Do African Drums Really Talk?
By Awake! correspondent in Nigeria
DURING his journey down the Congo River in 1876-77, explorer Henry Stanley had little opportunity to reflect on the merits of local drumming. For him and his fellow travelers, the message of the drums could usually be summed up in one word: war. The dull booming they heard meant that they were about to be attacked by ferocious warriors armed with spears.
It was only in later, more peaceful times that Stanley learned how much more drums could express than a call to arms. Describing one ethnic group that lived along the Congo, Stanley wrote: “[They] have not yet adopted electric signals but possess, however, a system of communication quite as effective. Their huge drums being struck in different parts convey language as clear to the initiated as vocal speech.” Stanley realized that the drummers sent far more than a signal of a bugle or a siren; drums could convey specific messages.
Such messages could be relayed from village to village. Some drums were heard at a distance of five to seven miles, especially if they were beaten at night from a floating raft or a hilltop. Distant drummers listened, understood, and relayed the messages to others. English traveler A. B. Lloyd wrote in 1899: “I was told that from one village to another, a distance of over 100 miles, a message could be sent in less than two hours, and I quite believe it possible for it to be done in much less time.”
Well into the 20th century, drums continued to play an important role in conveying information. The book Musical Instruments of Africa, published in 1965, stated: “Talking drums are used as telephones and telegraphs. All kinds of messages are sent—to announce births, deaths, and marriages; sporting events, dances, and initiation ceremonies; government messages, and war. Sometimes the drums carry gossip or jokes.”
But how did the drums communicate? In Europe and elsewhere, messages were sent by electric impulses over telegraph lines. Each letter of the alphabet was assigned its own code so that words and sentences could be spelled out a letter at a time. The peoples of Central Africa, however, had no written language, so the drums did not spell out words. African drummers used a different system.
The Language of the Drum
The key to understanding drum communication lies in the African languages themselves. Many languages of Central and West Africa are essentially bitonal—each syllable of every spoken word has one of two fundamental tones, either high or low. A change of tone changes the word. Consider, for example, the word lisaka, from the Kele language of Zaire. When all three syllables are pronounced in a low tone, the word means “puddle or marsh”; a low-low-high pronunciation of the syllables means “promise”; a low-high-high intonation means “poison.”
The African slit-drums used to transmit messages also have two tones, high and low. Similarly, when skin-topped drums send a message, they are used in pairs, with one drum having a high tone and the other a low tone. Thus, a skillful drummer communicates by imitating the tonal pattern of words that make up the spoken language. The book Talking Drums of Africa states: “This so-called drum language is essentially the same as the spoken language of the tribe.”
Of course, a bitonal language usually has many words with identical tones and syllables. For example, in the Kele language, about 130 nouns have the same tone pattern (high-high) as sango (father). More than 200 have the same pattern (low-high) as nyango (mother). To avoid confusion, drummers provide a context for such words, including them in a short well-known phrase containing enough variation to enable the listener to understand what is being said.
Talking With Slit-Drums
One type of talking drum is the wooden slit-drum. (See picture on page 23.) Such drums are formed by carving a hollow in a section of tree. There is no skin drumhead on either end. Although the drum in the photograph has two slits, many have only one long slit. A blow on one lip of the slit produces a high tone; a blow on the other lip produces a low tone. Slit-drums are usually about three feet long [1 m], though they can be as short as a foot and a half [0.5 m] or as long as seven feet [2 m]. The diameter might range from eight inches [20 cm] to as much as three feet [1 m].
Slit-drums were used for more than merely sending messages from village to village. Cameroonian author Francis Bebey described the role of these drums in wrestling matches. As two opposing teams prepared to meet in the village square, the champions danced to the rhythm of the slit-drums while the drums sang their praises. The drum of one side might proclaim: “Champion, have you ever met your match? Who can rival you, tell us who? These poor creatures . . . think they can beat you with some poor [soul] they call a champion . . . , but no one could ever beat you.” The musicians in the rival camp would understand these good-natured taunts and drum a quick proverbial reply: “The little monkey . . . the little monkey . . . he wants to climb the tree but everyone thinks he’ll fall. But the little monkey is stubborn, he won’t fall off the tree, he’ll climb right to the top, this little monkey.” The drums would continue to entertain throughout the wrestling match.
The Drums That Talk Best of All
Pressure drums go a step further. The drum you see in the picture on the right is called a dundun; it is the famous Yoruba talking drum, from Nigeria. Shaped like an hourglass, this drum has a head at each end, made of thin, tanned goatskin. The heads are joined by means of leather thongs. When the thongs are squeezed, the tension on the drumhead increases so that it can produce notes with a range of an octave or more. By using a curved drumstick and changing the pitch and rhythm of the sounds, a skillful drummer can imitate the rise and fall of the human voice. Drummers can thus hold “conversations” with other drummers who can interpret and play the drum language.
In May 1976 the remarkable ability of drummers to communicate using drums was demonstrated by court musicians of a Yoruba chief. Volunteers from the audience whispered a series of instructions to the master drummer who, in turn, drummed the instructions to another musician located far from the courtyard. Responding to the drummed instructions, the musician moved from one location to another and carried out whatever action he was requested to perform.
It is not easy to learn to send a drummed message. Observed writer I. Laoye: “Yoruba drumming is a complex and difficult art that requires many years of study. The drummer is not only required to possess great manual skill and a sense of rhythm, but also a good memory for poetry and the history of the town.”
In recent decades the African drums do not talk as much as they used to, although they still retain an important role in music. Says the book Musical Instruments of Africa: “Learning to play messages on drums is extremely difficult; therefore, this art is fast disappearing from Africa.” Adds media specialist Robert Nicholls: “The huge drums of the past, whose voices traveled for miles and whose sole function was to transmit messages, are destined for extinction.” Most people these days find it more convenient to pick up the telephone.
[Picture on page 23]
[Picture on page 23]
Yoruba talking drum