Drums in communication

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Bamileke people tamtam TamTam.jpg
Bamileke people tamtam

Developed and used by cultures living in forested areas, drums served as an early form of long-distance communication, and were used during ceremonial and religious functions.

Culture Social behavior and norms found in society

Culture is the social behavior and norms found in human societies. Culture is considered a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of phenomena that are transmitted through social learning in human societies. Cultural universals are found in all human societies; these include expressive forms like art, music, dance, ritual, religion, and technologies like tool usage, cooking, shelter, and clothing. The concept of material culture covers the physical expressions of culture, such as technology, architecture and art, whereas the immaterial aspects of culture such as principles of social organization, mythology, philosophy, literature, and science comprise the intangible cultural heritage of a society.

Forest dense collection of trees covering a relatively large area

A forest is a large area dominated by trees. Hundreds of more precise definitions of forest are used throughout the world, incorporating factors such as tree density, tree height, land use, legal standing and ecological function. According to the widely used Food and Agriculture Organization definition, forests covered 4 billion hectares (9.9×109 acres) (15 million square miles) or approximately 30 percent of the world's land area in 2006.

Communication is the act of conveying meanings from one entity or group to another through the use of mutually understood signs, symbols, and semiotic rules.



Talking drum

While this type of hour-glass shaped instrument can be modulated quite closely, its range is limited to a gathering or market-place, and it is primarily used in ceremonial settings. Ceremonial functions could include dance, rituals, story-telling and communication of points of order.

Modulation (music) in music

In music, modulation is the change from one key to another. This may or may not be accompanied by a change in key signature. Modulations articulate or create the structure or form of many pieces, as well as add interest. Treatment of a chord as the tonic for less than a phrase is considered tonicization.

Modulation is the essential part of the art. Without it there is little music, for a piece derives its true beauty not from the large number of fixed modes which it embraces but rather from the subtle fabric of its modulation.

Some of the groups of variations of the talking drum among West African ethnic groups:

Wolof people West African ethnic group, largest in Senegal

The Wolof people are a West African ethnic group found in northwestern Senegal, the Gambia, and southwestern coastal Mauritania. In Senegal, the Wolof are the largest ethnic group (~39%), while elsewhere they are a minority. They refer to themselves as Wolof and speak the Wolof language, in the West Atlantic branch of the Niger–Congo family of languages.

Senegal republic in Western Africa

Senegal, officially the Republic of Senegal, is a country in West Africa. Senegal is bordered by Mauritania in the north, Mali to the east, Guinea to the southeast, and Guinea-Bissau to the southwest. Senegal also borders The Gambia, a country occupying a narrow sliver of land along the banks of the Gambia River, which separates Senegal's southern region of Casamance from the rest of the country. Senegal also shares a maritime border with Cape Verde. Senegal's economic and political capital is Dakar.

Yoruba people Ethnic group of West Africa

The Yorùbá people are an African ethnic group that inhabits western Africa. The Yoruba constitute about 44 million people in total. The majority of this population is from Nigeria, where the Yorùbá make up 21% of the country's population, according to the CIA World Factbook, making them one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. Most Yoruba people speak the Yoruba language, which is the Niger-Congo language with the largest number of native, L1 or first language speakers.

In the 20th century the talking drums have become a part of popular music in West Africa, especially in the music genres of Jùjú (Nigeria) and Mbalax (Senegal).

Music form of art using sound

Music is an art form and cultural activity whose medium is sound organized in time. General definitions of music include common elements such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture. Different styles or types of music may emphasize, de-emphasize or omit some of these elements. Music is performed with a vast range of instruments and vocal techniques ranging from singing to rapping; there are solely instrumental pieces, solely vocal pieces and pieces that combine singing and instruments. The word derives from Greek μουσική . See glossary of musical terminology.

Jùjú music

Jùjú is a style of Nigerian popular music, derived from traditional Yoruba percussion. The name comes from a Yoruba word "juju" or "jiju" meaning "throwing" or "something being thrown." Juju music did not derive its name from juju, which "is a form of magic and the use of magic objects or witchcraft common in West Africa, Haiti, Cuba and other South American nations." It evolved in the 1920s in urban clubs across the countries, and was believed to have been created by AbdulRafiu Babatunde King, popularly known as Tunde King. The first jùjú recordings were by Tunde King and Ojoge Daniel from the same era of the 1920s when Tunde King pioneered it. The lead and predominant instrument of Jùjú is the Iya Ilu,"' talking drum.

Mbalax is the national popular dance music of Senegal and the Gambia. Mbalax has its sacred origins in the Serer people's ultra-religious, ultra-conservative njuup music tradition—and their sacred ndut rite ceremonies. By the 1970s, it became a fusion with other popular music from the African diaspora, the West, and afropop such as jazz, soul, Latin, Congolese rumba, and rock blended with sabar, the traditional drumming and dance music of the Wolof of Senegal. The genre's name derived from accompanying rhythms used in sabar called mbalax.

Slit gongs

Message drums, or more properly slit gongs, with hollow chambers and long, narrow openings that resonate when struck, are larger all-wood instruments hollowed out from a single log. Slit-log drums are common in the drum communication systems of Papua New Guinea, where they are known in Tok Pisin as garamut [1] . Variations in the thickness of the walls would vary the tones when struck by heavy wooden drum sticks. While some were simple utilitarian pieces they could also be highly elaborate works of sculpture while still retaining their function. Often there are small stands under each end of the drum to keep it off of the ground and let it vibrate more freely.

Resonance phenomenon in which a vibrating system or external force drives another system to oscillate with greater amplitude at specific frequencies

In mechanical systems, resonance is a phenomenon that only occurs when the frequency at which a force is periodically applied is equal or nearly equal to one of the natural frequencies of the system on which it acts. This causes the system to oscillate with larger amplitude than when the force is applied at other frequencies.

Papua New Guinea constitutional monarchy in Oceania

Papua New Guinea, officially the Independent State of Papua New Guinea is a country in Oceania that occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and its offshore islands in Melanesia, a region of the southwestern Pacific Ocean north of Australia. Its capital, located along its southeastern coast, is Port Moresby. The western half of New Guinea forms the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.

Tok Pisin is a creole language spoken throughout Papua New Guinea. It is an official language of Papua New Guinea and the most widely used language in the country. However, in parts of Western, Gulf, Central, Oro Province and Milne Bay Provinces, the use of Tok Pisin has a shorter history, and is less universal, especially among older people. While it likely developed as a trade pidgin, Tok Pisin has become a distinct language in its own right. It is often referred to by Anglophones as "New Guinea Pidgin" or "Pidgin English".

These drums were made out of hollowed logs. The bigger the log, the louder sound would be made and thus the farther it could be heard. A long slit would be cut in one side of the tree trunk. Next, the log would be hollowed out through the slit, leaving lips (wooden ledges) on each side of the opening. A drum could be tuned to produce a lower note and a higher note. For that it would need to be hollowed out more under one lip than under the other. The drum's lips are hit with sticks, beating out rhythms of high and low notes.

Sound mechanical wave that is an oscillation of pressure transmitted through a solid, liquid, or gas, composed of frequencies within the range of hearing; pressure wave, generated by vibrating structure

In physics, sound is a vibration that typically propagates as an audible wave of pressure, through a transmission medium such as a gas, liquid or solid.

Musical tuning umbrella term for the act of tuning an instrument and a system of pitches

In music, there are two common meanings for tuning:

Musical note sign used in musical notation, a pitched sound

In music, a note is the pitch and duration of a sound, and also its representation in musical notation. A note can also represent a pitch class. Notes are the building blocks of much written music: discretizations of musical phenomena that facilitate performance, comprehension, and analysis.

Under ideal conditions, the sound can be understood at 3 to 7 miles, [2] but interesting messages usually get relayed on by the next village. "The talking drums" or "jungle drums" is also a euphemism for gossip – similar to "the grapevine".


The Catuquinaru tribe of Brazil reportedly used a drum called the cambarysu to send vibrations through the ground to other cambarysus up to 1.5 km away. [3] [4] [5] Some scholars expressed skepticism that the device existed, and that it sent vibrations through the ground rather than the air. [3]

Drum languages

In Africa, New Guinea and the tropical America, people have used drum telegraphy to communicate with each other from far away for centuries. When European expeditions came into the jungles to explore the local forest, they were surprised to find that the message of their coming and their intention was carried through the woods a step in advance of their arrival. An African message can be transmitted at the speed of 100 miles in an hour. [6]

Among the famous communication drums are the drums of West Africa (see talking drum). From regions known today as Nigeria and Ghana they spread across West Africa and to America and the Caribbean during the slave trade. There they were banned because they were being used by the slaves to communicate over long distances in a code unknown to their enslavers. [7]

Talking drums were also used in East Africa and are described by Andreus Bauer in the 'Street of Caravans' while acting as security guard in the Wissmann Truppe for the caravan of Charles Stokes.

The traditional drumming found in Africa is actually of three different types. Firstly, a rhythm can represent an idea (or signal); secondly it can repeat the accentual profile of a spoken utterance; or thirdly it can simply be subject to musical laws.

Drum communication methods are not languages in their own right; they are based on actual natural languages. The sounds produced are conventionalized or idiomatic signals based on speech patterns. The messages are normally very stereotyped and context-dependent. They lack the ability to form new combinations and expressions.

In central and east Africa, drum patterns represent the stresses, syllable lengths and tone of the particular African language. In tone languages, where syllables are associated with a certain tone, some words are distinguished only by their suprasegmental profile. Therefore, syllable drum languages can often transfer a message using the tonal phonemes alone.

In certain languages, the pitch of each syllable is uniquely determined in relation to each adjacent syllable. In these cases, messages can be transmitted as rapid beats at the same speed as speech as the rhythm and melody both match the equivalent spoken utterance.

Misinterpretations can occur due to the highly ambiguous nature of the communication. This is reduced by context effects and the use of stock phrases. For example, in Jabo, most stems are monosyllabic. By using a proverb or honorary title to create expanded versions of an animal, person's name or object, the corresponding single beat can be replaced with a rhythmic and melodic motif representing the subject. In practice not all listeners understand all of the stock phrases; the drum language is understood only to the level of their immediate concern.

See also

Related Research Articles

Drum type of musical instrument of the percussion family

The drum is a member of the percussion group of musical instruments. In the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system, it is a membranophone. Drums consist of at least one membrane, called a drumhead or drum skin, that is stretched over a shell and struck, either directly with the player's hands, or with a percussion mallet, to produce sound. There is usually a resonance head on the underside of the drum, typically tuned to a slightly lower pitch than the top drumhead. Other techniques have been used to cause drums to make sound, such as the thumb roll. Drums are the world's oldest and most ubiquitous musical instruments, and the basic design has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

Igbo language native language of the Igbo people

Igbo is the principal native language of the Igbo people, an ethnic group of southeastern Nigeria. The language has approximately 44 million speakers, who live mostly in Nigeria and are primarily of Igbo descent. Igbo is officially recognized as one of the three major official languages in Nigeria. Igbo is written in the Latin script, which was introduced by British colonialists.

Music of Africa Overview of musical traditions in Africa

The traditional music of Africa, given the vastness of the continent, is historically ancient, rich and diverse, with different regions and nations of Africa having many distinct musical traditions. Music in Africa is very important when it comes to religion. Songs and music are used in rituals and religious ceremonies, to pass down stories from generation to generation, as well as to sing and dance to.

Whistled languages use whistling to emulate speech and facilitate communication. A whistled language is a system of whistled communication which allows fluent whistlers to transmit and comprehend a potentially unlimited number of messages over long distances. Whistled languages are different in this respect from the restricted codes sometimes used by herders or animal trainers to transmit simple messages or instructions. Generally, whistled languages emulate the tones or vowel formants of a natural spoken language, as well as aspects of its intonation and prosody, so that trained listeners who speak that language can understand the encoded message.

Djembe rope-tuned skin-covered goblet drum played with bare hands, originally from West Africa

A djembe or jembe is a rope-tuned skin-covered goblet drum played with bare hands, originally from West Africa. According to the Bambara people in Mali, the name of the djembe comes from the saying "Anke djé, anke bé" which translates to "everyone gather together in peace" and defines the drum's purpose. In the Bambara language, "djé" is the verb for "gather" and "bé" translates as "peace."

Paralanguage is a component of meta-communication that may modify meaning, give nuanced meaning, or convey emotion, by using techniques such as prosody, pitch, volume, intonation, etc. It is sometimes defined as relating to nonphonemic properties only. Paralanguage may be expressed consciously or unconsciously.

An obrom is a type of musical instrument in the percussion family, originating in Nigeria. Formed from one large piece of wood, often a log of paduc, the obrom has two recesses connected to each other by a small channel. This is why it is sometimes referred to as a slit dum. The obrom, when struck with mallets near the recesses, plays two to four tones; these are generally alternated in a repetitive beat, or played in an ostinato. It was used as an instrument for communication, transferring messages in a way similar to morse code.

Slit drum idiophone

A slit drum is a hollow percussion instrument. In spite of the name, it is not a true drum but an idiophone, usually carved or constructed from bamboo or wood into a box with one or more slits in the top. Most slit drums have one slit, though two and three slits occur. If the resultant tongues are different width or thicknesses, the drum will produce two different pitches. It is used throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. In Africa such drums, strategically situated for optimal acoustic transmission, have been used for long-distance communication.

Ewe people West African ethnic group, largest in Togo

The Ewe people are an African ethnic group. The largest population of Ewe people is in Ghana with (3.3m) people, and the second largest population in Togo with (2m) people. They speak the Ewe language which belongs to the Niger-Congo Gbe family of languages. They are related to other speakers of Gbe languages such as the Fon, Gen, Phla Phera, and the Aja people of Togo and Benin.

Batá drum

A Batá drum is a double-headed drum shaped like an hourglass with one end larger than the other. The percussion instrument is used primarily for the use of religious or semi-religious purposes for the native culture from the land of Yoruba, located in Nigeria, as well as by worshippers of Santería in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and in the United States. The Batá drum's popular functions are entertainment and to convey messages. Its early function was as a drum of different gods, drum of royalty, drum of ancestors and drum of politicians. Batá drum impacted on all spheres of life.

Pate (instrument)

The Pātē is a Samoan percussion instrument of Tahitian origin, named after the Samoan word for "beat" or "clap" "pulse". It is one of many Samoan log drum variants and is of the slit drum family, and therefore is also of the idiophone percussion family. It is made from a hollowed-out log, usually of Miro wood and produces a distinctive and loud sound. Different sizes of log drums offer different pitches and volumes, as well as striking the log drum in the middle or near the ends.

Signal instrument

A signal instrument is a musical instrument which is not only used for music as such, but also fit to give sound signals as a form of auditive communication, usually in the open air. Signal instruments are often contrasted with melodic and diatonic or chromatic instruments. To make the message audible at a distance, percussion and brass instruments, which are generally loud, are chiefly used for this purpose. There are contemporary instruments which evolved from signal instruments, such as the natural horn evolving to the trumpet.

The oldest musical signaling instrument is the drum. Signal drums are still used in parts of Africa, although more as a kind of newspaper than military device...The African [slit] drum does not communicate by rhythm or beat, but rather by tone [relative pitch and/or timbre]...As early as 500 BCE, the Persians used kettle drums both to control cavalry formation and frighten their enemies. [In Europe,] The snare drum was the standard battlefield infantry communications device from the 1700s until well into the 1860s...Trumpets, horns, and drums were used in ancient Greek and Roman armies and navies...By the reign of Alexander the Great, trumpets and fifes...were used to control the phalanx of his army. Perhaps the earliest recorded use of specific signals via musical tones were...used by Genghis Khan's Mongol cavalry in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries...Trumpets are undoubtedly the longest-used military musical signal instrument.

Igbo music

Igbo music is the music of the Igbo people, who are indigenous to the southeastern part of Nigeria. The Igbo traditionally rely heavily on percussion instruments such as the drum and the gong, which are popular because of their innate ability to provide a diverse array of tempo, sound, and pitch. Igbo music is generally lively, upbeat, and spontaneous which creates a variety of sounds that enables the Igbo people to incorporate music into almost all the facets of their daily lives. Some very popular Igbo music styles are Igbo highlife, Igbo rap, Odumodu.

Talking drum hourglass-shaped West African drum

The talking drum is an hourglass-shaped drum from West Africa, whose pitch can be regulated to mimic the tone and prosody of human speech. It has two drumheads connected by leather tension cords, which allow the player to modulate the pitch of the drum by squeezing the cords between their arm and body. A skilled player is able to play whole phrases. Most talking drums sound like a human humming depending on the way they are played. Similar hourglass-shaped drums are found in Asia, but they are not used to mimic speech, although the idakka is used to mimic vocal music.

Sub-Saharan African music traditions

African music traditions exhibit so many common features that they may in some respects be thought of as constituting a single musical system. While some African music is clearly contemporary-popular music and some is art-music, still a great deal is communal and orally transmitted while still qualifying as a religious or courtly genre.


A teponaztli[tepoˈnast͡ɬi] is a type of slit drum used in central Mexico by the Aztecs and related cultures.


An Ekwe is an Igbo traditional musical instrument. The ekwe is a type of drum with rectangular cavity slits in the hollowed out wooden interior. The ekwe is made out of wood and most commonly a tree trunk. The ekwe comes in a variety of sizes and designs and each size is determined by the purpose it is being used for. An ekwe can be used for traditional cultural events, or it can be used for music. The ekwe is also used as a type of talking drum communicating, in the past, with others at long distances. The ekwe's rhythm gives different rhythms from celebration to emergencies.

Apraxia of speech (AOS) is an acquired oral motor speech disorder affecting an individual's ability to translate conscious speech plans into motor plans, which results in limited and difficult speech ability. By the definition of apraxia, AOS affects volitional movement patterns, however AOS usually also affects automatic speech.

Izi is an Igbo language spoken in Ebonyi state in Nigeria. It forms a dialect cluster with closely related Ikwo, Ezza, and Mgbo.

Rhythm in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan African music is characterised by a "strong rhythmic interest" that exhibits common characteristics in all regions of this vast territory, so that Arthur Morris Jones (1889–1980) has described the many local approaches as constituting one main system. C. K. Ladzekpo also affirms the profound homogeneity of approach. West African rhythmic techniques carried over the Atlantic were fundamental ingredients in various musical styles of the Americas: samba, forró, maracatu and coco in Brazil, Afro-Cuban music and Afro-American musical genres such as blues, jazz, rhythm & blues, funk, soul, reggae, hip hop, and rock and roll were thereby of immense importance in 20th century popular music. The drum is renowned throughout Africa.


  1. Lewis, Tony. Becoming a Garamut Player in Baluan, Papua New Guinea Musical Analysis As a Pathway to Learning. ISBN   9781315406480. OCLC   1033693900.
  2. Finnegan, Ruth (2012). Oral Literature in Africa. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers. p. 470. ISBN   978-1-906924-72-0. Drum messages can be heard at a distance of between three to seven miles, according to Carrington 1949b: 25.
  3. 1 2 Prometheus: Illustrierte Wochenschrift über die Fortschritte, volume 20 (1908)
  4. Enrico Hillyer Giglioli, Il "Cambarysú": telefono dei Catuquinarú dell'Amazzonia (1898)
  5. The original of the telephone, Mataura Ensign, issue 520, 13 December 1898, page 4]
  6. Davis, Ernest (23 August 2011). "Information, from drums to Wikipedia". James Gleick. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood . 526pp. Fourth Estate. 978 0 00 722573 6. The Times Literary Supplement. Archived from the original on 14 January 2013. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  7. Epstein, Dena J. (1963). "Slave Music in the United States before 1860: A Survey of Sources (Part II)". Music Library Association Notes (Second Series). 20 (3): 377–390. JSTOR   895685.