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The Human Hambone

by Mark Morgan, Director
First Run / Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY, 2005
VHS, 49 mins., col.
Sales (Video-DVD), $379; rental (Video), $75
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa


The word "hambone" is slang for the venerable practice of making instrumental music without instruments, usually by rhythmically slapping ones legs, thighs, chest and so on. In this film, the term is used in a wider sense, bringing in other phenomena like mouth sounds, playing the spoons, plus tap, step and other foot music. While none of these may have originated in the U.S., they were probably encouraged in the 18th century (in response to slave rebellions) by the forbidding of slaves to use African drums. Denied traditional methods, they did not stop making music, but did it through improvisation instead, by playing their bodies and singing. One of the virtues of this film is the measured and credible manner in which it traces the historic use of body music, in part by using excerpts from interviews with historians. In addition, the narrative talks about how rhythmic sound is closely tied to our own clock-like body sounds, such as our heartbeat, breathing, the rhythm of jogging, and so on. But the best and most delightful moments are found in a wealth of voice-over performances by a variety of hambone, tap and other musicians, including Sam McGrier, Radioactive, Click the Supah Latin, Sandy Silva, Artis the Spoonman, and others. It really is hard to imagine how anyone could come away from these performances without a sense of astonishment and, maybe, a new understanding about racial unity. This wonderful film, its press release asserts, is "as entertaining as it is informative," and it truly is. Indeed, I suspect there are very few films that would be of interest to such a broad range of audiences, in part because (as amply shown) all human beings have rhythm, and virtually all human beings have made some attempts at body music.

(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Volume 21 Number 1, Autumn 2005.)



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