Ubuntu: I Am Because We Are

In Africa there is a concept known as ‘ubuntu’ – the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievement of others.

Nelson Mandela

This month we celebrate Black History Month, and pay particular homage to influential men and women in black history. One such figure was the late Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa. Mandela’s courage, determination, activism, and humanitarianism helped to end Apartheid, create a multi-ethnic government, and improve the lives of black citizens in South Africa. Mandela understood that he alone could not make a better life for black South Africans; he needed to unite others in the struggle. Among the many tools at his disposal, Mandela was a prolific and inspiring speaker, and often used the Ubuntu philosophy to show South Africans the way forward. A great believer in the oneness of humanity, Mandela was a global inspiration to all those who shared his commitment to creating not just a better South Africa, but a better world.

Nelson Mandela passed away in 2013. The world deeply mourned the loss. Former U.S. president Barack Obama was among those who spoke at Mandela’s memorial ceremony. President Obama said,

Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit.  There is a word in South Africa — Ubuntu — a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift:  his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.

Two weeks ago Mr. Keith, one of our amazing Music instructors, gave a presentation at Monday Morning Assembly about the components and history of the modern drum kit. He began by introducing us to the snare drum, showing us how many different sounds it makes and how these sounds can be changed by a) striking different parts of the drum, b) using different things to strike the instrument: sticks, hands, or brushes, and c) changing the physical properties of the drum by removing the snares.

Mr. Keith further taught us that the drum kit (developed in 1920s New Orleans during the jazz era) is one instrument containing many components; each part creates a very different sound and originates from a very different part of the world. Each of these components enhances the sound that the drummer is able to create when playing.

A full drum kit contains a bass drum, a snare drum, various toms, and a hi-hat and cymbals. The cymbals are among the oldest of all percussive instruments; their characteristic crash comes to us all the way from ancient China. The deep “boom” of the bass drum comes from the early armies of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. The “rat-a-tat-tat” of the snare drum comes from the tabor of medieval Europe, and the “tom tom” of the tom-tom comes from India. A drum section might also include African drums such as djembes, Cuban drums like congas and bongos, and various types of tympanum and kettledrums from around the world.

Mr. Keith explained why the drum kit in particular—one instrument composed of many percussive instruments from far-reaching corners of the globe, representative of diverse cultures, joined together to create rhythmic harmony—is a very American invention. It is a musical celebration of multiculturalism and the coming together of diverse people, as well as a metaphor for what it truly means to be American.

The drum kit is also a beautiful symbol of Ubuntu—The interconnectedness of humanity—One from many.

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