________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 13. . . .November 25, 2011


Brave Music of a Distant Drum.

Manu Herbstein.
Markham, ON: Red Deer Press/Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2011.
175 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-0-88995-470-0.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Ruth Latta.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



The two white men dragged the woman down the steps and propped her against the main mast. She was wide-eyed with terror. The gag prevented her from crying out, but I sensed her muffled scream as Knox's accomplice twisted her arms behind the mast. Knox fumbled with his trouser cord and then he was inside her. But she twisted to one side and, in that movement, expelled his organ. He took a step back and struck her face so violently that her head struck the mast. She stopped resisting. Knox re-entered her. His mates cheered.

But even in their excitement, they kept their voices low, looking back at the quarter-deck from time to time. Then Knox made his final triumphant thrust. He withdrew and his accomplice released his hold on the woman. She slumped to the deck and the man dragged her to one side.

"You next, Fred," said Joe Knox, licking his lips as he pulled up his trousers.


Brave Music of a Distant Drum is in the tradition of Alex Haley's Roots and Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes. These dramatic blends of fact and fiction expose the horrors of slavery. Like Hill, Manu Herbstein, a Ghanaian/South African of European ancestry, has taken on the challenge of writing from a female point of view.

      The story is told by three narrators. Ama, old and blind, wants to tell her life story to her son Kwame, also known as Zacharias, so that he can pass it on to his infant daughter. Kwame, raised by a Brazilian sugar plantation owner, Senhora Miranda Williams, who has promised him his freedom, reacts to his mother's story from his unique point of view. Kwame/Zacharias has been educated and works as a clerk/scribe for Miranda's husband, Gavin Williams, the British consul in Salvador, Brazil. The third narrator is Josef, an elderly slave who acts as boatman on the plantation and who knows part of Ama's history.

      The action begins when 15-year-old Nandzi is stolen from her Ghanaian village by mounted raiders from another community. After a forced march with other slaves, she arrives at the Asante kingdom where she is given as a gift to the Asante queen mother. Renamed Ama, Nandzi enjoys a degree of freedom and is treated decently until court politics lead to her being sold, this time to the Dutch governor of the notorious slave port of Elmina. The governor makes her his mistress and teaches her to read and write.

      After his death, she is sold and shipped to America, enduring a terrible trans-Atlantic voyage on a slave ship ironically named Love of Liberty. When the slaves rise in revolt, Ama admires the courage of a freedom fighter, Tomba, with whom she later reconnects. She is sold to a Brazilian sugar plantation where she later has a son with Tomba.

      Brutality, including rape, abounds. Resistance leads to Ama's disfigurement and Tomba's death. The novel is a worthy and instructive depiction of a horrific violation of human rights. In his author's note, Manu Herbstein deplores the lack of discussion and education about slavery:

The slave plantations in the Americas were the testing ground for the future factories of the industrial revolution and for the concentration camps established by the British in South Africa and by the Nazis in Europe in the Second World War.

     Unfortunately, the author's storytelling skills do not quite reach the standard set by Haley and Hill. Brave Music of a Distant Drum opens with flat biographical narration by the principal characters. Possibly Herbstein made this narrative choice to achieve authenticity; however, a more lyrical opening, one which established the setting clearly, with evocative description, would orient and hook readers.

      The only hints in the first pages as to the setting are Ama's statements that she is a slave and that it is "against the laws of the Portuguese to teach slaves to read and write." An adult reader, seeing "Portuguese," might correctly guess "Brazil." Canadian teens have probably heard of slavery in the history of the United States and may jump to the conclusion that the book is set there. A map showing "The Atlantic Slave Trade: Volume and Destination, 1701-1810" might dispel this assumption but does not help readers pinpoint the time period. Eventually, references are made to Pamela, (1740), Tom Jones (1749) and The Wealth of Nations, (1776) which suggest that the era is the mid-to-late 18th century, but teenage readers, having not yet encountered these classics, could not use them as time clues.

      Brave Music of a Distant Drum includes 55 characters (listed at the beginning of the book) and many events, including a shipboard revolt, a plantation fire, and numerous acts of sexual assault, rape and torture. The author's choices as to which events to summarize and which to dramatize seem out of balance. For instance, the exotic Asante court is presented in four pages of summary while the courtship and wedding of the characters Gavin and Miranda Williams take up 15 pages. In other words, some potentially compelling parts of the novel are rushed or presented flatly. Brave Music of a Distant Drum has too much plot for its 175 pages; the author cannot do justice to the many events included.

      Manu Herbstein won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book for Ama: A Story of the African Slave Trade (2002). The cover blurb of Brave Music of a Distant Drum states that this second novel is a "fresh use of his original research material for a younger North American audience."

      The shocking, sensational scenes in Brave Music of a Distant Drum lead one to expect an action-packed conclusion. The novel ends, however, in a low key confrontation between Kwame/Zacharias and Senhor and Senhora Williams. Kwame confronts Miranda Williams for turning a blind eye to the sexual violence on her plantation and the unjust execution of his father, and informs Gavin Williams that he will henceforth be known as Kwame. While the content of the final scene contributes to the theme of white duplicity, the confrontation is tame in comparison to what has come before.


Ruth Latta's novel, The Old Love and the New Love, will be published by Baico Publishing, Ottawa, in 2012.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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