Traditionally, the drum was the heartbeat, the soul of most African communities. Drums have been an intrinsic part of African life for centuries and for countless generations, an ancient instrument used to celebrate all the aspects of life.
In Western culture drumming is, most often, about entertainment. In Africa, drums hold a deeper, symbolic and historical significance. They herald political and social events attending ceremonies of birth, death and marriage. They spark courtships, they herald home-coming and going and they accompany religious rites and rituals, calling up ancestral spirits.
They are used as an alarm or a call to arms stirring up emotions for battle and war. They can also inspire passion and excitement and even cause trances, a momentary loss of consciousness to either the drummer or the listener. They symbolize and protect royalty and are often housed in sacred dwellings. They are protected during battle.
On the other side, drums are about communication and making music, two essential characteristics of community life. For centuries the ‘talking drums’ were a primary source of communication between tribes used to transmit messages sometimes across great distances.
Technically most drums are described as "membranophones” and consist of a skin or drumhead stretched over the open end
of a frame or ‘shell’. The shell is, most often, constructed from wood.
The sound is generated by striking the drumhead with hands, a stick, a rubber mallet or even the bones of the deceased. The surface can also be rubbed to create soft swishing sounds. Sometimes the drums can have rattling metal jingles attached to the outside or seeds and beads placed inside to create extra kinds of noises.
They can be made from wood, metal, earthenware or gourds.
Their form can be tubular, hourglass, circular or bowl, kettle, goblet or barrel shaped. They can be round, square, hexagonal, octagonal or placed within a frame.
‘Open drums’ are single-headed with an opening at one end and ‘closed drums’ are single or double-headed with no open end.
In size they can be tall or diminutive like the tom tom. In general, the bigger the drum the lower the note and the more tension in the head, the higher the note. Wide drums add the bass sounds.
They can have handles or straps and be held under the armpits. They can be rested on a wooden support and they can have feet or pedestals standing on their own, being carried on backs or held between or on the knees. They can be played singly, or in pairs, or be part of a large group drum ensemble with graded tones and pitches. ‘Drum chimes’ are mounted in a frame, tuned to a scale and played by a team.
Drumsticks vary from being heavy cudgels for sounding the ngoma to slender beaters tipped with rubber to elegantly curved thin sticks.
“Idiophones” refer to the Udu, log or slit drums which create sound not by beating or rubbing but by the instrument vibrating having been struck, shaken or scraped.
Most communities in sub Saharan Africa have diverse uses for their drums but the following countries have tribes who have shared an integral historical and spiritual relationship with this revered and sacred musical instrument for centuries.
Drums can be both musical instruments and
sculptures. Images can reference proverbs, cultural traditions and ways of
behaving, reflect values that are important to communities. They can feature
anthropomorphic images like feet, hands, female breasts, human heads as well as
full or squatting figures that carry the drum on their backs. These motifs can
be symbolic, carrying great spiritual meaning or they can just be decorative and tell a story. Female
imagery is often used to evoke fertility.
Animals and reptiles lend a wide scope of reference material for zoomorphic relief carvings. They play an important role in belief systems and ancestor spirits can take the form of any animal providing inspiration for the carvers.
drums will have designs that reflect their status and their historical value; the
careful execution of the carving and consideration for the imagery used fosters
both prestige and belief in the tribal subjects.
Mongo people of Central Africa use geometric shapes and forms to create
visually stunning drums.
are treasured assets of any African community; their vibrant and rhythmic
sounds stirring up emotions and helping to carry on noble traditions, inspiring
new generations to keep a sense of belonging, discovery and pride.
A beat is the first thing we hear in life.
No wonder that African drumming has taken the world by storm.... inciting passion, inspiration, self-expression and healing in drummers on just about every continent on the planet!
And then there is music.........
Just pure, uninhibited, joyous ‘making music’ and dancing to the sound of the African drum and its infectious, primal beat and rhythms!
**For more on African music... see here
**And for loads more information on African musical instruments... see here