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