Themes in Gabriel Okara’s “Piano and Drums”

Some of the recurring motifs in Gabriel Okara's "Piano and Drums" are clash of cultures, loss of control, uncertainty and fear.

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Some of the recurring motifs in Gabriel Okara’s “Piano and Drums” are clash of cultures, loss of control, uncertainty and fear, affirmation of indigenous culture, power imbalance, and identity crisis.

These themes collectively explore the consequences of culture conflict, the challenges of cultural integration, and the impact of colonialism on African identity and society. This article will focus on how these themes manifest in the poem.

Theme of Cultural Conflict

The poem explores the clash between Western culture, represented by the piano, and indigenous African culture, symbolized by the drums. The poet-persona grapples with the confusion and dissonance caused by the introduction of foreign rhythms.

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There is a clear distinction and contrast between two classes of cultures. The indigenous African culture is depicted as primal, raw, and urgent, symbolized by the “jungle drums telegraphing the mystic rhythm.” It is associated with nature, youth, and the beginning. The imagery of the panther, leopard, and hunters poised with spears evokes a sense of primal vitality and the harsh realities of survival in the natural world. This culture is characterized by simplicity, with “simple paths” and a connection to the earth, embodied in the “green leaves and wild flowers pulsing.”

On the other hand, the Western culture represented by the piano is portrayed as complex and foreign. The piano’s sound is described as a “wailing piano” that speaks of “complex ways” and “faraway lands.” It introduces new horizons and a sense of sophistication and refinement.

However, the poem suggests that the complexity and foreignness of this culture lead to confusion and a sense of being lost in its labyrinthine complexities. The image of the piano ending “in the middle of a phrase at a daggerpoint” suggests a sense of abruptness and aggression.

The contrasting classes of cultures in the poem reflect the larger theme of culture conflict and the challenges faced by individuals who find themselves caught between these two worlds. The indigenous African culture is depicted as rooted in nature, simplicity, and communal values, while the Western culture is portrayed as foreign, complex, and individualistic. The tension between these classes of cultures highlights the struggle for identity and the difficulties of navigating a world that combines elements of both.

Theme of Loss of Control

Piano and Drums” highlights the tragedy of Africa, where the hegemonic influence of the foreign way threatens and destroys indigenous culture. The loss of control is depicted through the metaphor of the “solo speaking” piano and the destructive consequences of capitalism.

It explores the consequences of colonialism and the imposition of Western culture, which ultimately erode the indigenous African culture and disrupt the balance and harmony of society.

The loss of control is depicted through various aspects of the poem. Firstly, the introduction of the piano, representing Western culture, disrupts the natural and primal rhythm of the drums. The poet-persona, born into an African culture close to nature, experiences confusion and disorientation when confronted with the foreign beat of the piano. This clash of cultures signifies a loss of control over the poet-persona’s cultural heritage and traditions.

Moreover, the poem suggests that the foreign way, embodied by the piano and the influences of capitalism and individualism, exerts hegemonic power over the indigenous culture. This dominance threatens and destroys the communalistic values and traditions of the African society. image of the piano as a “solo speaking” instrument reflects the individualistic nature of the Western lifestyle, contrasting with the communal values of the African culture.

The poet-persona’s wandering in the “morning mist” and being lost in the “labyrinth of complexities” symbolise a loss of direction and a lack of control over their own cultural identity. The poem suggests that the foreign way, with its intricate systems and influences, leads to a state of confusion and an inability to find a stable footing in the fast changing world.

Theme of Uncertainty and Fear

The theme of fear and uncertainty permeates Gabriel Okara‘s “Piano and Drums,” reflecting the disorienting and unsettling effects of cultural conflict and the loss of traditional values.

The poem evokes a sense of fear and uncertainty through its vivid imagery and shifting perspectives. The poet-persona’s experience of hearing the “jungle drums telegraphing, the mystic rhythm” initially brings forth a feeling of urgency and raw energy associated with primal youth and the beginning. However, as the piano’s complex and foreign music is introduced, the poem takes a turn, and the protagonist becomes lost in the “morning mist” of an age at a riverside. This mist symbolises a state of confusion, anxiety, and uncertainty that engulfs not only the poet-persona but also the African populace at large.

The clash between the drums and the piano mirrors the clash between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the traditional and the foreign. This clash generates a sense of unease and fear as the poetic persona attempts to navigate the intricate complexities of the foreign culture. The poem suggests that the introduction of Western culture disrupts the established order and brings about a loss of control and a disconnection from the poet-persona’s cultural roots, resulting in a climate of angst and apprehension.

Additionally, the reference to the piano’s music ending “in the middle / of a phrase at a daggerpoint” further accentuates the theme of fear. This imagery implies a sudden and aggressive interruption, heightening the feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability. It hints at the potential for conflict, violence, and destruction that can arise from cultural clashes and power imbalances.

Theme of Affirmation of Indigenous Culture

While acknowledging the hardships and uncertainty of the indigenous culture, the poem does not romanticise it. Instead, it highlights the limitations of its simplicity and the potential for havoc in contrast to the destructive power of modern civilisation.

Gabriel Okara’s “Piano and Drums” highlights the value and vitality of the African cultural heritage, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging and preserving indigenous traditions in the face of external influences.

Okara’s poem opens with a vivid depiction of the jungle drums, which are described as telegraphing a “mystic rhythm” that speaks of primal youth and the beginning. This imagery evokes a sense of connection to nature and the ancestral roots of the African culture. The protagonist’s “blood ripples” and “turns torrent,” symbolising a deep emotional resonance and a reawakening of the ties to their mother’s laps and the simpler paths of the indigenous way of life.

The references to “green leaves,” “wild flowers,” and the warm rush of “hurrying feet” and groping hearts evoke a sense of vibrancy, vitality, and authenticity associated with the indigenous African culture. This affirmation of the natural environment and its rhythms underscores the significance of embracing and valuing the traditions and values embedded within the indigenous culture.

The poem suggests that despite the allure and perceived sophistication of the foreign culture, there is an inherent strength and beauty in the simplicity and naturalness of the indigenous African traditions.

Theme of Power Imbalance

The theme of power imbalance is a significant aspect of Gabriel Okara’s “Piano and Drums.” The poem explores the unequal power dynamics between the indigenous African culture and the dominant Western culture.

It portrays the foreign influence, represented by the piano, as powerful and imposing. The poem highlights the hegemonic nature of the foreign culture and its ability to shape and influence the lives of individuals within the African context.

The indigenous culture is portrayed as being overshadowed by the foreign culture, struggling to maintain its influence and significance in the face of external dominance.

The power imbalance between the two cultures is further emphasized by the poet-persona’s sense of loss of control and disorientation. The labyrinthine complexities of the foreign way leave the protagonist wandering in the morning mist, lost and disconnected from their cultural roots. This suggests that the overpowering nature of the foreign culture threatens to erode the indigenous traditions and marginalise the African cultural identity.

Theme of Identity Crisis

The theme of identity crisis is a prominent and recurring motif in Gabriel Okara’s “Piano and Drums.” The poem delves into the inner turmoil and disorientation experienced by Africans who grapple with conflicting cultural influences and find themselves caught between their indigenous African identities and the impositions of the Western culture.

The poet-persona of the poem embodies this identity crisis and symbolises the struggle faced by educated Africans who have been exposed to Western education and values. The poet-persona is portrayed as lost in the “labyrinth” of the conflicting cultural influences, highlighting the confusion and inner conflict that arises from navigating multiple cultural identities.

The poet-persona’s yearning for the simplicity, naturalness, and vitality of the African culture is juxtaposed with the complexities and artificiality of the modern world. The disconnection from their cultural heritage creates a deep sense of longing, as depicted by the poet-persona’s desire to return to their mother’s laps and the “simple paths with no innovations.”

Piano and Drums” exposes the psychological and emotional struggles faced by Africans who are torn between their indigenous cultural identities and the pressures to conform to Western ideals.

Further Reading:

Image Credit: Words Rhymes & Rhythm.

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