Analysis of Sounds of a Cowhide Drum by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali

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 General Introduction 

"Sounds of a Cowhide Drum" by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali captures the essence of African heritage and identity through the powerful imagery of a distant drumbeat echoing across the sky. The poem begins with the distant rumble of thunder, symbolizing a connection to nature and the ancestral spirits. As the drumbeat draws nearer, it evokes a sense of anticipation and pride, stirring the soul like a primal call to remember one's roots. Through vivid descriptions and rhythmic language, Mtshali paints a portrait of resilience and cultural pride, urging the reader to embrace their heritage and reclaim their identity amidst a history of colonization and cultural suppression. The cowhide drum becomes a symbol of resistance, echoing the voices of the ancestors and proclaiming the enduring spirit of Mother Africa.


The poem "Sounds of a Cowhide Drum" by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali explores several themes, including:

1. Cultural Identity: The poem celebrates African heritage and identity, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging and embracing one's roots despite historical oppression and cultural erasure.

2. Ancestral Connection: Through the imagery of the drumbeat symbolizing the voices of ancestors, the poem highlights the deep spiritual connection to the past and the enduring presence of ancestral spirits in African culture.

3. Resilience and Resistance: Mtshali portrays the cowhide drum as a symbol of resilience and resistance against colonialism and cultural suppression. Despite attempts to erase African culture, the drum continues to echo the voice of Mother Africa, asserting the enduring strength of the African spirit.

4. Colonialism and Cultural Suppression: The poem alludes to the impact of colonialism and missionary zeal on African culture, referencing a "glorious past trampled by the conqueror" and a heritage destroyed by external forces. It underscores the importance of preserving and reclaiming African traditions in the face of historical oppression.

5. Celebration of Tradition: The poem celebrates traditional African rituals and practices, such as the Zulu dance and the night vigil of black Zionists, portraying them as essential components of cultural identity and spiritual connection.

Overall, "Sounds of a Cowhide Drum" serves as a rallying cry for cultural preservation, resilience, and pride in the face of adversity.

Literary Devices

"Sounds of a Cowhide Drum" by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali employs various literary devices to convey its themes and imagery effectively. Some of these devices include:

1. Imagery: The poem is rich in sensory imagery, particularly auditory and visual, allowing readers to vividly imagine the distant drumbeat, the rumble of thunder, and the scenes of African cultural rituals.

2. Metaphor: The cowhide drum serves as a metaphor for African cultural heritage and identity, symbolizing resilience, ancestral connection, and resistance against colonialism.

3. Personification: The drum is personified as "the drum of your dormant soul," imbuing it with human-like qualities and suggesting a spiritual connection between the instrument and the individual.

4. Symbolism: Various symbols are used throughout the poem, such as the drum representing the voice of Mother Africa, the rumble of thunder signifying ancestral spirits, and the Zulu dance and night vigil symbolizing traditional African rituals and practices.

5. Repetition: The repetition of the phrase "Boom! Boom! Boom!" emphasizes the rhythmic quality of the drumbeat and creates a sense of urgency and intensity, drawing attention to the central imagery of the cowhide drum.

6. Alliteration: Alliteration is used sparingly but effectively in phrases like "rumble and a roar of thunder," "habitant in hallowed huts," and "forever vigilant," enhancing the musicality and rhythm of the poem.

7. Parallelism: The poem utilizes parallelism in phrases like "I prick my ears" and "my hopes soaring high," emphasizing the speaker's heightened awareness and emotional state in response to the drumbeat.

8. Anaphora: The repetition of the phrase "O! Hear me, Child!" serves as an anaphora, emphasizing the importance of the message being conveyed and invoking a sense of urgency and significance.

These literary devices contribute to the poem's effectiveness in conveying its themes of cultural identity, ancestral connection, resilience, and resistance against colonialism.


"Sounds of a Cowhide Drum" was written by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, a prominent South African poet known for his works that explore themes of African identity, cultural heritage, and social justice. Mtshali was born in 1940 in Vryheid, South Africa, during the era of apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the National Party government from 1948 to 1994.

The poem was likely composed during the latter half of the 20th century when South Africa was grappling with the oppressive policies of apartheid. During this time, there was a significant cultural and political movement aimed at reclaiming African heritage and asserting African identity in the face of colonialism and cultural suppression.

"Sounds of a Cowhide Drum" reflects the broader social and political context of apartheid-era South Africa, where African cultural traditions and identities were marginalized and often actively suppressed by the apartheid regime. The poem serves as a testament to the resilience of African culture and the enduring spirit of resistance against oppression.

Mtshali's work, including this poem, played a significant role in giving voice to the struggles and aspirations of Black South Africans during the apartheid era. Through his poetry, Mtshali sought to reclaim and celebrate African heritage while also shedding light on the injustices and hardships faced by his people.

Overall, the context of apartheid-era South Africa provides a backdrop for understanding the themes and messages of "Sounds of a Cowhide Drum," as it reflects the poet's response to the social, cultural, and political realities of his time.


The structure of "Sounds of a Cowhide Drum" by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali contributes to the poem's thematic depth and rhythmic intensity. Here's an analysis of its structure:

1. Stanza Form: The poem consists of four stanzas, each varying in length. The first stanza is comprised of four lines, the second stanza of three lines, the third stanza of six lines, and the fourth stanza of three lines. This irregular stanza form adds to the poem's organic and rhythmic flow, mirroring the unpredictable nature of the drumbeat and the varied emotions evoked by the imagery.

2. Repetition: The repetition of the phrase "Boom! Boom! Boom!" throughout the poem serves as a structural device, anchoring the rhythmic quality of the drumbeat and creating a sense of urgency and intensity. This repetition also highlights the central image of the cowhide drum, reinforcing its symbolic significance.

3. Parallelism: The poem employs parallel structures in certain phrases, such as "I prick my ears / like a buck ready to flee" and "O! Hear me, Child!" This parallelism adds to the poem's musicality and enhances the thematic coherence by emphasizing key ideas and images.

4. Shifts in Tone: The poem exhibits shifts in tone, moving from descriptions of distant rumblings and anticipation to more assertive declarations about African heritage and identity. These shifts in tone contribute to the poem's dynamic structure, reflecting the speaker's evolving emotions and the progression of the drumbeat.

5. Imagery: The poem's structure is enriched by vivid sensory imagery, particularly auditory and visual, which creates a vivid mental landscape for the reader. The imagery of thunder, drumbeats, and cultural rituals adds layers of meaning and depth to the poem, enhancing its structural complexity.

Overall, the structure of "Sounds of a Cowhide Drum" reflects the thematic content and emotional resonance of the poem, while also contributing to its rhythmic and aesthetic appeal. The combination of irregular stanza form, repetition, parallelism, and vivid imagery creates a cohesive and impactful poetic experience for the reader.

Tone and Mood

The tone and mood of "Sounds of a Cowhide Drum" by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali are intricately woven to evoke a range of emotions and sentiments throughout the poem.


1. Reflective: At the outset, the tone is reflective, as the speaker listens to the distant drumbeat and contemplates its significance. There is a sense of introspection and contemplation as the speaker pricks their ears, indicating a deep connection to the sounds of the drum.

2. Anticipatory: As the drumbeat grows nearer, the tone becomes anticipatory, filled with a sense of excitement and expectation. The repetition of "Boom! Boom! Boom!" intensifies this anticipation, creating a rhythmic and pulsating atmosphere that propels the poem forward.

3. Assertive: The tone shifts to one of assertion and proclamation as the speaker identifies with the drum, declaring, "I am the drum of your dormant soul." There is a sense of empowerment and confidence as the speaker asserts their identity and connection to African heritage.

4. Instructive: Towards the end of the poem, the tone takes on an instructive quality as the speaker implores the reader to heed the message of the drum. There is a sense of urgency and importance as the speaker seeks to convey the significance of African cultural traditions and history.


1. Mysterious: The initial mood of the poem is mysterious, as the distant drumbeat and rumble of thunder evoke a sense of wonder and intrigue. There is a mystical quality to the sounds, hinting at the presence of ancestral spirits and ancient traditions.

2. Elevated: As the drumbeat grows nearer and the speaker's emotions intensify, the mood becomes elevated, filled with a sense of excitement and elevation. The soaring imagery of hopes reaching "into the eagle's throne" contributes to this elevated mood, suggesting a feeling of transcendence and inspiration.

3. Proud: Throughout the poem, there is an underlying mood of pride in African heritage and identity. The speaker takes pride in being the drum of the reader's soul and celebrates the rich cultural traditions of Africa, despite the challenges and oppression faced by the community.

4. Urgent: Towards the conclusion of the poem, the mood becomes urgent as the speaker implores the reader to listen to the message of the drum. There is a sense of urgency and importance in preserving and reclaiming African cultural heritage, emphasizing the need for action and awareness.

Overall, the tone and mood of "Sounds of a Cowhide Drum" work together to create a multi-dimensional and emotionally resonant poetic experience, inviting the reader to contemplate themes of identity, heritage, and resilience.

Language and Diction

"Sounds of a Cowhide Drum" by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali utilizes language and diction that are evocative, rhythmic, and culturally resonant. Here's an analysis of the poem's language and diction:

1. Imagery: The poem is rich in vivid sensory imagery, particularly auditory imagery related to the sounds of the drumbeat and thunder. Phrases like "a rumble and a roar of thunder" and "Boom! Boom! Boom!" create a vivid mental picture and evoke aural sensations, immersing the reader in the experience of the poem.

2. Cultural References: Mtshali incorporates culturally specific references, such as the Zulu dance and black Zionists, which add authenticity and depth to the poem. These references contribute to the portrayal of African cultural traditions and heritage, enriching the thematic content of the poem.

3. Symbolism: The poem employs symbolic language, such as the cowhide drum representing African identity and heritage. The drum serves as a powerful symbol of resilience and resistance against colonialism, carrying layers of meaning that resonate throughout the poem.

4. Rhythm and Repetition: The poem's language is characterized by rhythmic patterns and repetition, mirroring the beat of the drum. The repeated phrase "Boom! Boom! Boom!" not only creates a rhythmic effect but also emphasizes the intensity and urgency of the drumbeat, drawing attention to its central significance.

5. Figurative Language: Mtshali uses figurative language, such as metaphor and personification, to imbue the poem with depth and resonance. For example, the speaker personifies the drum as "the drum of your dormant soul" and metaphorically connects it to the "Voice of Mother Africa," adding layers of meaning and emotional resonance to the imagery.

6. Descriptive Language: The poet employs descriptive language to paint vivid scenes and evoke strong emotions. Phrases like "my hopes soaring high into the eagle's throne" and "shaking their hearts into a frenzy" create powerful visual and emotional images that enhance the impact of the poem.

Overall, the language and diction of "Sounds of a Cowhide Drum" contribute to its effectiveness in conveying themes of cultural identity, resilience, and ancestral connection. Through evocative imagery, cultural references, and rhythmic language, Mtshali crafts a poem that resonates with readers on both an intellectual and emotional level.


"Sounds of a Cowhide Drum" by Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali is a powerful exploration of African heritage, identity, and resilience. Through vivid imagery, rhythmic language, and cultural references, Mtshali portrays the drum as a symbol of African identity and resistance against colonialism and cultural suppression. The poem's reflective, anticipatory, assertive, and instructive tones create a multi-dimensional emotional experience, inviting readers to contemplate the significance of their heritage and the enduring spirit of Mother Africa. With its evocative language, rich symbolism, and thematic depth, "Sounds of a Cowhide Drum" stands as a testament to the power of poetry to illuminate the complexities of history, culture, and identity.

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