The Talking Drums of the Yorubas
BY “AWAKE!” CORRESPONDENT IN NIGERIA
THE visitor to Lagos was engrossed in conversation. Suddenly he was suspended in mid-gesture! The earnest expression on his face froze momentarily and then gave place to a look of puzzled surprise. He listened carefully for a few moments, turning his head as if trying to catch a sound more clearly. His puzzled expression deepened. Finally he turned to his companion, who was unsuccessfully trying to conceal his amusement, and asked, “What on earth is that?”
By then the sound had come much nearer. It seemed to be the sound of a drum, but it was somewhat like a voice—an alien voice speaking a strange tongue. It certainly was not a human voice. Though it possessed the intonations and variations of speech, it lacked the articulation of consonant sounds. Yet it did not resemble the tones of any musical instrument of which the visitor knew.
But it was the voice of a musical instrument. It was the voice of the talking drums of the Yorubas.
The Language of the Drums
The friend now had the opportunity to describe and explain the use of these drums. He began by saying that in Yorubaland of Nigeria and within Yoruba-speaking communities of West Africa, a variety of drums is used to beat out the drum language. Messages can be sent in this way, but only over short distances. The drums serve more customarily to accompany dancing and singing.
This is made possible because the Yoruba language is tonal. Words that are spelled exactly alike are differentiated in normal speech by gliding variations in tone and pitch. The drums imitate the intonations and cadences of speech, so that the drum language closely resembles the spoken Yoruba tongue. In this way the talking drums differ from the tom-toms of other tribes, which cannot imitate language but are used to send coded messages over very long distances.
It requires much training to learn to use the drums. The language consists of set phrases that usually form an oriki. The oriki is an expression possessed by each family, like an emblem in words, portraying the status, profession, religion or tradition of the family. The skilled drummer must learn the orikis of many different families. He must also acquire the mechanical skill to beat sounds on the drum in imitation of the tones of speech.
So a prospective drummer has to be apprenticed to a master drummer at a very young age in order to ensure that he has enough time to master the intricacies of the profession, including the acquiring of the necessary touch and dexterity. Traditionally, drumming was a profession that was inherited in certain families. The art was handed down from father to son, so that a high degree of skill was maintained.
There are different types of drums, all made from hollowed-out wood, that are used for reciting messages. The dundun is the most versatile set of talking drums. It is made up of five pieces. Four are hourglass-shaped pressure drums and one is a shallow hemisphere.
The dundun is usually suspended from a wide strap across the left shoulder and tucked under the left arm. The player alternately squeezes and relaxes the pressure on leather thongs to raise or lower the pitch of the sound of the drum. These thongs or strings connect the skins covering both ends of the drum. They are so closely arranged that practically every part of the skins is affected one way or the other when they are manipulated by the skilled drummer. Using a drumstick shaped like a crane’s bill, he can play a melody of almost an octave in range on his drum.
In addition to reciting messages with the dundun battery, professional musicians use them for playing traditional music. When serving in the private band of the chief of a community, the drummers herald the approach of the chief with flattering recitations from the drums.
These are the drums that aroused the interest of the visitor to Lagos as they accompanied a family procession, reciting the praise of the family.