In this blog, Metamo CEO and Co-Founder, Greg Traverso, concludes a two-part story from an African journey that transformed his life. He fell in love with the sounds of Africa as he explored the depths of The Congo. It inspired him to return time and time again. It continues to inspire.
The sound of talking drums
When I would leave a village in the morning floating down The Congo, far from civilization, I would hear “talking drums.” One village talking to another through drums to tell them I was coming down the river. As I would come around a bend, many villagers would be waiting for me on the banks to have a look at this strange person coming through their homeland.
It was the moment I felt the furthest from home. My young guides Demol and John told me that the villagers were actually speaking through drums, alerting each other of my presence. This was usually very early in the morning or later in the evening when I would hear the drums talking. That’s because at that time of day the air is cool and the air carries the sounds further — something like 3 or 4 miles down the river, as I could gather. I later learned that the coolness of the morning and late evening allows the sound waves to travel a couple of miles further along the river.
I learned that one village might be able to talk with the next one but the third village might not be able to understand the first village. However, there are bilingual talking drummers who can communicate, just as there are bilingual speakers. I had done some reading, taken a few basic African rhythm lessons (I have absolutely terrible rhythm myself), and found African rhythms fascinating. They also helped me understand as an outsider something about life in Africa as music is a good window to look inside to a new culture.
The perfect balance of tension
There is a tension that exists in life. We all know it, feel it and experience it in our personal life, interpersonal relationships, on the street, in politics, art, you name it. And where there is too much tension, life is stressful. When there is no tension, life is dull and boring. African rhythms, I believe, tell this story and search for the balance between too much tension and too little.
When I first got to Africa, the very first time I walked on the streets in Harare, Zimbabwe — many months before I was to reach the Congo overland, I thought about the music and I could feel that same suspense in the air. I felt it the entire time I was in Africa. The time flowed differently than in the West and the deeper I went into Africa, the more time seemed to stand still. It brought me a great deal of peace, but at the same time, there was always a tension that is hard to describe. A crazy thing happened the very day I entered the Congo. I was sitting at the border, which was actually a military checkpoint, and my watch just stopped working. Very telling of what was to come.
The Rhythm of Africa
We’re used to the 4/4 time signature — the rhythm in rock and other music with the emphasis on the 1st and 3rd beat. Reggae mixes this up by putting the emphasis on the 2nd and 4th beats — it creates a delicious tension. In Sub Saharan Africa, polyrhythms are the rule, not the exception when it comes to traditional drumming.
Polyrhythms use two or more different rhythms simultaneously to create the basic rhythm of life in Africa on which everything else is built. Hands start clapping, other drummers join, cowbells clunk, shakers rattle and tension builds. In traditional African village life, music is not isolated, but joined by dancing, singing and celebration. Many languages in Central Africa do not even have the word for rhythm; instead, it is so deeply rooted in the fabric of life for celebrating, dealing with stress, communication and relationships. It is impossible to separate Africa from the drum.
There is modern music that comes out of The Congo, especially out of the capital city of Kinshasa, called Kwassa Kwassa. It is hugely popular in Africa, but we never hear it in the West, at least not to my knowledge. When I got closer to civilization, there were dirt-floor outdoor areas to have a beer (Primus Beer) and dance. That’s where I first started to really love Kwassa Kwassa — especially how people love it there and dance to it. Kwassa Kwassa is a dance, but there’s also a type of music that goes along with it, as I understand it to be. The hands follow the hips back and forth.
The sounds, rhythm of life and flowing nature of things — these are just some of the many fond memories I hold close to me from that initial trip 27 years ago. It inspired me to return, time and time again. It is why I started to bring groups along with me; first friends and family and then others who wanted this same transformative experience.
It is why I’ve launched Metamo, a transformative and exciting journey to parts of Africa with local tour guides. While the ruggedness I experienced has been replaced by refined adventures, travelers with Metamo get to have an experience that truly lasts a lifetime.