December 2008

Christmas Music With a Kick

December 20, 2008 10:44


There wasn’t a violin in sight. No piano, church organ or Christmas bells. Not even a guitar or a flute. Instead there were African drums—small, pop-pop djembe hand drums, and big, reverberating dunun bass drums. There were balafons—indigenous wooden xylophones, and the melodic wail of women’s voices belting out songs in Fang, the local language. Thunderous, echoing music that carried out of the church and into the warm equatorial African night.

This was Christmas Eve, years ago. I was twenty-three and single, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the town of Bitam, Gabon. Prior to this I’d spent my whole life in Kansas, celebrating every holiday with my large, close-knit Catholic family. Being away from them for Christmas felt like having a limb severed. But the spectacle all around me in the mission church, an airy, wooden structure with a high beamed ceiling, left little room for drooping spirits. Little room on the bench, as well. Every seat in the church was occupied. We crammed the benches, hip pressed to hip, and still more people nudged their way on board, all of us squeezing in more to make room. Enormous, glossy palm fronds festooned the walls, interspersed with decorative batiks. Goats bleated and chickens clucked from their spots near the nativity scene. Dozens of stubby candles lined the floor of the aisles—an invitation for an accident and lawsuit in the U.S., but theirs is not a litigious society. The smoke curled and rose, mixing with the smell of incense, cheap perfume and body odor.

But it was the drums that defined the night for me. Drumming doesn’t allow you to listen passively. The deep thrum of the bass drums sends a vibration into the earth, which makes its way over to you, inside you, deep in your core. It seizes you; it catches you up in it. Gone are all notions of how church music, traditional Christmas music should sound. You forget about smells or discomfort or what family back home are doing. You have been flung into this raucous, organic celebration, every sway and chant of the congregation underlined by the thumping drums, as if they are a heartbeat. They are, in a way: the earth’s heartbeat, a deep, omniscient thump-thump, yet another example of the spooky mysticism that hovers over daily life in Gabon like an invisible fog.

This is a place, a community, that understands life—and death—in a way that my Kansas upbringing never taught me. The life expectancy for the average Gabonese man is fifty-one years. One in every ten Gabonese children will die before their first birthday. This is the reality of Africa. You can’t live life, knowing these statistics, without really living. You live for the moment, and on a night of pageantry, song and celebration, you really live it up. Celebrating the birth of a baby, of new life? Live it up even more.

The offertory procession, midway through the mass, was the biggest spectacle of all. Sixteen women, accompanied by drums and balafons, danced and sang their way down the aisle, gifts in their hands, their hips sashaying to the beat. In their matching attire of scarlet, green and gold dresses with matching headdresses, the women looked like tribal princesses. The drums were deafening, intoxicating. At the foot of the altar, the women lay down their treasures: a wicker basket full of collected monetary offerings; an earthen jug of wine; a giant bowl filled with bread. The offerings got creative from there: a regime of bananas, the cluster of thirty still clinging together upside-down; six spiny pineapples; a dozen sticks of baton de manioc, a local carbohydrate staple. There were ceramic dishes filled with rice, with stew, an enormous bolt of colorful fabric. There was even a wicker basket full of wine-sized beer bottles.

Every member of the congregation was swept up in the moment, singing and swaying with the music. It was pure, organic pageantry. Surely this was how it must have been when Jesus was born, with the palms and animals and the locals heralding his arrival with what they could, their music and the fruits of their labor. Gifts from the heart. The thunderous drumbeats echoed off the walls and filled the building, resonating in my head, my own heart. 

Those drums, those life-summoning drums. Over twenty years later, I have not forgotten that Christmas music. Nor will I ever.

© 2008 Terez Rose

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