There is nowhere that the ambiguity of rhythm is more evident than through its role in communal identity-formation. It is used both as a tool of oppression, and as a tool of resistance. It both unifies people and divides communities. It both controls and interrupts.

If we think about the social and political consequences of dance, for example, participation in a certain kind of rhythm furnishes one with a particular cultural identity, the most immediate examples of which might be rap, hip-hop, or rave cultures.[1] Historically, “the human majority, living on the land, accommodated itself to powerful outsiders who demanded rents and taxes from them. Such intrusions, however, did not prevent village communities from maintaining their own integrity and cultural traditions, despite subordination to distant masters.”[2] The primary way in which this was accomplished was through rhythmic practices such as dance and music, which hold groups of people together in time through muscular expression.

As a result, however, it is also a form of social control. Linguist Peter Auer says, “The ‘process of civilization’ (N. Eilias) is in essential ways a process of imposing socio-cultural rhythm on our lives.”[3]Rhythm’s capacity for unification is therefore not unequivocally positive, but is capable of slipping into hegemony – whoever controls the rhythm, controls society.

51bgbwnxjnl-_sx314_bo1204203200_In the case of African American slavery, Martin Munro points out that the slaves were taken from their familiar rhythmic contexts and were subjugated by the alienating rhythms of rigorous schedules. The natural rhythms of the slaves were suppressed by the rhythms of the machine because the slaves themselves were understood largely as parts of a machine.[4] What is interesting about this situation is how African American communities were nevertheless able to rhythmically subvert the imposed rhythms by expressing their own rhythms that emerged out of both their African heritages and the new situation in which the slaves found themselves. The rhythms of slavery were contested by the assertion of an alternative identity based in the democratic collective expression of the group.[5]

This situation incited conflict over rhythm in several communities, perhaps the most evident being in post-Cedula Trinidad, as narrated by Munro. The black communities in Trinidad frequently held dances to the African drum. These dances struck fear into the hearts of the colonists, who saw the unifying power of the drum and feared an organized revolt as a result.[6] The British, Victorian colonists were particular averse to these rhythms not only for political reasons but also because the frenzied nature of the drumming offended their moral sensibilities concerning order and sexuality. Thus, colonists constantly attempted to reign in the music, even by taking away the African drums, while the black communities simply reacted by improvising new instruments and new rhythms.

Thus, at the same time that rhythmic practices establish and maintain particular social configurations and identities, they also manifest social divisions. Unity is only ever local. A rhythm does not unite everyone, but only a particular community. Rhythm is therefore not a universal pattern. On the contrary, rhythms are plural, and as such they simultaneously unite persons in a community and divide that community from those who do not participate in its rhythm. What all of this demonstrates is that rhythm is politically significant. Insofar as questions of identity are based on to what or with whom we belong, rhythm plays a part in constructing that identity.


[1] Hoogstad and Stougaard, “Introduction,” Off Beat, 23. See for example Birgitte Stougaard Pedersen, “Aesthetic Potentials of Rhythm in Hip-Hop Music and Culture: Rhythmic Conventions, Skills, and Everyday Life,” in Off Beat: Pluralizing Rhythm.

[2] Small, Music of the Common Tongue, 67-74.

[3] Auer, Couper-Kuhlen, and Müller, Language in Time, 4.

[4] Martin Munro, Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2010), 19-20.

[5] Munro, Different Drummers, 20.

[6] Munro, Different Drummers, 87.


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