Reading and Content Analysing of African Poetry- Piano and Drums by Gabriel Okara


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In today’s class, we will be talking about reading and content analysing of African poetry- Piano and Drums by Gabriel Okara. Enjoy the class!

Piano and Drums by Gabriel Okara |

About the poet

Gabriel Imomo time Okara was born in Nembe in the present day Bayelsa state of Nigeria in 1921-1971. He attended a prestigious Government College Umuahiea. Okara is one of the most significant and serious early Nigeria poets. The motifs of childhood innocence and nostalgia run through many of his poems. His first published collection of poetry was The Fisherman’s Invocation and his second book was Fantasy.

Background of the poem

In the poem, Okara presents the dichotomy between the past life and the modern world. Though the poem dwells on culture clash as its main theme, it is borne out of the disgust Okara has on the attitude of the post-independence elites who instead of redeeming the African continent from the shackles of colonialism, decide to uncritically adopt the Western cultural values at the expense of their traditional cultural values. Hence, the result is a collapse in the system of African society. This is because these African elites are half-baked and not ready to engage in the manipulation of the complexities of Western culture. So, the post-colonial Africans exhibit great shortfalls to manage the areas of difference when face with two contrasting and competing cultures.

Content analysis

The poem, “Piano and Drums”, is about the cultural dichotomy of African and Western cultures in post-colonial Africa. It reveals the dilemma faced by individuals who are confronted with the circumstances that would warrant them drop their culture for Western one, in the name of globalization. The first stanza highlights the poet-speaker’s attachment with his cultural heritage before the intrusion of a foreign culture. It shows the simplicity the traditional culture is known for. In the opening of the poem, ‘When at the break of day at a riverside’, the inspiring serenity of traditional culture is suggested, even with the imagery introduced by the drum in the lines ‘I hear the jungle drums telegraphing/the mystic rhythm, urgent, raw.’ The poet-speaker reveals the connections Africans have with nature.  The last three lines of the first stanza showcase the occupation of Africans to be majorly hunting. The rhythm produced from the drums reminds the poet-speaker of his early days as a youth who enjoys watching wild animals or probably engaging in hunting.

The second stanza continues with his attachment to traditional culture. Then suddenly he sees himself in a reminiscing state ‘in my mother’s laps a sucking; /at once I’m walking simple’. He presents a lifestyle that is divulged of complexity and/or rancour. The poet-speaker creates in the readers’ mind the extensive simplicity of cultural norms that characterizes the African society with ‘paths with no innovations, /rugged, fashioned with the naked/warmth of hurrying feet and groping hearts/in green leaves and wildflowers pulsing’. This simplicity is seen in the relationship that exists among the people as they live in communality without unhealthy rivalry and selfishness.

In the third stanza, the poet-speaker announces the presence of a seductive culture represented by the ‘Piano’. ‘Then I hear a wailing piano’ suggests that the poet-speaker could not withstand the tempting nature of the piano, even when on his mother’s lap. That is, several innocent Africans like him were lured by a foreign culture that showed great complexities. In great ignorance, the poet-speaker and others like him are seductively enticed by the Western culture to adapt what it represents at the expense of their traditional culture and norms. He speaks of ‘solo speaking of complex ways in/tear-furrowed concerto: /of faraway lands’. Under this, so many Africans were deceived by the notion of a foreign land with a new horizon (technological development). He sees himself to be persuaded by the ‘coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint, /crescendo’. He realizes that he was ‘lost in the labyrinth/of its complexities, it ends in the middle/of a phrase at a dagger point’. This avers that the songs produced by the piano, though seductive enough to draw the poet-speaker and others, were received by people who lack the technicalities to understand the complex meaning of the rhythm. Hence, they become more confused as seen in ‘And I lost in the morning mist/of age at a riverside keep/wandering in the mystic rhythm/of jungle drums and the concerto’. He displays great dilemma between the traditional and Western cultures of what choice to make.

The poem discusses the traditional village lifestyle of the Africans and the complex society of Westerners which was introduced as a result of colonial presence in the continent. The poem seems to answer the question of why has the traditional society lost its heritage and identity to a foreign culture.


The theme of cultural obliteration

The theme of inferiority

The theme of dilemma and confusion

The theme of the need for cultural reorientation

The theme of neo-colonialism

Thematic discussion

  • The Theme of Cultural Obliteration: The poem talks about the concomitant effect that the coming of the Europeans has on the continent and the culture of the people. A people that have been known to possess a culture propelled on the wheels of simplicity and great affinity to nature, see the fabric of their culture truncated by a foreign culture known for its complexities. The poet represents the African culture with the ‘Drums’ and the Western with the ‘Piano’. He creates a vivid picture of the lifestyle of Africans before the coming of the whites and their colonial regime through the powerful imagery deployed in the poem, ‘… at once I’m/in my mother’s laps a suckling;/ at once I’m walking simple/paths with no innovation’. From the above lines, Africans lived in a society where innovations such as tarred roads and street lights. In their communal societies, the people were ‘rugged, fashioned with the naked/ warmth of hurrying feet and groping hearts/in green leaves and wildflowers pulsing’. The Africans were comfortable with their simple life where they were able to co-exist without rancour and unhealthy rivalry, which technology and science have promoted in the world. But in the third stanza where ‘… I hear a wailing piano’, the poet-speaker reveals the presence of the European culture that has come to efface the African culture and way of life. The culture was forcefully passed on the people who became confused as shown in ‘it ends in the middle of a phrase at a dagger point’. Hence, he says, ‘And I lost in the morning mist/of age at a riverside…’. So these Africans see their culture truncated and replaced with a foreign one which has been the reason for the imbalance experienced since the post-colonial era.
  • The Theme of Inferiority: The poet-speaker reveals his inability to resist the imposition of a foreign culture on him and other Africans like him. After hearing ‘a wailing piano’, he became distracted and was attracted to tune from the piano even though ‘at once I’m in my mother’s laps a sucking’. He could not say no to the ‘solo speaking of complex ways in/ tear-furrowed concerto: / of faraway lands’. His show of inferiority is affirmed in the line when he confesses that he was ‘lost in the labyrinth/of its complexities, it ends in the middle/of a phrase at a dagger point’. He is in a dilemma of what culture to uphold as expressed in ‘wandering in the mystic rhythm/of jungle drums and the concerto’. This shows the poet-speaker’s preference for the Western culture because of the technological impact on the world system at the expense of his traditional culture, which has ‘paths with no innovations’.
  • The Theme of Dilemma and Confusion: The main crux of the poem exposes the altercation between the African culture and the European culture over which is supreme than the other. And this has placed the poet-speaker and other Africans, especially of the post-colonial era, to be in dilemma and confusion over what cultural inclination should be accepted and adopted into the fabric of their societies. The poet-speaker recounts the splendid nature of the traditional culture when he says ‘When at the break of day at a riverside/I hear the jungle drums telegraphing/the mystic rhythm, urgent, raw/like bleeding flesh, speaking of/ primal youth and the beginning’. But the reverse became the case when he said, ‘Then I hear a wailing piano/ solo speaking of complex ways in/tear-furrowed concerto: /of faraway lands’. His helplessness and confusion heightened when he cries out that he was ‘lost in the labyrinth/of its complexities, it ends in the middle/And I lost in the morning mist’. The internet, computer, exotic cars and modernity that technology provides have caused great confusion in the minds of Africans.
  • The Theme of The Need for Cultural Reorientation: The poem is a clarion call for all apostles of the African heritage, who have been overwhelmed by the intrusion of Western culture into the fabric of the African society, and has been the reason for non-conformity of the action of the people of the post-colonial era to the ethos of African traditional cultural values, due to the distraction stirred by the presence of ‘a wailing piano’ with ‘solo speaking of complex ways in/tear-furrowed concerto’. The resultant effect of the tune of Western complexities and contamination of traditional civilization and norms has made the poet-speaker to raise an alarm of his dilemma as reflected in ‘And I lost in the morning mist/of age at a riverside keep’. In order not to have the upcoming generations of the African society to toll the steps of the poet-speaker, the poem suggests a reorientation to sensitize and save them from the mirage of ‘faraway lands/and new horizons with/coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint/crescendo’.  He alerts the readers of the dangers in the uncritical adoption of foreign ways.
  • The Theme of Neo-colonialism: Gabriel Okara uses his poem, ‘Piano and Drums’ to resent the cowardly acceptance of some quarters of the African society that wholeheartedly welcome the imposition of Western ways as represented by the ‘Piano’. He states that African even after colonialism seem to be attracted by the seductive ‘labyrinth’ and ‘its complexities’ of the piano with little or no understanding of its effects. Hence, they are placed in a confused state the even ‘in my mother’s lap a suckling’, they were still able to hear ‘a wailing piano’ of faraway lands’. The people have lost their united front bound by the rhythm of the ‘Drums’ in the face of tempting tunes of the ‘piano’. So they are noted to be wandering in confusion of choice to make. They helplessly see themselves being subject to the same ambience of superiority created by the colonial presence.


  1. Give a detailed content analysis of the poem, ‘Piano and Drums’ by Gabriel Okara.
  2. Discuss two major themes of the poem, ‘Piano and Drums’ by Gabriel Okara.

Poetic devices

  1. Antithesis: The poem is basically a contrast that exists in the worldview of the poet-speaker whose attitude shows great confusion towards his decision on what culture to adopt as represented by the musical instruments: piano and drums. The disagreement that surrounds these instruments is seen in the first two stanzas for the drum and the third stanza for the piano. The poet-speaker in ‘I hear the jungle drums telegraphing … speaking of primal youth and the beginning’ reveals how the traditional culture displays a life of simplicity without innovations where hunting of wild animals like ‘panther’ and ‘leopard’ was the occupation of the people. On the other hand, the piano speaks complex ways as its sole responsibility.  Unlike the drums that produce ‘mystic rhythm’, the piano produces a ‘wailing … solo speaking of complex ways in tear-furrowed concerto’. The ideas are simplicity against complexity; the traditional culture against the Western culture.
  2. Symbolism: From the title of the poem, ‘Piano and Drums’, we can understand that the poet-speaker has decided on both musical instruments as symbols aid understanding of the message of the poem. The description ‘jungle drums’ reveals that this instrument is made from the skin of wild animals you find in Africa, while the ‘wailing piano’ which speaks complexities ‘of faraway lands and new horizons’ shows that it is an instrument of modern technology. In another sense, the drums represent simple, incorrupt, uncontaminated and primitive African ways of life while the piano represents the imported culture of the Western world. The poet-speaker, on his part, represents the helpless and confused post-colonial Africans who are products of two conflicting cultural values.
  3. Enjambment: In several points of the poem, we realize that a few punctuation marks are used. This shows the connections that the lines of the poem possess. In highlighting the effects of the drums on the animals and the people in a traditional African society, the poet-speaker presents the first stanza without a pause at the end of each line as the ideas run into the succeeding lines. The introduction of the Western culture represented by the piano is done with the aid of enjambment in the first three lines of the third stanza. Furthermore, the helplessness of the innocent African who was faced with a culture with complex ways is not also in the last three lines of the third stanza.
  4. Personification: Okara employs personification to show the relevance of the musical instruments: piano and drums. In the poem, the drum is seen to be doing the job of a human being by ‘telegraphing the mystic rhythm’ and ‘speaking of primal youth and the beginning’. For the piano, it started by ‘wailing’ then ‘solo speaking of complex ways’. Both instruments (Drums and Piano) have been employed to express the cultural values and norms of the traditional African society and Western society respectively.
  5. Imagery: The poet employs this device to help readers retain in their mind’s eye a clear picture of what they are exposed to in the poem. Majorly, in the first stanza to help readers have pictorial knowledge of the animals found in Africa and the occupation of the people, the lines: ‘I see the panther ready to pounce/ the leopard snarling about to leap/ and the hunters’ crouch with spears poised’ are imageries used to stamp this information in the inner mind of the readers. Also, imagery is deployed in the lines: ‘and at once I’m/ in my mother’s laps a suckling; /at once I’m walking simple/paths with no innovations’. The simplicity of the African society is further painted by these words where the poet-speaker is seen walking a road filled with natural elements.
  6. Simile: This device is seen in the line, ‘the mystic rhythm, urgent, raw/ like bleeding flesh’. The poet-speaker compares the type of music made by the ‘jungle drums’ with a bleeding flesh in its entirety of freshness. In other words, he speaks of the African traditional culture which communicates morals and norms that are uncontaminated and unpolluted by hate, greed, selfishness and unhealthy rivalry, which are induced by the Western culture.
  7. Metaphor: This device can be seen in the words, ‘And my blood ripples, turns torrent’. The impact of the rhythm from the drums stirs in poet-speaker a sensation that equates it with that of a ripple made on liquid substances. So ‘ripple’ is used to portray in comparison to the state of the African man’s blood under the influence of the traditional culture.
  8. Repetition: For purpose of emphasis, the poet is seen repeating some words to drive home his intended meaning. The following words: mystic rhythm, riverside, lost, complex, jungle drums, concerto are employed to reiterate the views expressed in the earlier line of the poem.

Structure of the poem

The poem has twenty-nine lines with four irregular stanzas. The first two stanzas have eight lines each, the third stanza has nine lines while the last stanza has four lines. Stanza one and two highlights the beauty and effects of the African traditional culture and its values, while the third one introduces the Western culture with all its complexities and seductive influence on the post-colonial African elites. The last stanza reveals the state of confusion such as contact of Western and African culture has on the poet-speaker and others, who find it difficult to manage the complexities of the foreign culture. The poem is a free verse and the language is simple for an average reader.

Mood: Considering the outburst of the poet-speaker, it is clear that the mood of the poem is that of sadness and disappointment in the characters of the elites of the post-independence Africa, who find it impossible to go back to their traditional cultural values due to their undue attachment to the Western culture.

Tone: The words of the poet-speaker reveal a tone of great helplessness in the face of two conflicting cultures.

General evaluation
  1. Comment on four major poetic devices employed in the poem, ‘Piano and Drums’ by Gabriel Okara.
  2. Comment on the mood and tone of the poem, ‘Piano and Drums’ by Gabriel Okara.

Weekend assignment

  1. A deliberate violation of the rules of versification constitutes (a) imperfect rhyme (b)poetic license (c) verbal irony (d) comic relief
  2. “A black beautiful brilliant bride” is an example of (a) pun (b) alliteration (c) assonance (d) onomatopoeia
  3. The paragraph in prose can be compared to ____ in poetry (a) couplet (b) line (c) stanza (d) verse
  4. The juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory words is (a) contrast (b) anti-climax (c) oxymoron (d) antithesis
  5. ________ is a play written for television (a) Televista (b) Teledramatic (c) Teleplay (d) Tele – theater.


  1. Comment on the use of symbolism and imagery in the poem, ‘Piano and Drums’.
  2. The poem, ‘Piano and Drums’ comments on the attitude of the Nigerian post-independence elites. Discuss.

Reading assignment

Read the content of the poem above in Exam Focus.


In our next class, we will be talking about Reading and Analysing African Poetry “Ambush”: By Gbemisola Adeoti. We hope you enjoyed the class.

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