moon phases
Paper View

Drums in African Tradition

By Mike Rossiter

12 Jan 2001 mikerossiter@hotmail.com

Percussion is apparent in every form of music, whether the percussive effect is the plucking of a string or the stabs on a piano; it is a musical force that drives the performance. In Africa the act of striking an instrument is named ngale as in Kpelle means literally "...to break as a millet stalk breaks." (Martin and O'Meara). The other classification of instruments in Kpelle, Vai or the Dan of the Guinea Coast are simply blown instruments such as brass or woodwind.

"The range and variety of 'banged' instruments is so vast that only a selection may be mentioned here. Africa alone would yield enough types to fill this entire book. Indeed, Africa may be called the 'Drum Continent' because nowhere else in the world has a greater range or number of drums. Africa was the continent which saw the emergence of man and probably the beginning of music itself." ( Dearling, 1996: 214)

It is widely recognised that Africa has a rich variety of instruments and in the case of drums there is the goblet, conical, barrel, cylindrical, and frame (obviously they would be named within the certain dialect). The drums of Africa are also represented in an entirely dissimilar way to the Western culture's point of view. Drums span various tonal frequencies to imitate voices and some are actually tuned, like timpani and to play pieces with vocals, solo, but not tuned like a xylophone with measured hollow chunks of wood.

Africa is not a country. It is a continent like Europe or America so it must be realised that in it will lie as many various styles as in our Western continents too. Hence drums in Africa belong to particular regions of the continent:

"The entenga tuned drum ensembles of the kings in Uganda, the processional drums carried on horseback in northern Nigeria, the ritual drums laid horizontally on platforms in coastal West Africa, and the hourglass drum of West Africa that plays, glides, and slides off pitch as the player presses the thongs connecting the heads and tightening the skins with lightning velocity, all these are examples of African drums." (Martin and O'Meara, 1995: 268)

Music, as it has no meaning in any African language, was not going to be the only use for such developed drums, or any other instrument for that matter. Music is not merely about entertainment as it is in our culture.

"African peoples make and listen to music that is intimately bound to the visual and dramatic arts as well as the larger fabric of life  music is integrated into life, and though diversity throughout Africa is apparent, some common elements penetrate the myriad of details." (Martin and O'Meara, 1995: 257)

The use of talking drums is a fine example of music throughout Africa being employed to further the use of instruments and to aid their existence through integration with traditional apparatus. Dearling affirms that:

"African languages operate on two levels: rhythmic speech and tonal inflexion. Combined, these may be interpreted by differently- pitched drums or single log drums capable of producing more than one pitch, any ambiguities becoming clear by intelligent appreciation of the context." (Dearling, 1996: 215)

The music and drums are almost always an accompaniment for any manner of ceremony - births, deaths, marriages - together with a ritual dance. The vicious sound of many drums pounding together is also a necessary instalment to stir up emotions in a battle or war to inspire excitement and passion.

But with the music and the beating of drums meaning so much to the African people, it must be realised that there is an essential feeling to the music. On a spiritual level it is vital to everyday life, but with the addition of stirring rhythms, provokes a need to take part and listen so the combination of vastly developed music, far from the influence of commercialism. The need to survive by way of music suggests exactly what it really means to these people, hence:

"Describing the emotions stirred by music is a task because words fall short. We are just beginning to learn about the affective aspect, which for some people is even more important than are the mechanics of music, the mere nuts and bolts. For many Africans, singing and playing moves them to do unusual things, calms them if they are overwrought with grief, and stirs them to dance if they are apathetic. These special qualities, which go beyond the ordinary, the Kpelle say, characterize a performance after the ensemble is playing smoothly and things are going well." (Martin and O'Meara, 1995: 269)

Western tradition dictates that music is normally recorded, whether it be physically or in a literary form. This is so the music can be re-performed and experienced without a live encounter or without already knowing the music. Therefore, some European music is so complicated and technical because of these methods, that it cannot be repeated exactly. Not even Mozart could repeat one of his concerti by performing each individual part. In Africa this is the case. Just as British folk music establishes itself on self-tuition and traditional folk tunes without sheet music, so do the Africans.

"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, i.e. 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." (Clark, 1998, online)

The Djembe is possibly the most influential and basic of all the African drums, originally "...the Djembe dates back to at least 500 A.D. The Djembe is found in Senegal, Mali, Sierre Leone, the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Gambia, Burkina Faso, as a sacred drum used in healing ceremonies, rites of passage, ancestral worship, warrior rituals, as well as social dances." (Rhythm's Edge) "A single head is the oldest and most widely met all over the world." (Baines) proving that the Djembe is a functional instrument existing as a basic percussive influence with the ability to create various tones and colour. It can be a very loud or very quiet instrument able to suit all dance or performance in their society or even in our own popular music (not to state that Africa has no popular music of its own, as it exists in cities in Nigeria and Ghana, owing its providence to the introduction of the radio). Friedberg describes:

"It bellows, screeches, cries and screams. It whispers and it sings. The penetrating depth of its bass and the piercing clarity of its slaps are testimony to the richness of its tale. It is the drum with infinite range, the drum with a thousand faces, each exuding its own unique tenor." (Friedberg, 1993, online)

Consequently, African drums (the Djembe is an important example) suggest a lot about the African vision of life by the way in which what we consider as 'the Arts', to influence everything they accomplish. The music and rhythms are not only applicable to them, they have been seen to manipulate thousands of other genres where there seems to be a population of African descent. In the Caribbean for example, there seems to be a large division of the colony that heavily influenced the music and scene around them from their arrival. Calypso being the most eminent and spawning more generations of styles:

"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." (Fleming, 1996, online)

Clark in his "Historical Perspective of African Drumming" also mentions learning Samba rhythms and quotes tracing their history back to African rhythms or that it possibly evolved from the African Batuque, "a music based on percussion instruments and hand clapping."

Thus it remains that drums in African tradition have persuaded styles to change and to evolve and to even create new genres amongst our own. They have convinced us that music can mean more to the country's community than only for highly trained musicians and high-class listeners to experience it. Comparing an African society to our own, aids us in thinking that music should involve performer and audience, as it does in most African traditions.

It is noticeable that during the past fifty years there has been an upsurge in popular music in Western countries that 'average' people are creating, and often without a great deal money or classical training in their instruments. Now the audience is generally encouraged to involve themselves and to dance. Carnival and an assortment of music from abroad is finding itself in Britain, and other countries as well, as an accepted part of our daily routine. African rhythms have found their way into a whole host of popular music. They empower music and performance in Africa and our society has much to learn from them.

1,618 words.


Baines, Anthony 1992 The Oxford Companion To Musical Instruments Oxford

Dearling, Robert 1996 The Ultimate EncyclopediaOf Musical Instruments Carlton

Eds. Martin and O'Meara, Phyllis M. and Patrick 1995 Africa: Third Edition Indiana University Press

Schaeffer, John 1987 The Virgin Guide To New Music Virgin

Friedberg, Lilian 1993 Djembe: Drum with a thousand faces [Online] December Available at: http://nnic.com/dumbdrum/thousandfaces.html

Awake! Correspondent in Nigeria 1997 Do African Drums Really Talk? [Online] July Available at: http://www.majorcom.com/articles/ar00001.htm

Clark, R 1998 Historical Perspective on African Drumming [Online] Available at: http://home.acceleration.net/clark/PaperVu/ensomme.htm

Anonymous Djembe History [Online] Available at: http://rhythmsedge.com/hist.html

Fleming, Natalie S. 1996 Calypso plays a major role in Caribbean [Online] April Available at: http://www.uvi.edu/journalism/uvision/v2i5/calypso.htm



Literary and Graphical Freeware:  Not for Commercial Use.
Copyright (c) 1998-2011  R. Clark - clark@acceleration.net .
Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this publication (www.acceleration.net/clark and all children) provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.