African Languages
Drums in African Tradition

Historical Perspective

on African Drumming

"Yesterday is history, Tomorrow is a mystery. And today?

Today is a gift!! That's why we call it The Present."

- Babatunde Olatunji

In order to put the his tory and her itage of the African/African Diaspora in its proper perspective I have chosen to point you to this rather long and detailed History Timeline   and Slave Trade Statistics and Migrations . I strongly suggest visiting these sites, for to truly understand the movement of the drum in the Diaspora I feel we must understand the movement of the peoples that carried it.

" The actual number of men, women and children who were snatched from their homes in Africa and transported in slave ships across the Atlantic, either to the Caribbean islands or to North and South America, will never be known. Writers vary in their estimates, but there is no doubt that their number runs into [the] millions. The figures are taken from Morel's calculations as reproduced by Professor Melville J. Herskovits and cover the period 1666-1800. "


"A village without music, is a dead village." African Proverb

The spirit of African stylings is much different from the European approach to music. In classical European settings the music is entirely transcribed and followed to the letter as the composer intended. This totally inflexible and predictable style is quite unlike the African. In sharp contrast none of the African scores were historically transcribed, it being an "aural/oral" tradition, improvisation was inevitable to a degree, IE open to interpretation. As a result most rhythms "out of Africa" have evolved over the years and from place to place, much as speech does. In fact this is a key tenet of African influenced music in general in that the original instrument was the voice. All the other instruments were held against this ideal and were contrived with the intention to mimic these speech forms. The rhythms were often remembered in terms of what they said and meant to the people producing them. In this manner they were passed down and preserved. This and the ritual significance and situational consideration of each rhythm served as a counter force to the winds of change. Another important difference between the western and African is in the area of meter and timing of a particular piece. In African music this is accomplished through the use of "iron" (a bell or other ideophone). In the western arena the metronome or clockwork is used to "keep time". In western music this would be "iron" in terms of static and unchanging meter. In African music this is the tendency as well, yet, if a number of the members of an ensemble are early or late on the rhythm the bell will move to accommodate them.
African influenced rhythms and a href="http://www.metacrawler.com/info.metac/search/web/polyrhythm">polyrhythms {two or more rhythms played simultaneously, or against each other. Polyrhythms can also be thought of as two different meters (time signatures) played against (or more accurately, with) each other} for the most part have a spirit or quality of "swing". Through the use of alternating phrases that occupy the same period of time is created a swaying effect as each is anticipated. Anticipation plays a pivotal role in much of the "feel" also through the use of such techniques as the "pick up". The "pick up" is a rhythmic embellishment that comes just prior to the one or another key juncture in a rhythm. This serves to hook the listener and pull them into the movement of the rhythm at this key pulse point that soon follows the "pick up". Other "feel" elements would be ones such as ‘staccato' (rapid like a machine gun), funk (where the pulse is late), and the ‘rolling' feeling IE "driving rhythm" (that imparts a feeling of motion).

The instruments I play

"La kuku dea gbe wu la gbagbe."

["A dead animal cries louder than a live one."] Anlo-Ewe saying


" The djembe (jembe) drum is found in use today in Africa itself primarily in Senegal, Mali, Sierre Leone, The Ivory Coast, Guinea, Gambia, Burkina Faso. However, it is becoming the most popular drum in the world and is now to be found far and wide. Historically, it found use "as a sacred drum used in healing ceremonies, rites of passage, ancestral worship, warrior rituals, as well as social dances. "
" The Djembe drum is undoubtedly one of the most powerful drums in existence. It has been called "The Healing Drum", and dates back to the 12th C. great Mali Empire of West Africa, drum of the Mandingo people. ...It has an incredible tonal and dynamic range that has served to set it apart from other percussion instruments made in Africa. "

[For more detail  on this subject see this link to the various Key Moments in Life (under construction) referred to above.]

"The djembe is a secular Mandingo drum. It is the smith's oldest instrument, originally played only during the smelting of iron ore." (The Djembe, Serge Blanc)

This drum is classified as a goblet or chalice drum due to its shape. The configuration of the "bowl and pipe" enables it to have a sonic range unparalleled amongst the family of drums. Near the rim are to be found when struck quite high tones and at the center quite deep ones. The high tones tend to be emitted from the outer surface of the head while the deep bass notes are emitted by the underside of the head and out the "pipe".

Traditionally there are three basic sounds generated by the djembe'. First, the " tone " produced by striking the drum with just the closed fingers. Second, the " bass " produced by striking the drum with just the palm. Finally the Third, the " slap " produced by striking the drum with open fingers and about one half of the palm in such a way that the palm hits first snapping the fingers on to the head making a sharper sound than the "tone".

"Iron cuts." Folk saying


" Gankogui (Hi/Low Bell) is a vibrating iron bell hand forged in a distinct traditional shape by blacksmiths. Popularly referred to as gakpevi (ga - forged iron + kpe - carrying + vi - child) "the forged iron carrying a child," the structure of gankogui consists of a larger low pitch forged iron and a smaller high pitch one permanently stacked together. The larger forged iron bell is considered as the parent and smaller high pitch one is considered the child in the protective bosom of the parent.

Gankogui is the foundation of the entire ensemble. Its voice provides the metronomic background around which most Anlo-Ewe music is structured. A performer is often described as blind if he or she lacks a good sense of the guiding patterns of gankogui.

Gankogui, just like drums, is conceived as a surrogate for the human voice and imitates the manner in which the mouth produces speech. It is played with a stick technique while held in one hand and resting on the thigh of the performer who sits on a short stool with a firm relaxed body. The stick is swung as the hands go into motion supported from the elbows. The actual swing of the hand is done from the wrist. The stick is struck on the full rounded portion of the bell to achieve the best resonance. When the top high pitch is in use the forged-iron structure rests on the thigh and when the larger low pitch is in use it is raised slightly above the thigh. Stopping the resonance of the lower pitch after [it] is articulated by damping it on the thigh is equivalent to closing the mouth and provides the means of indicating the basic motives, phrases and periods out of which gankogui music is made.

Tonality And Performance Techniques

Two types of stick techniques are use in the art of playing gankogui, a bounced stick technique and a pressed stick technique. A bounced stick technique allows the stick to rebound after striking gankogui, and a pressed stick technique releases a partial vibration by pressing the stick firmly on gankogui to prevent it from bouncing after the stroke is delivered.

Gankogui Pitch "Tin"

A bounced stick shot across the top of the parent forged-iron produces a low pitch voice described in vocal syllable as "Tin".

Gankogui Pitch "Go"

A bounced stick shot across the top of the child forged-iron produces a high pitch voice described in vocal syllable as "Go".

Gankogui Pitch "Ka"

A pressed stick shot across the top of the child forged-iron produces a dry and much higher pitch voice described in vocal syllable as "ka". "

See also this link <http://www.dancedrummer.com/gan.html> for similar comments with out the marvelous detail above, and they do have a Kule loooping Quicktime demonstration of how this instrument is played. Note: Gankoqui are handforged so each one has its own voice.

"The drum knows its owner's hands" --Ovambo proverb


" The ashiko is a North African or West African [Nigerian?] (perhaps I've seen different sources claim each) hand drum shaped like a tapered cylinder, with the head on the wide end and the narrow end open. Like the doumbek and the djembe, it produces a lower tone when struck in the middle of the head and a higher tone when struck near the edge. [The modern version is...] Available in various sizes from about a foot and a half to three and a half feet tall, it is built of vertical staves (like a wooden barrel is). I am still tracing the history of this drum, which I am told was originally a log drum (solid piece of wood, rather than staves). "  These original carved drums were, I am told, often quite long and have a more gradual taper than the modern version. Yet another version of this story goes like this: " The Ashiko is a long, conical hand drum of staved construction, similar to the N'goma drums of Nigeria. Drums styled like Ashikos are found in Cuba, Haiti, Brazil and throughout the Americas. In Cuba they are called El Boku' and are used for playing camparasas at carnivals and festivals. "


"Balafon: from "Bala" = wood and "fo" = to speak, is the term used for xylophones among the Manding peoples of the Western Sudan. It is found from Mali to Guinea, including Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, the Republic of Guinea Conakry, and Sierra Leone."

"Several ethnomusicologists have studied the xylophone to determine its origins and have proposed the theory that it originated in Indonesia and Borneo, and it was taken across the Indian Ocean to East Africa in two waves of migration, the first beginning about 1000 BCE, and the second, about 500 to 1000 CE (Kirby 1966). The remarkable similarities of tuning systems, absolute pitches of the keys, compass of the instruments, and construction support this theory (Jones 1964). Other researchers have suggested the possibility that the transmission process occurred in the opposite direction, from Africa to Indonesia (Jeffreys 1966); however, the bulk of the evidence supports the first theory.

Similar methods of construction and tuning are to be found in the instruments of the peoples along the overland trade routes from East to West Africa (Boone 1936, Kubik 1960, 1963, 1965, 1969, Tracey 1948, 1958).

From Africa the xylophone was taken to South and Central America (Tracey 1948, Sachs 1962) by the slave trade, where it has become a popular instrument called the Marimba , and [on] to North America where it has undergone an electronic modification, developing into the vibraphone used especially in Jazz. "

Excerpted from the out of print instruction manual: The Mandinka Balafon: An introduction With Notation for Teaching , Lynne Jessup, Xylo Publications, 1983, pp. 19 - 20; L. Jessup Michael; P.O. Box 941; Rota, MP 96951; Mariana Islands, USA

"The Balafon is considered an instrument of the spirits, of the invisible world, of the inner dimensions. Sometimes called the African xylophone, the balafon is a melodious instrument indigenous to West Africa. Carved wooden keys are mounted on a rectangular wooden frame [often bamboo]. Strung underneath the frame are a series of gourds (calabashes) with holes cut into their tops---these act as resonators. The musician hits the keys with two sticks wrapped with rubber on the ends. Its tones have a quality that resonates with the water element in the abdominal center of the human body and with atmospheric water such as rain.* At the same time, the balafon could be considered a kind of wind instrument because of the air that moves through the gourds. The balafon was probably descended from ancient Stone Age instruments similar to those still played today in Togo. Oral tradition recounts stories of hunter-gatherer groups who heard different tones in the rocks the chipped into tools. The people lined up rocks according to size and played them to hear the pleasant sounds they made. Subsequently, they experimented by digging holes n the ground, laying wooden boards across the holes, and striking the boards to make music. The resulting sounds gave the impression of coming from inner space, as if from the interior of the human body, or from the earth itself. According to legend, the balafon in its present form was revealed by a spirit to a man named Sumanguru Kantey. He saw the balafon and heard its music in his dreams, awoke, and made the first one. Sumanguru Kantey lived in the tenth century. He was a king of the Sousou tribe [ethnic group] who dwell on the coast of West Africa in what is now the Republic of Guinea. Use of the instrument spread to other tribes. Among the Minianka, the balafon is used for all religious ceremonies that establish contact with the invisible world. It is essential for funeral music and for the ceremony of the sacred wood. The balafon is understood to attract spirits. When the balafon and reed flute are played together, their tonal vibrations also strongly affect creatures without an outer ear. Reptiles, including poisionous snakes, are called out of hiding and so people wear shoes on such occasions to protect themselves. Traditional musicians will not play the balafon unless they are wearing protective amulets designed to repel any bad spirits among the many attracted by the music of this sacred instrument."

Excerpt From "The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings" by Yaya Diallo and Mitchell Hall, 1989, Destiny Books , One Park Street, Rochester, VT 05767, *The balafon may be heard on "Warizie" from the CD/cassette made by Yaya Diallo to accompany and inform the book. The CD or cassette may be obtained from Inner Traditions International Ltd.,P.O. Box 388, Rochester, VT 05767, USA.

Some of the rhythms we learned


" But the most typical of Brazilian popular music is the seductive rhythm of the samba. No one is sure of the exact origin of samba. Some people believe that samba was born in the streets of Rio de Janeiro with contributions from three different cultures - Portuguese courtly songs, African rhythms and native Indian fast footwork. Others believe samba is simply African in origin and that it evolved from the batuque, a music based on percussion instruments and hand clapping. Today in Brazil, popular music continues to explore new rhythms and new melodies. Its interpreters and composers make use of all music's resources to compete for and please the world's many music audiences. Some of the well-known performers are: Gilberto Gil, Maria Betânia,Alcione, Roberto Carlos, Ney Matogrosso, Rita Lee, Milton Nascimento, Hermeto Paschoal, Fafá de Belém, Chitãozinho e Chororó, Elba Ramalho, Alceu Valença, Djavan, Marisa Monte, Ivan Lins, João Bosco, Cazuza(*), Luiz Gonzaga(*), Luiz Gonzaga Jr.(*), Elis Regina(*). (*) although now deceased, the last four names should be remembered. "


" Calypso is an art form that is associated with carnival in most Caribbean countries. It is usually the biggest in Trinidad and Tobago. According to Catherine Sunshine in her book "The Caribbean Survival, Struggle and Sovereignty," calypso can be traced back to Africa. "Calypso is one of the earliest authentic West Indian art forms ," she says. "It is rooted in the African oral tradition in which songs of praise or derision were sung as a form of pointed social comment." In the modern Caribbean, calypso serves as the voice of the small man, who enjoys a vicarious social protest through the scathing commentary of the calypsonian. The dominant characteristics of calypso are wit, colorful language, and opinionated reference to social or political events of the day. Local calypsoes are most popular in the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas to be exact, during the Carnival season. The St. Thomas calypso competition is open to calypsonians from St. John and St. Croix. There is usually an elimination process, but this year there were no semi-finals. Here calypso tents are staged where locals will get to hear the latest releases and meet the calypsonians in person, since some of the songs sung at the tents are too risque‚ for broadcast standards. "
See also for a bibliography of books on calypso .

 " Calypso is a form of folk music which originated in Trinidad and spread rapidly throughout the West Indies. Calypso is known to have existed in Trinidad as early as the 18th century. However, Calypso really began to flourish in the early 1900's. Calypso music clearly reflects Trinidad's turbulent history. The music originated amongst Trinidad's large population of former slaves. Its complex, syncopated rhythm clearly reflects traditional African rhythms.
 The lyrics of the earliest Calypsoes were sung in Patois (broken French), a remnant of the early French colonization of Trinidad. However, subsequently, when the British took over, the primary language of Calypso music became English.  Since its earliest days, Calypso has been a music of social and political commentary. Its lyrics reflect the popular issues of the day--many of which are timeless human issues, such as love, greed, oppression, and the like.
 In recent times--especially for those residing outside the West Indies--Calypso has been widely associated with the pre-lenten Carnival celebrations and tropical vacations. "

I build, repair, recondition, rehead, renew, (and more re- words too numerous to mention) both traditional and non-traditional drums. Contact me with your desires in this area and I will do my level best to help you get what you need.

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Copyright (c) 1998-2011  R. Clark - clark@acceleration.net .
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This page is linked to the Djembe-L FAQ
one of the most content heavy resources
on West African music on the web.