Short Reads: My Fight Against Depression using Afro-Rhythm

I am because We are

I have always been a bit apprehensive, somewhat socially anxious and awkward, for as long as I remember. But things took a dark turn in April 1998 when my mother died following a short, severe illness. In the ensuing years, my coping strategy was emotional compartmentalization and suppression, culminating in a carefully crafted demeanor to conceal the turbulence inside. By May 2006, my father too had died: severe long-term depression was among the factors.

Unable to articulate my feelings which had gotten frozen by my sustained suppression of them over the years, I found myself pleasantly unwound when I first heard the song “Tchola Batcha” – there was something about the drums, particularly in the way the drummer seemed to deliberately skip or omit certain beats. I noticed similar techniques listening to Manganje, Nyau and Vimbuza drumming – how drummers would lure you in with a short drumming pattern, and once lured in, how they would deliberately deviate from that pattern, as if preempting your mind’s expectations to dazzle you with something different before returning effortlessly now and again to the initial pattern. The accompanying handclapping too – as I listened attentively – was similar: it too enticed, preempted, lagged, deviated and returned.

Around July/August 2019, Masauko Chipembere Jr gave an informative demonstrative talk at Jacaranda in Mandala, Blantyre showing rhythmic similarities in drumming across the African continent and the African diasporas of the Caribbean, South America and North America. As I listened to him talk and play his guitar, it struck me that the key was in the pattern of omissions – that is, the gaps left deliberately by the drummer to create a deviation between the expected notes and the actual notes played. Afro-rhythm seemed to be a deliberately sustained form of deviations, which gave it its improvisational character and its baked-in “call and response”.

What’s more, Chipembere showed this with only a guitar, no drums – the drumming was in our minds together with the guitar notes he would deliberately not pluck, even as the melodies of the notes he did pluck filled the venue. This is what produces the manifestations of trance. As I do not believe in the supernatural, I must carefully define my Afrocentric notion of trance.

By trance I mean when one is situated within the musical omissions, and dances or vibes to those omissions. It might initially be difficult to imagine, but this would seem to be what Gule Wamkulu dancing is: the Nyau dances trance-like to the omissions in the drumming and clapping, which is why the Nyau might appear off-beat to the actual drumming. Both the drumming and the dancing deviate and return to the expected pattern. When experienced as a whole, there are strong connections among aspects of the music and the dancing, calling to each other, and responding to each other all the time, along a pattern of omissions. They Jazz together.

In my ongoing struggle with depression, I find that the isolation, sadness, helplessness and heaviness during severe spells are eased considerably when I connect with Afro-Rhythm. My favorite, most preferred format is Roots Reggae, with 90’s Hip-Hop a close second. I slip the headphones on, and pay attention to the bassline: a short structure soon rings through the speakers, and then shortly after, the omissions. A long note is cut short, here; a note which fell perfectly on a snare before now lags behind it, there; the bassline is lunging, hugging the hi-hats, here; a deliberate elongated space saturated with silence, here and again there; etc. While this carries on, the drummer too plays their own omissions, as do the trumpeters, as do the vocalists, as does the crowd both in voice and in motion.

Slipping deeper into the omissions, the vexations in my mind ease. Memories loosen, thoughts and emotions loosen, body and limbs loosen. There is sweet healing in this ritual of communal remembrance conveyed by absent drumming.

The Afro-Rhythm assures me: I am because They were.

Closed-minded, Monocular, Tedious Company & Staggeringly Boring

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