Beatniks, Bongos, And Me

There was a period during my teen years when I toyed with the idea of becoming a “beatnik”, but I don’t think I was ever really serious. It’s more likely that I was – like any teenager – just trying to find myself, and see if I could figure out where I was going with my life. Still, being a beatnik sounded pretty good at the time.

I would guess that most people know what a beatnik was, but I probably should explain it for those who don’t. Beatnik was the semi-serious nickname given to anyone who believed in the philosophy of the “beat generation”, which was started by followers of the writings of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and others. It was a movement that seemed to embrace a sort of dissatisfaction, yearning, and sense of displacement, along with a definite anti-materialistic attitude.

The more rebellious aspects – laid back and mellow as they were – probably suited a lot of young people at the time, and I will confess that the idea intrigued me. The media built an image of beatniks reading their own poetry in smoky coffee-shops, complete with black berets, goatees, and of course, bongo drums. It was cartoonish and – as always with the media – so over-hyped that it became a joke, culminating in silly characters like Maynard G. Krebs on the Dobie Gillis TV show. (Remember that? Bob Denver before he was shipwrecked on Gilligan’s Island?)

I didn’t buy into the whole thing — I got the drums (that’s me in the picture – gotta love the socks) and tried to read some of the literature, but that’s about as far as I went into beatnik-hood. However, I did continue playing the bongos as much as possible, and I’d like to think I got pretty good — at least for an untalented, self-taught and delusional amateur. I know that I played them often enough to thoroughly annoy other members of the household, which is often a fringe benefit for teenagers. I eventually tired of pretending to be an aspiring beatnik, and the drums were forgotten.

Small hand-beaten drums probably go back to the dawn of civilization, but the bongo configuration is thought to have originated in Africa, later migrating with slaves to Latin America. In modern musical terms, it’s probably most closely identified with Cuban music, and here’s a good example. It’s the Klazz Brothers (who are actually German) performing “Mondango”, from their album Jazz Meets Cuba.

Hmmm…wonder what ever happened to my bongos?

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