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.



Talking drum

While this type of hourglass-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.

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

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).

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.

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.

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

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Igbo language Native language of the Igbo people

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African music is a tradition mainly played at gatherings at special occasions. 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.

Balafon type of wooden xylophone originating in Mali

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Music of Nigeria overview of music activities in Nigeria

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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."

Spoken word oral art that focuses on the aesthetics of word play and intonation and voice inflection

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Gbe languages family of Niger–Congo languages native to West Africa

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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, and the second largest population in Togo. 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.

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 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

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 change the pitch of the drum by squeezing the cords between their arm and body.

Ewe drumming refers to the drumming ensembles of the Ewe people of Ghana, Togo, and Benin. The Ewe are known for their experience in drumming throughout West Africa. The sophisticated cross rhythms and polyrhythms in Ewe drumming are similar to those in Afro-Caribbean music and late jazz. The original purpose of Ewe drumming were sung or performed by warriors. Now the songs and performed to celebrate or for recreational use. For example, Agbadza was originally used as a warrior dance but is now used to celebrate events.

Sub-Saharan African music traditions Traditional sound-based art forms developed by sub-Saharan African peoples

In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the use of music is not limited to entertainment: it serves a purpose to the local community and helps in the conduct of daily routines. Traditional African music supplies appropriate music and dance for work and for religious ceremonies of birth, naming, rites of passage, marriage and funerals. The beats and sounds of the drum are used in communication as well as in cultural expression.


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


  1. Lewis, Tony (2018-04-19). 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.