“The Little Drummer Boy”: Four Versions (Nigeria, India, Cuba, Norway)

Written in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis, “Carol of the Drum,” later retitled “The Little Drummer Boy,” tells the story of a poor boy who cannot afford to bring any material gifts to the newborn Christ child, so instead he brings a heartfelt drum song.

Come, they told me
Pa rum pum pum pum
A newborn king to see
Pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring
Pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the king
Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
So to honor him
Pa rum pum pum pum
When we come

Little baby
Pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too
Pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring
Pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give a king
Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Shall I play for you
Pa rum pum pum pum
On my drum

Mary nodded
Pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time
Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for him
Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for him
Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Then he smiled at me
Pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum

The song has been recorded hundreds of times, even serving as the basis of an animated children’s movie, and yet it often makes the top of “most hated Christmas carols” lists. It’s far too sentimental, people say, or just plain annoying. Some Christians get in a huff about the invented drummer boy character; “there was no such boy at the birth!” they insist.

But I must admit, I rather like the song. Like the story of the widow’s mite, “The Little Drummer Boy” affirms that no gift offered in love is insignificant. The child has no gold, frankincense, or myrrh to offer to God, but he offers his very self, which is no meager thing. He brings his love and devotion. This idea of bringing a sacrifice of praise for the Savior’s birthday is found in other carols too, such as “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “What Can I Give” (Mahalia Jackson).

Little Drummer Boy
From top to bottom: Alex Boyé, Cassius Khan [source], unidentified bongo player [source], Henriette Kolset
Here I’d like to call out four global renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy.” I know the song has been performed in many languages and countries, but these four have distinct cultural flavors that make them unique among the many covers of the carol over the years.

Nigeria: Alex Boyé, feat. Genesis Choir, 2015

Alex Boyé is a British-born singer, dancer, and actor of Nigerian descent. He became a Mormon in 1986 at age sixteen, moved to Salt Lake City in 2000, and became a US citizen in 2012. He is known for his uplifting African-infused pop music, much of it of a religious nature.

(Related post: “Yoruba Christmas Carol and Art [Nigeria]”)

In 2015 Boyé created a music video for an “African tribal version” of “The Little Drummer Boy,” which starts with a mother and her two daughters being evicted from their home. A neighbor lets them stay in his RV, but they are obviously dejected. Over this introductory narrative, Boyé sings “Nearer, My God, to Thee”:

Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross
That raiseth me.

Then a knock comes at the door of the camper. It’s a bright-eyed little African drummer boy, come to cheer up the family. The mom dismisses him, but another knock brings her to the door once more. This time it’s the whole neighborhood, bearing a song, a dance, and gifts.

Oluwa! Olodumare! Olorun! Boyé exclaims before he and his troupe break out into their syncopated number. These are Yoruba names for God, so this is a way, I’d imagine, of marking the song as one of worship, suggesting that the love of neighbor expressed through the characters’ gift giving is an extension of their love of God.

[Purchase on Bandcamp]

India: Terry McDade and the McDades, feat. Cassius Khan, 2004

The McDades are siblings Shannon Johnson (fiddle, vocals), Solon McDade (upright bass, vocals), and Jeremiah McDade (woodwinds, vocals, etc.), hailing from Canada. Their music is multicultural to begin with, blending Celtic, jazz, Canadian folk, and worldbeat influences. It’s hard to categorize, and that’s one of the things I like about it.

They sometimes perform with their dad, harpist Terry McDade, as on the album Noël. For their mostly instrumental rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy,” they also collaborated with classical Indian musician Cassius Khan, who plays the tabla (drum) and tanpura (drone) on the track, as well as sings the opening vocals.

Shannon plays the violin and Jeremiah plays the bansuri (Indian bamboo flute).

Because of the group’s improvisatory approach to music making (and a change in guest percussionist), the studio recording sounds quite different from the live stage performance from 2016, which features Eric Breton on frame drum (in place of Khan on tabla), Andrew Hillhouse on acoustic guitar, Solon McDade on upright bass, Terry McDade on harp, and a chamber orchestra:

There are no Indian musicians in this performance, so it doesn’t have as strong of an Indian feel, and in fact the drum has a smaller role overall, giving way in parts to a full orchestral sound. Also, Khan’s classical Indian singing at the beginning of the song on the album is replaced here by Jeremiah McDade’s Tuvan throat singing!

[Purchase on Amazon, iTunes, or from your preferred digital music retailer]

Cuba: Luis Ríos (arr.) and Tania, 2009(?)

By googling “Cuban drummer boy,” I arrived at a YouTube video of the song “El Pequeño Cantor (Little Drummer Boy).” This appears on the 2009 compilation album Natale a Cuba [Spotify], whose metadata credits “Tania Tania” as the singer and Luis Ríos (born 1963) as the arranger. I wasn’t able to find any information about the singer, whom I suspect goes by just the first name Tania, or when the song was originally recorded. And I don’t know enough about Cuban music to identify the genre. But I really like this fun, danceable arrangement.

[Purchase on Amazon]

Norway: Eva Holm Foosnæs (arr.) and the NTNU Department of Music, 2016

OK, so Norway is not known for its drumming as are Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, so this arrangement, by Eva Holm Foosnæs, is not as rhythmic as the others, nor is there anything particularly “Norwegian” about the music that I can tell, other than it’s performed by singers and instrumentalists from Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim. But the gorgeous regional landscapes in which the music video was shot—over snowy mountain paths, through evergreen forests—give the song a magical, wintry, dark, folklorish feel that I associate with Scandinavia.

This feel comes across too in the dramatic swells and minor chords of the music.

The cinematography is by Terje Trobe.

The singers are Magnus Fremstad, Sivert Jullumstrø, Thale Jørstad, Torunn Kroknes, Eline Kolstad, Trygve Misvær, Fredrick Skjeldal, and Frida Skotte. The strings players are Björn Guo, Astri C. Hoffman, Anders Holmås, Anders H. Rove, and Carl N. Wika. And the percussionist is Henriette Kolset (a drummer girl—nice!).

+++

Are there any culturally specific renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy” that you know of and enjoy? I was hoping to find one from Japan, as I love listening to taiko drumming, but had no luck.

2 thoughts on ““The Little Drummer Boy”: Four Versions (Nigeria, India, Cuba, Norway)

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