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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #386
Talking Drums
David Gunn

Otumbeke sat up abruptly in his bed. It was pitch black in the room and he couldn't see anything. But he had heard something ... hadnít he? Or had it been a dream, a trick of the subconscious? In the bed next to him, Aloka turned over, smacked his lips and mumbled something unintelligible, fast asleep. All down the row of beds in the communal hut, tribesmen slept, some snoring gently, others levitating an inch above their beds in oblivious preparation for the following day's rite of passage from adolescence to squirrelhood. Only Otumbeke was awake. He held very still, wishing the snoring would stop. He tried to block out the susurrus filtering through the room, but the sound of his pulse beating in his head was nearly as loud. Wait! There it was again! A message drum. It came from far away, very far away, but there was no mistaking it. Why hadnít the night guard reported it? He had to have heard it. And again, there it was, plain as day. Well, not plain, really. Bouncing off the baobab trees in the forest, the sound was, to him, as incomprehensible as Aloka's taste in dashikis--purple and orange plaids with silver sequin piping. Such costumery did not sit well with the tribe's strict fashion chief, but Aloka possessed mystical ventriloquism powers, and the chief always backed down when confronted by a pair of talking moccasins.

The moon suddenly emerged from behind a thick wall of clouds, and the reflected light ricocheted through the window and onto Aloka's face, illuminating it with a sickly, jaundiced pallor. Always the kidder, Otumbeke made a hand shadow of Elephant Spirit over his face, and Aloka's mahogany-hued body responded by sprouting half a dozen little prehensile trunks. Otumbeke wiggled the finger that represented the Spirit's schnozzle, and the pliant noselets followed suit. Three of them even trumpeted excitedly, eliciting similar responses from around the room. Then the moon--clearly embarrassed--darted behind the cloud, and the Elephant Spirit image was quickly reduced to a humdrum Rorschach inkblot.

The message drum, there it was again! And it sounded closer now. Was it up to him to sound the alarm? Silently, Otumbeke slipped out of his bed, tiptoed to the doorway, and climbed down the stair. A light nighttime breeze was blowing, and he happily inhaled the pungent smell of the surrounding savanna, an odor he never tired of. In the sky directly above him sat the constellation Tautalus, the Tuba Player. Automatically, he drew a line through the stars that made up the instrument's valves and determined true north. It was the only useful information the white Disney missionary ever imparted to him.

Thum thum thum ... thum ... thum thum--the sound was louder than ever. Why hadn't anyone else heard it? What did the message say? Where was the night guard? He padded across the courtyard to the giant termite mound that served as the tribe's lookout post. The ladder was still broken, so Otumbeke took the elevator to the top of the mound. The tribe had a symbiotic relationship with the termites. Every seven to nine weeks, they turned one of their women elders into a softwood tree, such as a spruce or pine, and sacrificed her to the insects, who diligently ate every last morsel. (Just as important, thought Otumbeke, they didn't go after anybody else during this time!) Then, en masse, they excreted a white paste that hardened into a plywood-like material that the tribal builders used to construct the abattoirs for which they were so famous. It sounded to Otumbeke as if the termites were working on their dessert course this night, so he stepped from the car onto the lookout platform with confidence--which was summarily shattered when he saw that the post was empty! Never before in the history of the tribe had there not been a night guard! Something was very wrong here. And there were the drums again--thum thum thum thum--nearly deafening now.

Otumbeke spotted the tribe's talking drum by the elevator door. He picked it up, tried to recall some of the myriad nuances of message drum articulation, and began to play.

"W-H-O-A-R-E-Y-O-Y ?" He recognized his mistake the moment he beat it. "I-M-E-A-N-W-H-O-A-R-E-Y-O-U ?," he amended. The other message drum paused.

"Q-W-E-R-T-Y-U-I-O-P !," came the reply, a word or phrase unfamiliar to Otumbeke.

"H-U-H ?," he beat back. "D-O-N-O-T-U-N-D-E-R-S-T-A-D-N ..." Otumbeke fumed. Another drumographical error! He was about to correct this latest blunder when the other message drum responded with perfect clarity.

"Hello. It's the 386th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar. Sorry, but we seem to have bled over onto an unauthorized frequency. Please disregard previous message. Our engineer is working now to fix the problem. If this transmission continues unchecked, please contact your local telecomdrumication company, or, beat 4-5-4-7-7-6-2 and ask for Kalvos."