ImaginOn exhibit shares Bearden's Civil War tale

10/26/2011 12:00 AM

10/26/2011 7:17 AM

The words jumped out at me when I ran across a bit of history, researching and writing a memoir on my youthful dream to become a great jazz drummer.

The phrase is from the colony of South Carolina's slave code, adopted in 1740: "... using and keeping of drums ... which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes ..."

In Africa, I have learned, drums were highly developed, their rhythms richer and more complex than anything in European music. Used for communication, the "talking drum" could warn of impending conflict, the presence of slave traders - or foment a rebellion.

So in the New World, fearful slave owners suppressed the instrument and African-Americans largely lost contact with the hand drum of their ancestors - instruments we would know as the conga or the bongos.

With all this in my head, I was intrigued by an exhibit at ImaginOn, illustrations and text panels from Romare Bearden's children's book, "L'il Dan, the Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story."

Midwifed by gallery owner Jerald Melberg with the Romare Bearden Foundation, and part of Charlotte's celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth here of the African-American master, "L'il Dan" makes the drum central to a freedom story.

L'il Dan, who lives on a cotton plantation, encounters the drum through Mr. Ned. He says to Dan, "This drum came from a faraway place called Africa, way across the water."

He teaches Dan as he was taught by his father. Inspired, Dan makes his own drum out of a hollow log, pigskin and "the heavy twine used to bind the cotton bales."

A troop of Union soldiers comes through the plantation and liberates Dan and his fellow slaves. He follows a group of African-American soldiers and becomes their mascot. When the troop is attacked by Confederate cavalry, Dan retreats to a treetop.

Wanting to help and remembering the sound of cannon fire, he "smacked the drum hard with his palms, but it wasn't the right sound." Determined, he tries a new method. "Dan broke off two sticks and hit the drum sharply with them. Smack! Smack! That's better! Just a bit sharper. Crack! Crack! Yes, this was it! This was the sound of the cannon the men called 'five pounders.' "

The alarmed Confederates retreat.

The illustrations at ImaginOn are, as you'd expect from Bearden, wonderful. But I was particularly struck by Bearden's understanding of the drum as a cultural artifact.

The drum connects Dan to his ancestral homeland, Africa. It also connects him to its traditions passed down from father to son.

In a critical moment, when he wants to warn his friends of danger, Dan adapts. Realizing he can't get the sound he wants with his hands, he strikes his drum with sticks - a European and American practice.

So combining Africa with America helps him secure his freedom and that of his friends.

At the end of the story, Dan is made a member of the Army drum corps and told he can play the drums "in your own way." As the last panel shows, he goes back to playing with his hands.

Bearden's tale doesn't follow the accepted history as I understand it, and that's fine. It tells a deeper story, one of the imagination, that is somehow more true. That's what art does.

The larger Bearden shows at the Mint Museum and Gantt Center are worth your time. But don't miss this one.

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