 2013 8:11 pm

    the poem is so interesting to read what ever time i fined the poem with my eye’s the writer of the poem Sir,Okara really explain about our culture with it.the sound of the drums make me to unerstand where we the Africans are coming from,the piano make the diference that there are some part the world people did not need to struggle what ever thing they want to do that’s the western world am talking about.Now lets come back to ourself’s we always do things with power,strength and alot’s of energy not thinking of any technology ideas.

  39. 20 July, 2013 4:08 pm

    very well interpreted, I stumbled upon this page, trying to help my niece complete her assignment on this poem ! and i enjoyed reading this ! thanks for sharing !

  40. Paul Ayakpam - Kaduna Nigeria permalink
    31 December, 2013 4:52 pm

    The poem ”Piano & Drum” Is a poem that is quite interesting any time and day to recite.
    Your sense of analysis is very well appreciated from me because it gives an indept explaination of d stanzas.Bravo

  41. Agbese Dan permalink
    5 January, 2014 4:37 pm

    The poem is all about the “clash of culture.” How the coming of Europeans to Africa have made Africans to be confuse about life. Because the wetern way of living is more complex and hard to understand. The poem is a question on the cultural clash of both European culture and African culture and its effects on Africans. The piano is the symbol of European culture, while the drum is symbol of African culture and its jungles. Its a wonderful poem, it brings to fore in my mind on the need of we Africans to go to our background to start teaching in our local dialects in schools and see if we wont produce the world sages. Because it will make learning more easy and interesting.

  42. Essiet Ani permalink
    15 January, 2014 5:19 pm

    It is really a good poem

  43. poshly katumba permalink
    22 January, 2014 6:59 pm

    Hope this analysis earns me good marks

  44. Idugboe clem permalink
    23 January, 2014 8:55 pm

    very interesting

  45. Norbert Dashe permalink
    29 January, 2014 7:19 am

    A beautiful commentary befitting of a well crafted poem of high aesthetic value and deep meaning . Talking about the use of imageries, other literary devices and choice of words Okara is a genius. The stanzas of the poem are well structured into an organised line of thoughts. Eversince I had developed interest in poetry I fell in luv with this poem. Your commentary sums up how I had conceived the poem.Kudos.

  46. Norbert Dashe permalink
    29 January, 2014 7:26 am

    A beautiful commentary befitting of a well crafted poem of high aesthetic value and deep meaning . Talking about the use of imageries, other literary devices and choice of words Okara is a genius. The stanzas of the poem are well structured into an organised line of thoughts. Eversince I had developed interest in poetry I fell in luv with this poem. Your commentary sums up how I had conceived the poem.Kudos for the add-ons.

  47. Yemi permalink
    5 February, 2014 12:34 pm

    This Poem can also be related to the colonisation, since the author is an African. That is, before the colonisation, after and now.

  48. Mark Amadu Kamara permalink
    16 March, 2014 1:43 am

    Thepoem to me is a contrast of the African culture and practices (The Drums) marred by WESTERNIZATION (the piano). Before European filtration to Africa, we live a simple yet satisfiable life. It was only when colonization was extended to various African countries that our way of life was tampered with, and we were left in the middle, confusednot knowing the right beat to dance to…

  49. 27 March, 2014 9:09 pm

    a realy nice piece of work, it gave me anice moment enjoying poem! cheerz to that!

  50. 13 May, 2014 4:03 am

    i will say this peom is one of the best i have come across,the stanzas are well organized.i think the author is a genius,the inspiration is there,readers please enjoy as you read thanks.

  51. Joana Asare Bediako permalink
    15 May, 2014 3:34 am

    kk

  52. Joana Asare Bediako permalink
    15 May, 2014 3:35 am

    The porm is reali inspirational

  53. 28 May, 2014 7:29 am

    this poem is very important to the africans and to me also because iam studying african literature at the university in algeria and of course it was very ambigious before reading these commentaries but now i understand it wellllll

  54. 28 May, 2014 7:30 am

    adding to all that i have the exam tomorrow in the african literature soooo !!!!

  55. Philex kiprotich permalink
    3 June, 2014 10:30 pm

    Quite true, it handles the clash between the western and African culture.

  56. victory olaniyi permalink
    21 June, 2014 7:29 pm

    thank u okara, this poem really help me alot especially in my assignment, i gain alot from it

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