Analysis of Piano and Drums: Subject Matter, Themes and Poetic Devices

Reading Time: 10 minutes


Let’s analyze the poem, Piano and Drums, shall we?

Piano and Drums Analyzed: Subject Matter, Themes and Poetic Devices

The study guide you are about to read in this Literature tutorial will help you to better understand the subject matter, themes and poetic devices of the poem Piano and Drums by the Nigerian poet, Gabriel Okara.

It is particularly important for you to gain a clear understanding of the various aspects of Piano and Drums if you are a General Arts student studying Literature-in-English as part of your West African Senior School Certificate Examination, WASSCE preparations.

The West African Examinations Council, WAEC, and other examination bodies that have selected Piano and Drums as part of their 2016 – 2020 Literature-in-English syllabus will be expecting you to study into detail Piano and Drums.

You know why?

It is simply because this poem Piano and Drums, by the renowned Nigerian poet, Gabriel Okara, is included in the non-African poetry section of the WAEC Literature-in-English syllabus for 2016-2020.

Additionally, I intend to furnish you with an indepth analysis of the poem Piano and Drums in relation to the poet’s use of diction and imagery as well as other literary devices to convey his ideas in the poem.

Introduction to the Poem, Piano and Drums

One effect of Africa’s contact with Western European culture is that the cultural identity of the African has been seriously compromised. The apparent inability of the now-decolonized African to reconcile those cultural values and norms of his authentic African past with the new, foreign modes of life continues to form the subject matter of the works of many post-independence African writers.

Gabriel Okara is one such African writer.


In his poem, Piano and Drums, Gabriel Okara uses symbols, diction and imagery to effectively demonstrate the African’s sense of loss of his cultural identity.

Just as it is the case with much of post-colonial African poetry, the persona in Gabriel Okara’s Piano and Drums is caught between two fundamentally different ways of life – African and European.

The immediate effect is that the African finds himself in a cultural dilemma. Should he follow the new foreign culture and abandon his own or is there a way for him to create a form of synergy between the two?

This is the new African’s dilemma. He is in a state of confusion and has been struggling ever since to rediscover himself.


Subject Matter of Piano and Drums


Piano and Drums is a four-stanza narrative poem. It speaks of the surreal and mentally challenging experience the persona has gone through one early morning. We will look at the subject matter of the poem Piano and Drums, stanza by stanza.

Piano and Drums: Stanza One

In the first stanza of Piano and Drums, the persona speaks of finding himself at dawn deep inside an African jungle. He is specifically at a riverside. The sounds he begins to hear in this natural setting are authentic African rhythms coming from traditional African drums.

I hear jungle drums  telegraphing

the mysitic rhythm, urgent, raw

like bleeding flesh, speaking of

primal youth and the beginning

These sounds remind him of the original way of life of the African before the Europeans brought their culture to the continent.

The persona also sees wild animals that inhabit the virgin forests of Africa:

I see the panther ready to pounce

The leopard snarling about to leap

And the hunters crouch with spears poised.


Piano and Drums: Stanza Two

The subject matter of stanza two of the poem, Piano and Drums, is a direct consequence of the persona’s experience just narrated in the first stanza. The persona’s encounter with the original natural environment of his homeland has had a somewhat magical effect on him.

He is transported way back to his roots. The freshness and simplicity of this now-forgotten African past is vividly portrayed in these lines.

at once I’m walking simple

paths with no innovations,

rugged, fashioned with the naked

warmth of hurrying feet and

groping hearts

in green leaves and wild flowers pulsing

Here then is a long-gone African past. It is an African past untainted by any form of foreign influence. It is marked by purity and innocence. We can hear very loudly the persona’s longing for the return of this pre-colonial period.

Piano and Drums: Stanza Three

Therefore, it is with dismay that the poet realizes that his experience as described in stanza two is nothing more than a dream. In stanza three of Piano and Drums, the persona returns to the reality of the present time.

This is a period when the original African way of life has undergone radical transformation. This is not very pleasing to the persona. The present period is buffeted by European influences.

Then I hear a wailing piano

solo speaking of complex ways

in tear-furrowed concerto;

of far away lands

and new horizons with

coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint

crescendo …

These foreign influences are, at the very least, confusing and disconcerting at the same time.

Piano and Drums: Stanza Four

Unlike the first three stanzas, the fourth stanza of Gabriel Okara’s poem, Piano and Drums, is relatively short. Four lines in all. But it is a set of four powerful lines that aptly summarizes the present situation in which the African finds himself.

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In fact, this fourth stanza of Piano and Drums ends the poem on a pessimistic note.

We can see that the persona is caught between the desire to go back to his original African roots and the trappings of the new modern way of life with all its innovations. Thus, he is left “wandering”, not knowing exactly what to do or the best choice to make.


And I lost in the morning mist

of an age at a riverside keep

wandering in the mystic rhythm

of jungle drums and the concerto.



The persona speaks to us about his sense of loss. He is clearly being pulled on both sides; in two different directions – the lingering overtones of his glorious African past and the influences of a new foreign culture. He is clearly in a state of dilemma.

So the poem Piano and Drums ends on an inconclusive note. The cultural confusion of the present reality of Africa has not been resolved.

Important Themes in Piano and Drums

The following is a comprehensive list of the themes worth considering in Gabriel Okara’s Piano and Drums

  • Piano and Drums treats the theme of the unending clash or conflict between African culture and European culture. This is the inevitable outcome of European contact and colonization of Africa for more than five centuries.


  • The poem Piano and Drums also deliberates on the African’s loss of his original identity following his contact with foreign European way of life.


  • Piano and drums treats the issue of modernity versus old ways of life.


  • Another important theme in Piano and Drums is the need to preserve the positive aspects of African culture.


  • The theme of  the effects of western culture on African traditions is another way to look at the ideas expressed in Piano and Drums.


Let’s now turn our attention to the poet’s use of poetic devices to highlight the various themes in Piano and Drums.


Poetic Devices in Piano and Drums


  • Diction and Imagery


Diction and imagery always move together. They are like two opposite sides of the same coin. One cannot function without the other.


You can click here for a straightforward definition of diction.



In Piano and Drums, the poet employs specific words and expressions to evoke images that go to highlight the central theme of the clash between African tradition and European culture.


Just take a look at some important expressions that are used in the poem.


Imagery relating to the original African setting and its cultural heritage

This is effectively portrayed in the following expressions


  • Riverside – visual imagery of the African natural environment


  • Jungle, green leaves, wild flowers – Visual imagery of the African natural vegetation


  • Mystic rhythm – Auditory imagery of the African cultural heritage


  • Raw, naked warmth, rugged – Visual and gustatory and tactile imagery of the purity and innocence of the uncorrupted pre-colonial African way of life


  • Primal youth, beginning, suckling, simple paths, no innovations,  – This ties in with the predominant image of the original, uncontaminated African culture before the contact with Western culture.


  • Panther, leopard – These combine to further evoke visual images of  original African natural environment before the introduction of Western technology – What the poet refers to as “innovations”.


  • Hunter, spears – occupational imagery evoking memories of the pre-colonial African way of life


  • Pounce, snarling, leap, crouch, poise, ripples, turns torrent, walking, hurrying, groping, pulsing  – these verbs are deliberately chosen to depict the vitality of the African past. The visual and auditory imagery in these action words go to emphasize the persona’s deep sense of attachment to his African roots.


All the above instances of diction and imagery have largely succeeded in highlighting the poet’s attitude to his cultural heritage. His attitude is one of deep attachment and nostalgia – a yearning for the return of the heyday of African traditional way of life.

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Imagery relating to foreign  European culture


Let’s now take a look at the poet’s use of diction and imagery to depict the introduction of Western civilization on the continent of Africa and its corrupting effect on the original African way of life.


  • Far away lands, new horizons


  • Wailing, tear-furrowed concerto – auditory imagery of a disruptive foreign culture


  • Complex ways, coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint crescendo – It depicts the difficulty the persona faces as he tries to understand and assimilate the new way of life.


Other poetic devices and figures of speech in Piano and Drums




Gabriel Okara has employed two musical instruments as symbols of each of the cultures that he portrays in Piano and Drums.

This is not surprising at all since music and dance are universally considered as an integral part of a people’s cultural heritage.


  • Piano

This represents foreign or European culture. Piano is a symbol of modernity and technological innovation.


  • Drums

This stands for traditional African cultural practices. The use of the drum as a musical instrument in many cultures dates back to a period long before the piano was invented.



  • Raw like bleeding flesh – the freshness and vitality of the African natural environment and its way of life are emphasized in this comparison




  • The naked warmth of hurrying feet


In this powerful metaphor, we find the same positive aspects of Africa and its traditional way of life that the poet is at pains to portray throughout Piano and Drums.

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Here are instances of the use of metaphor in Piano and Drums that evoke images of the state of cultural dilemma the persona now finds himself.  As we have observed, this dilemma follows Africa’s encounter with a completely strange culture.


  • Lost in the labyrinth of its complexities – the persona’s sense of loss and confusion is powerfully evoked in this metaphor.


  • …It ends in the middle

Of a phrase at a daggerpoint


This is a continuation of the image of the sense of confusion and loss referred to early on.


Run-on lines

The fast-paced run-on lines in the first two stanzas of the poem Piano and Drums go to emphasize the persona’s idea of a very lively natural African environment before the continent’s contact with the Western world.



  • Lost
  • Mystic rhythm
  • concerto

The poet’s repetition of “lost”, “mystic rhythm” and “concerto” goes to depict his deep sense of confusion having to deal with what appears to be two diametrically opposed ways of life at the same time.


The repetitive use of the first person singular pronoun “I” shows that not only does the poet consider the situation to be a public one. He also considers it to be a deeply personal issue.




  • …Turns torrent

Topples the years …


The auditory imagery found here is one more pointer to the vitality of the African past.


Find out how Piano and Drums compares to other poems in the Non-African Poetry section of the WAEC/WASSCE Literature-in-English Syllabus HERE.

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It is now time to give you some possible WAEC or JAMB examination questions on Piano and Drums. These questions are equally relevant to any other type of examination featuring this poem by Gabriel Okara.


  1. Consider the use of symbols in Piano and Drums
  2. In Piano and Drums, the poet speaks to an important public issue. Comment.
  3. Discuss the poet’s use of diction and imagery in Piano and Drums.
  4. Examine Piano and Drums as a poem about the clash of two cultures.
  5. What dilemma does the persona face in Gabriel Okara’s Piano and Drums?
  6. Do you think Piano and Drums is a realistic poem?
  7. What is the attitude of the poet to his culture in Piano and Drums?
  8. With close reference to the poem, describe the poet’s use of two poetic devices in Piano and Drums.

So there you have it. You can now go on and prepare adequately for your examination involving Gabriel Okara’s poem, Piano and Drums.


Thank you.

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