The Beats of Different Drummers


All-Female Street Band “Tronchi Monchi Ponchi” in full swing.

Leander is docked at La Gomera, an island near the western edge of the Canary Islands. We had planned to move on relatively quickly, but we fell into Carnaval week here. On the next island over, Tenerife, one can find the biggest Carnaval celebration outside of Rio de Janeiro. Carnaval is tamer here on La Gomera. Smaller in scale. More kid-friendly. We could attend all the events by strolling five minutes from the boat.

We were often called to the square by the music.

La Gomera exemplifies the Canary Islands’ cultural position as being, though relatively close to mainland Spain as a matter of geography, more closely linked to Latin America as a matter of fact. This plays out particularly with respect to language. One doesn’t hear the “Grathias” or “Barthelona” of mainland Spain, but rather “Gracias.” In fact, they take it a step further and cut off the “s” altogether, so it becomes “Gracia.” “Vamos” becomes “vamo.” A woman chasing the bus the other day yelled not “espere!” but “A’pere!” It sounds more like Guatemala than Madrid.

(Why is this? Because the settlement of Latin America started in Andalusia and ran through the Canaries. The Canarian accent is not so far off from the Andalusian, and many Latin Americans of Spanish descent, especially the early ones, share this common origin.)

This applies to the music too, although there is a strong local component as well. There is an island beat here that I suspect owes some tip of the cap to the islands’ earliest ancestors, the Guanches. These were Berbers who emigrated from North Africa, and were here on the Canaries before the Spaniards came. History says that the Guanches gave the technologically and numerically superior Spaniards a decades-long run-for-their money before finally succumbing.

In one instance, they lost not on the battle field, but through duplicity. “OK, OK, we give up — you’re just too tough a nut to crack!” said the invaders. “Come on out and we’ll make peace!” So out came the Guanches. But the Conquistadors were not true to their word and instead, as they had elsewhere, killed the men and enslaved the women. (Today, a good portion of Canarian DNA traces its male origins to Spain and its female origins to the Guanches, and nowhere is this more prevalent than on La Gomera.) Given that this history was written by the victors, the Conquistadors, one wonders how treacherous things really were. In any event, the Guanches must have been some ferocious fighters.

We thought about this background as we listened to the music. There certainly are some Latin-flavored, salsa-like rhythms here, but there is more. A tub-thumping percussive beat that comes from somewhere else. Listen here to Murga [“Street Band”] Tronchi Ponchi Monchi:

Drums were everywhere during Carnaval.

A family ancestor of mine, William Harborne, was a drummer in the British Army, taking part in 1750s French and Indian War. I often wondered about the import of the rat-a-tat-tat of a drummer in the military. Sure, drums can wake you up in the morning. And help keep time when marching.

But wasn’t that it?

This week brought home that, like the pipes, drums can also inspire, work you up, rouse you. Or maybe psyche you out if they are being banged by the other team.

Sitting on our boat, we could hear the drummers assembling at the head of the parade route each day. Even at that distance, it sounded more like they were gathered beneath our floorboards, rather than were they actually were, a mile away. Bump bump bump, bump-bump-bump, bump bumpa bump. It was hard NOT to get up and go in to watch each time they began to play.

At one point, after a parade, four drum teams from various parts of the island were milling around at the route’s end. Someone began to play, soon joined by another, and eventually it was a fully involved, four-alarm ruckus. One bandleader stepped forward and worked to keep time among those assembled, keeping time and spurring on soloists and mass rhythms. They jammed for a half hour, broke up, reformed, and began again. The piece that I videoed here was not even representative of when they really went at it — this was a bit of a lull, and doesn’t capture how powerful their efforts were when in full swing. But maybe it gives you a feeling of the magic and energy that they could generate, and how much fun they had doing it.

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