A Modern Drummer Plays a Rock Gong, a Percussion Instrument from Prehistoric Times

Rock Gong. It sounds like a B‑52s song. But a rock gong is not a New Wave surf-rock par­ty groove. It’s not a neo-syn­th­pop act, hip hop group, or indie band (not yet). It’s a pre­his­toric instrument—as far away in time as one can get from syn­the­siz­ers and elec­tric gui­tars. Rock gongs are ancient, maybe as old as humankind. But they’re still groovy, in their way. As they say, the groove is in the play­er, not the instru­ment.

Rock gongs, or “litho­phones,” if you want to get tech­ni­cal, have been found all over the African con­ti­nent, in South Amer­i­ca, Aus­tralia, Azer­bai­jan, Eng­land, Hawaii, Ice­land, India, and every­where else pre­his­toric peo­ple lived. Not the cul­tur­al prop­er­ty of any one group, the rock gong came, rather, from a uni­ver­sal human insight into the nat­ur­al son­ic prop­er­ties of stone. (One the­o­ry even spec­u­lates that Stone­henge might have been a mas­sive col­lec­tion of rock gongs.)

Though some schol­ars have sug­gest­ed that the term “rock gong” should be reserved for sta­tion­ary, rather than portable, rocks that were used as instru­ments, the British Muse­um seems untrou­bled by the dis­tinc­tion. In the video above, archae­ol­o­gist Cor­nelia Kleinitz explains the prin­ci­ples of rock gongs found in Sudan to mod­ern rock drum­mer Liam Williamson of the band Cats on the Beach.

You can hear one of those Nubian rock gongs in its nat­ur­al habi­tat, before it was moved to the British Muse­um, in the clip just above. The rock, the nar­ra­tor tells us, has been “worn smooth by the action of peo­ple play­ing it more than 7,000 years ago. Long before the Romans, long before the Pharaohs.” Ear­ly humans would have searched long and hard for rocks that res­onat­ed at par­tic­u­lar fre­quen­cies, for ring­ing rocks that could be com­bined into scales for ear­ly xylo­phones or pro­duce a vari­ety of tones like a steel drum.

Despite their antiq­ui­ty, the study of rock gongs is a rather recent phe­nom­e­non, part of the emerg­ing field of archaeoa­coustics. “Method­olog­i­cal­ly,” write the authors of a 2016 paper on the sub­ject, “this field of research is still  in its infan­cy,” and there is much researchers do not know about the uses and vari­eties of rock gongs around the world. As Kleinitz explains to Williamson in the video at the top, archae­ol­o­gists are try­ing to under­stand the con­text in which the Nubian gongs at the British Muse­um would have been played, whether as instru­ments for rit­u­als, sig­nal­ing, fun, or all of the above.

As for the tech­niques involved in rock gong play­ing, we can only guess, but Williamson does his best to adapt his drum chops to the ancient stone kit. One crit­i­cal dif­fer­ence between our mod­ern human musi­cal instru­ments and this ancient kind, Kleinitz notes, is that the lat­ter were inte­grat­ed into the land­scape; their dis­tinc­tive sound depend­ed not only on the rock itself, but on its inter­ac­tion with the wild and unpre­dictable envi­ron­ment around it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear a 9,000 Year Old Flute—the World’s Old­est Playable Instrument—Get Played Again

What Did Ancient Greek Music Sound Like?: Lis­ten to a Recon­struc­tion That’s ‘100% Accu­rate’

Vis­it an Online Col­lec­tion of 61,761 Musi­cal Instru­ments from Across the World

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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