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Saturday, 20 February 2016

Piano and Drums by Gabriel Okara

Literary Analysis (Summary)

The poem, Piano and Drums, symbolises two different cultures that have influenced the poet-speaker, the African and Western culture. The “jungle drums” symbolize the African world, while the “piano” represents the Western world. Gabriel Okara poetically sketches these two different worlds using their creation, musical objects that are associated with them, to create a rhythmic blend of melody that exposes the multifaceted influence of these cultures on him. Therefore, he becomes confused on which path to follow. Africans are known for their talking drums that communicate diverse messages. The piano is strange to Africa. It is a Western musical instrument that found its way to Africa through the coming of the white men.

The incursion of white men into Africa introduced a lot of things to the continent. Above all, it introduced a strange culture to Africa. Indigenous Africans were exposed to a new way of life through Western civilization. The whites saw Africa as an uncivilized society and sought to enlighten the people through western education. At that time, those Africans that had contact with the European colonialists embraced certain aspect of the culture that they deemed suitable and rejected a few which they found distasteful to their African beliefs. Advanced knowledge seemed quite fascinating and development-driven, and so they welcomed Western education which had a lot to offer in their lives and underdeveloped society.

Hence, they dropped their farming tools, abandoned their culture, and left their rural and pastoral communities to a strange land in pursuit of civilization. After basic education, those who had the longing to acquire more knowledge furthered their education due to the ample opportunities at that time to study in colleges and universities abroad, most of which were on scholarship. This set of people was the early educated elites in West Africa. Gabriel Okara was one of those privileged few, although he had a deep root in Africa.

After the academic sojourn overseas, they eventually returned to Africa their homeland and became estranged from their own culture. The exposure and in-depth universal knowledge they had acquired in course of their stay abroad had produced a telling effect on them. They find it quite difficult to reconcile the newly acquired culture with their African culture. Any attempt to merge the two cultures seems to produce a cultural clash. Although it appears these African educated elites have lost touch with their culture, the deep-seated African way of life with which they were immersed at birth still exert strong influence on their lives. Therefore, they hang in the balance not knowing which of the cultures to adopt.

According to the poet-speaker, he stands in the middle, influenced and at the same time confused by both. He has seen the beauty and imperfections of the two cultures, and so he becomes baffled on which way to follow.  Piano and Drums, thus, talks about the plight of an African man whose background is deeply rooted in the traditional system but his education and development stem from western culture. In this regard, the poet attempts to bring the past and the present together to show the impossibility of living the two cultures at the same time.

At the beginning, the poem introduces us to the setting which unveils the poet-speaker at daybreak apparently at the bank of an unknown river in Africa.  There, he hears the strange sound of jungle drums sending an “urgent, raw” message that speaks of his “primal youth and the beginning”. This “raw” undiluted message reminds the poet-speaker where he comes from, the natural and rustic African environment where he has spent his youthful days before his quest for western civilization. It is an “urgent” message to a prodigal son, who has lost his identity, to remember his origin which the western world has tagged primitive.

The rhythm of the drum arouses the unforgettable memories of the exciting days of his youth in his village where he has seen hunters with spears stalking leopards and panthers. This stirs his blood until it “turns torrent” bringing back years of infancy even as a baby sucking her mother’s breast in the comfort of her laps.

Suddenly, he sees himself “walking simple paths with no innovations”. The African lifestyle is indeed simple, but it lacks innovations. Unlike the developed western nations with tarred roads, he sees himself walking the “rugged” and untarred path of his village barefoot along the forest surrounded by “green leaves and wild flowers”.

Then, at once, he hears “a wailing piano”. The piano, unlike the jungle drums, is in mournful isolation speaking of the “complex ways” of a distant and strange land with new opportunities. With the musical imagery of a concerto, the poet-speaker paints a culture that is in disarray despite its advancement. The wailing piano suddenly becomes quiet, and then it tries to blend in counterpoint with the mystic rhythm of the drums to create a sweet melody even as the music rises. Such an attempt ends up producing discordant music. This symbolizes the impossibility of living two diverse cultures simultaneously. The “coaxing” blend of the conflicting melodies results in a dissonant tune whereby the speaker becomes lost in “its complexities”. His frantic effort to amalgamate the two cultures to his benefit becomes futile. He becomes more confused and stranded “in the middle of a phrase at a daggerpoint.”

The last stanza of the poem shows the poet-speaker in a dilemma. He is stuck on the same spot where the poem begins, the riverside. He is completely lost in the “mist” of two incompatible cultures that make up his existence. His indecisiveness has rendered him stagnant on the same spot not knowing whether to follow the mystic rhythm of the jungle drums or the wailing piano in a concerto.

The drum which represents African culture is simple, natural but unsophisticated. The piano which represents western civilization is more advanced but complicated. So, the poet-speaker is caught in a tangled web of his African root and past, and his exposure to modern civilization through education. The poem ends with the irresolution of the poet-speaker as he is unable to balance his life in between the two cultures.


Identity crisis
Cultural clash
The side effect of western civilization on African elites
Dilemma/ indecision
The simplicity of African culture
Africa’s natural environment

Symbolism/ Imagery

The drum symbolizes African culture while the piano represents the western world. Using the mental picture of these two musical instruments, the poet-speaker has been able to give us a vivid understanding of a person being haunted by two conflicting melodies that can never blend to create a harmonious tune.

The poet-speaker further invokes a compelling imagery of a rustic life in an African village. He talks about the riverside that echoes the message of the drum from the jungle. Through flashback, the speaker reminisces on his exciting youthful experience in the jungle seeing the hunter poised with spears to attack leopards and panthers. He goes ahead to reveal the unique natural environment of his beginning as he moves through green leaves and wild flowers..

Gabriel Okara also induces the imagery of a solitary musical performance by “a wailing piano” in a concerto. Through other music terminologies like “solo”, “diminuendo”, “counterpoint” and “crescendo”, the auditory imagery of a complex rhythm playing in the poet-speaker’s troubled mind.


The poem consists 29 lines in four stanzas. The first and second stanzas talk about the African culture. The third talks about western culture, while the fourth exposes the poet’s dilemma.

The poem attempts to bring the past and the present together. The African culture is brought to the present through a flashback in the second stanza.

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  1. Since the Piano is said to be playing "solo",I think it implies that the western culture is individualistic unlike the African culture that promotes communal living.Africans "simple" life is that of brotherhood.

  2. the cultures should be synergized

  3. Thank you your post was very useful for my finals Gabriel okare's poems are simple but has both upper and bottom meaning

  4. Good work, I love the explanation.

  5. How can I subscribe to this blog for more of alakowe's analysis?

  6. We haven't added the subscription feature. We are going to do that as soon as possible. We appreciate your feedback. Thank you.

  7. Outstanding effort! Keep up the tremendous literary works!

  8. I love every bit of the literary effort above.Keep up the remarkable efforts!