New Orleans Drum Circles: The Birth of American Music - Instrument Week on BTR


Photo by Rachel Steinhauser.

Ask any American where American music was born, and depending on where you are, you may get a few different answers. People may debate some area between Memphis and Nashville, others say it was somewhere between New York and Chicago. But if I were a betting man (and I am not) I would bet that almost anyone, with any sort of musical knowledge, would eventually agree on one place: New Orleans.

There are many different theories as to why New Orleans developed as the incubator for that unique American sound of jazz and blues—too many, in fact, to divulge in great length here. Was it the success of the early Opera Houses in the über-French New Orleans? Was it the fact that so many Civil War battalions ended up in that area after the war with nothing to make of their snare drums and military horns? Or was it that New Orleans was a melting pot for so many different slave cultures representing various regions of Africa and the West Indies? In all likelihood it was some combination of the three, but admittedly, other factors that have gone unmentioned were definitely at play in shaping its creation.

One thing unique to New Orleans stretching as far back as the 17th century that helped foster music into what we know it to be today was the privilege (to slaves) and invitation (to all city members) to take part in a cooperative expression of improvised sound that came to be known as the drum circle.

The first real record of the weekly event was taken around 1640 by a Dominican monk who was ordered to the new colonies by Louis XIV (struggling to hold reign over England at the time) to report on the state of affairs in the new land. While instructed to cover the trade of sugar and development of Western influence, the young monk (Jean-Baptiste du Tertre) devoted an entire chapter of his work to “des recreations des Negres.” Dena J. Epstein summarizes some of Jean-Baptiste’s work for her readers:

“He described the gatherings of Negroes on Sundays and festivals to dance in the style of their native countries, singing their own songs. The accompaniment was provided by a drum made from the trunk of a hollowed tree, with the skin of a ‘loup marin’ stretched over the opening. One of the Negroes held this instrument between his legs and played upon it with his fingers…. Another instrument was made from a calabash filled with little stones” (Epstein 24).

Many attempts were made by the devout to shut down these “kalendas” (as they came to be identified). Yet whether officially permitted by council or secretly organized by the African slave community, the drum circles would go on. Slaves at the time had great difficulty understanding the rules of Christianity, but were clever enough to put their instruments and dancing into terms the white European could understand, and struggled to find argument in; “On Sundays, amongst our selves, [we] endeavor to forget our Slavery, and skip about, as if our Heels were our own, so long sometimes, till our Limbs are almost as weary with that, as with working” (29).

It has been over three centuries since these early references to New Orleans drum circles – arguably the birth of American music as we know it – and yet the tradition lives on today.

The New Orleans-based group NOLA Rhythm Drum Circle identifies itself “as a collection of drumming enthusiasts in New Orleans. Some of us are weathered drummers, while others are novices. We all meet once a week to share what we know, have fun, and find a unified rhythm with each other.”

When considering all things “instruments” this week at BreakThru Radio, there is something to take away from this four-hundred year old tradition: We can complicate it as much as we like with machines, technologies, and playback devices, but at the root of our musical beings lies the necessity for simple rhythm—the rest is just added nuance.

This begs the philosophical question of our motive and production of sound: Are instruments examples of our creative power to discover new ways of expression? One might say that at the base of all musical complexity, all we really need is a hollowed out tree, a tightly pulled animal skin, and the desire to dance.


Sinful Tunes & Spirituals. Epstein, Dena J.