The Autonomy of Musical Instruments

With the influence of movies, the modern student often thinks about what their life would be like if they had a personal soundtrack playing at dramatic moments throughout their days. They walk around imagining exactly which song would match their pace, setting, and emotional state. The characters of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), never have to wonder what this would be like for two reasons. The first of which is that modern film plays no part in the narrative – where storytelling, which sometimes includes song, is the closest equivalent of the medium. The second, is the existence of the drums and flutes which mark important moments for our protagonist, such as the wrestling festival where he gains his fame, the trials where he represents an ancestral spirit to provide judgement for the a quarrelling married couple, and the moments before his adopted son’s death by his own hands.

In his debut novel, Things Fall Apart, released on the anxious eve of  decolonization in Nigeria (Gikandi, 298),  Achebe centers his narrative on the family of Okonkwo, a greatly respected warrior and wrestler from Umuofia during the the years prior to colonization. Part One of the novel begins with the story of his father, a flutist who is unable to provide for his wife and children, before shifting to the son as he sets out at a young age to build his farm and family. Through a series of flashbacks and non-linear story-telling, the reader is given insight into Okonkwo’s family, where his three wives care for their seven children – one of which has been coming and going from the earth cyclically – and the child that the village was given as retribution for a daughter of their clan’s death in a neighboring market (Achebe, Part One). These scenes are juxtaposed with those of the greater village, where there are weddings, festivals, trails, and funerals abound (Achebe, Part One).

Directly following the recounting of a celebration for the marriage of Okonkwo’s friend’s daughter, the narrator begins the next anecdote with the jarring description of the drum waking up the entire village  (Achebe, 71). “The first cock had not crowd, and Umuofia was still swallowed up in sleep and silence when the ekwe began to talk, and the canon shattered the silence” (Achebe, 71). Beginning the description of the morning with the alliteration of “still swallowed up in sleep and silence” creates a sense of monotony and calmness as the “s” rolls of the tongue softly. “Swallowed” implies a deepness to the silence that is not easily broken, as it invokes images of encapsulation in a stomach or other closed and distanced space. “The ekwe began to talk” disrupts the alliteration, drawing attention to the instrument itself, and while providing the instrument its own agency through personification. The instrument becomes a character in its own right due to its ability to talk, instead of simply a tool used by others. It chose to disrupt the morning peace. Several sentences later the noise of the drum is described through onomatopoeia with the noises “go” and “di” (Achebe, 71). These noises can be connected the the words “go” and “die” indicating the departure of a soul that these drums are meant to announce. In conjunction with the earlier personification, the drums are announcing the death and departure on their own accord.

The effect is that in which musical instruments hold their own autonomy, and are capable of commenting on life; speaking when they deem it proper. Approaching the rest of the section with this understanding, changes the moment in which the men of Umuofia take Ikemefuna out of the village to kill him under the guise of taking him home (Achebe, 36). Ekwe were beating from a distant village to bestow a title upon a man there (Achebe, 36). If the drums are separated from the intention of those playing it, if they can truly speak for themselves at the right moment, then these drums could be seen as part of bestowing a title upon Ikemefuna, who would not have had one at the time of his death.

Achebe, Chinua. “The Text of Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009, pp. 3-117.

Gikandi, Simon. “Achebe and the Invention of African Literature.” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009, pp. 3-117.

“Log Drum Ekwe Nigerian (Igbo) 6″x12″.” YouTube, uploaded by richardolatunde, 19 May 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enNWmzyDcGc

2 thoughts on “The Autonomy of Musical Instruments

  1. I’m really interested by your analysis of how the descriptions of the instruments are paired with musical-sounding language like alliteration. Another moment where music (or lack thereof) tells part of the story is during the wrestling tournament. During a break in the matches, “the drummers stopped for a brief rest before the real matches. Their bodies shone with sweat, and they took up fans and began to fan themselves” (Achebe 30). Before this description, there were many mentions of the sounds of drums, but barely any note of the drummers themselves. But here, the reader is reminded that the music is created through physical, human labor.

  2. I really did not lend too much attention to the role of music. Music in both it’s passive and active life. Your analysis illuminates both instances, where music is being used and when music ascends to narrator. Whereas I interested in your entire discussion, your close reading of the passage on 71 is of most intrigue. Your analysis illuminates how drums, like humans, are socialized. We are taught “to speak” at specific moments. This speaking funnels into our duties and responsibilities. Your analysis, aided by Achebe’s novel, sheds light on the mentality that everything, even those thought inanimate objects, possess duties and ways of communicating.

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