The Talking Drum

“The most important of all the drums,” [Ogotemmêli] says, “is the talking drum.  It is the Nommo who made it.

“He threaded it with his fingers, as children do today with string games. Spreading his hands, he passed the thread ten times in each of his four fingers, the thumb not being used. He thus obtained in each hand forty loops which made eighty strings, the exact number of teeth of one of his jaws. His webbed hands were the skins at the two extremities. Symbolically, to hit the drum is to hit the hands of the Nommo.

“Thus man received the final, complete, and multiple word that suited the new times.”

― Marcel Griaule, Dieu d’Eau

Talking Drums, From Spirituality to Speech

And so it was that two drumheads connected by threaded tension cords, in their turn, connected the Dogon to their ancestral Nommo and to the word. That this ‘most important of all drums’ is linked not only to spirituality but to speech, is captured verbatim by its translated name, the “talking drum”, and embodied in its very contours: in the concave contours that give it resonance, in the inflectional contours of the tonal languages it imitates, and in the spiritual contours that outline and ritualize drum creation itself.

In the creative process known as ilu sise, the Yoruba drum maker uses only wood from trees along manmade roads;  trees that are conversant in the human language of passers-by. Libations and prayer permeate the wood, appeasing the deity-spirit of the drum, Ayangalu, the guardian spirit for all drummers. It is then gifted with ‘eloquent talking’, or ofo, the power of words.

This ‘eloquent talking’  the beautiful recreation of the rise and fall of language is looped into the drum’s leather strings with the sanctified gesture of a weaver. Compressed or relaxed, these strings can generate different pitches: pitches that reach the Yoruba deities, Orisha, those that vibrate directly into the cupped hands of the Dogon’s Nommo, and those that duplicate the tonality and rhythm of more earthly human utterances.

“Dùndún fòràn gbogbo sàpamóra.”

(The talking drum endures all matters without complaint.)

― Yoruba proverb

Drum Language

Photography of the hand of a percussionist, holding a talking drum and a fly whisk in his lap.
Photography by Aly Barro.

Words uttered in the Niger-congo languages of West Africa are predominately tonal and the orature of the cultures that speak them is often stylized, epithetic, proverbial, and melodic. These are the very expanded patterns of expression on which the talking drum depends. A spoken word, given context, tone, and rhythm in a drum motif, reverberates across vast distances. The word ‘moon’ is elaborated by its verbal-rhythmic translation: ‘the moon looks down on the earth’. An announcement of ‘his return’ is contextualized and understood by its more amplified percussive equivalent: ‘he has brought back his legs, he has brought back his feet’.*  When sounded by an Akan drum, carrying tweneboa spirits within it, these rich and proverbial drumbeats arrive, it is said, directly into the ear of the Asantehene.

This unique hourglass-shaped tension drum  tama (Mandinka, Serer, Wolof), dùndún, gangan (Yoruba), donno, lunna (Dagbani, Gurunsi, Mooré), tamanin (Bambara, Bozo, Dyula), dondo, odondo (Akan: Fante, Twi, Baule), mbaggu (Fula), kalangu (Hausa― is one of the oldest instruments in West Africa, strapped to the shoulders of griots of the ancient empire of Mali or resonating from an even more distant Wagadou past.

“[Although] the talking drum is an instrument which comes from far away in the past, it leads to the future. When you play it, it sounds as if it could fill up the universe.”

― Baaba Maal

Sources and Further Reading

  • Carrington, J. F. (1969). Talking Drums of Africa. London, UK: Carey Kingsgate Press. *
  • [French] Griaule, M. (1948). Dieu d’Eau : Entretiens avec Ogotemmêli. Paris, France: Librairie Arthème Fayard.
  • Kaminski, J. S. (December 2014). Sound Barrage: Threshold to Asante Sacred Experience through Music. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, 45(2), 345-371. Retrieved 28 January 2019 from JSTOR.
  • Omojola, B. (March 2010). Rhythms of the Gods: Music and Spirituality in Yoruba Culture. Journal of Pan African Studies, 3(5), 29-50. Retrieved 28 January 2019 from JPAS.

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