Rhythm and Hum – The instinct to create and respond to rhythm is universal.

The instinct to create and respond to rhythm is univeral

The instinct to create and respond to rhythm is universal. A heavy bass sound vibrates our vessels and moves our being, quite literally; we are 60% water, after all. In his book, ‘Bug Music’, David Rothenberg writes: “all of human social interaction can be seen as a swirling journey through overlapping senses of rhythm.”1 Somebody in my house will tap or drum on anything that comes to hand and at times it’s like living with an infestation of termites, but more about that later.

 Rhythm and drum patterns have been woven into the fabric of life since the dawn of time. For some cultures, drumming holds great historical and symbolic importance that transcends music making for music’s sake. It was used as a highly effective form of communication, conveying messages for miles across open terrain, way, way WAY before anyone had heard of radio or twitter being used to broadcast news.

In the 1830s, European colonialists visiting countries in Africa wrote of their amazement at discovering that their arrival and movement between tribes and communities was rarely unexpected with the news having been broadcast ahead of them using drum telegraphy, at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour. (160km/h) 2

During the same period in Europe, the most speedy form of communication was the Chappe Telegraph which transmitted signals via a system of flags based on semaphore and compared with the efficiency of the African drumming patterns, dragged its heels in delivering messages at a measly 47km an hour.3

When Africans were captured and forcibly removed to the British and French Caribbean, West African talking drums 4 were banned by the slave traders and plantation owners who were confused and undermined by their inability to decipher and decode the complexity of the rhythms used by the Ghanaians and Nigerians to communicate with each other. There was fear that the drums could be used to incite rebellion among those held in captivity and cause an uprising.

 Of course, humans aren’t the only ones to use rhythm and beats to inform, warn and convey messages between each other. The insect world is rife with rhythm, and David Rothenberg argues that “as humans, we got our ideas of all things rhythmic and percussive, from the world of insect sounds that surround us: “the rhythms of insects bind us to the landscape, the warm waft of early autumn, a smile at the season’s march… and the most important thing about them is that they may be the very source of our interest in rhythm, the beat, the regular thrum.”5

Returning to Africa, there is a species of fungus-growing termite (Macrotermes natalensis) that live in the Savannah where they build huge turreted mounds from the red sand to conceal vast complex networks of far reaching underground tunnels. These lead to the chambers where they cultivate their food source and must be protected.5

Like most insect communities, there is a hierarchical structure in place and soldier termites are stationed to stand guard over these sandy empires. If a hungry aardvark or other threat to the mound is perceived, the soldier termites bang their heads into the ground at a rapid rate of eleven times a second causing a vibration capable of travelling a whopping 40 centimetres. Continuation of the signal is conveyed in a rippling Mexican wave effect as other soldier termites pick up the vibe and adopt the rhythmic head banging.

In this way, the vibration conveying the message of danger spreads at a rapid 1.3 metres a second along the tunnels, worker termites return to their stations back inside the mound and through this inimitable use of rhythm, their little metropolis continues to function and its population exists, unscathed.

While the use of rhythm by termites is arguably not community music making in the strictest sense, it stands as an effective method of communication, is vital in maintaining a sense of cohesion and is integral to the survival of the colony, so in essence, it isn’t far off the mark. And the vibrations created carry on, rippling into the ether and imperceptibly influencing the movements and biorhythms of us all.

If you would like to find out more about drumming and percussion classes near you, check the CMVic website

Written by Deb Carveth,CMVic Online Editor


1: ‘Bug Music’ How Insects gave us Rhythm and Noise by David Rothenberg. Published by Picador, 2013. P 109

2: The Times Literary Supplement: The life of information, from drums to Wikipedia, by Ernest Davis

3: ibid

4: The ‘talking drum’, heralds from West Africa, specifically Nigeria and Ghana. Shaped like a wooden hour-glass with a head at each end connected by strings running down the length of the body end and a tapered centre, the talking drum is played with a curved stick to mimic the tone, inflection and cadence of human speech. It was used originally to communicate messages between villages.

5: ‘Bug Music’ ibid. p2

5: New Scientist: Headbanging termite drummers sound the alarm by Linda Geddes, 07 August 2013










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