Can The TALKING DRUM Really Talk?
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 modulate the pitch of the drum by squeezing the cords between their arm and body. A skilled player is able to play whole phrases. Most talking drums sound like a human humming depending on the way you play. Similar hourglass-shaped drums are found in Asia, but they are not used to mimic speech, although the idakka is used to mimic vocal music.
‘In Nigeria and in the Yoruba land, Ayangalu is believed to be the first Yoruba drummer. He is also believed to be the spirit or muse that inspires drummers. The word “Ayan” means drummer. This is why some Yoruba family names contain the prefix Ayan- such as Ayangbade, Ayantunde and so on’.
The pitch of the drum is varied to mimic the tone patterns of speech. This is done by varying the tension placed on the drumhead: the opposing drum heads are connected by a common tension cord. The waist of the drum is held between the player’s arm and ribs, so that when squeezed the drumhead is tightened, producing a higher note than when it’s in its relaxed state; the pitch can be changed during a single beat, producing a warbling note. The drum can thus capture the pitch, volume, and rhythm of human speech, though not the qualities of vowels or consonants.
The use of talking drums as a form of communication was noticed by Europeans in the first half of the eighteenth century. Detailed messages could be sent from one village to the next faster than could be carried by a person riding a horse. In the nineteenth century Roger T. Clarke, a missionary, realized that “the signals represent the tones of the syllables of conventional phrases of a traditional and highly poetic character. Like Chinese, many African languages are tonal; that is, the pitch is important in determining the meaning of a particular word. The Yoruba language of the Yoruba people for instance is mostly defined by the tri-tonic scale, consisting only of the tonic sol-fa notes, do, re, mi, different inflections of which are then used to convey different messages, this same principle also applies to how the drum talks in all of the Yoruba peoples music and culture. The problem was how to communicate complex messages without the use of vowels or consonants, simply using tone. Using low tones referred to as male and higher female tones, the drummer communicates through the phrases and pauses, which can travel upwards of 4–5 miles. This process may take eight times longer than communicating a normal sentence but was effective for telling neighboring villages of possible attacks or ceremonies. He found that to each short word which was beaten on the drums was added an extra phrase, which would be redundant in speech but provided context to the core drum signal.
The message “Come back home” might be translated by the drummers as: “Make your feet come back the way they went, make your legs come back the way they went, plant your feet and your legs below, in the village which belongs to us”.
Single words would be translated into phrases. For example, “moon” would be played as “the Moon looks towards earth”, and “war” as “war which causes attention to ambushes”.
Drum languages could also be used for specifically literary forms, for proverbs, panegyrics, historical poems, dirges, and in some cultures practically any kind of poetry. The ritualized forms and drum names constituted a type of oral literature. Among some peoples such as the Ashanti or the Yoruba, drum language and literature were very highly developed. In these cultures, drumming tended to be a specialized and often hereditary activity, and expert drummers with a mastery of the accepted vocabulary of drum language and literature were often attached to a king’s court.
Various sizes of hourglass talking drum exist, with the dimensions of the drum differing between ethnic groups, but all following the same template.
The Tama of the Serer, Wolof and Mandinka peoples is typified by its smaller dimensions, having a total drum length typical of 13 centimeters (5 inches) with a 7 centimeter (2.75 inch) drum head diameter. This produces a much higher pitched tone than other talking drums of the same construction.
The Yoruba and Dagomba peoples on the other hand have some of the largest dimensions for drums in their Lunna and Dùndún ensembles, with a length typical of 23–38 centimeters (9–15 inches) and a drum head diameter of between 10–18 centimeters (4–7 inches). In Yoruba talking-drum ensembles, this is used alongside smaller talking drums similar to the Tama, called Gangan in Yoruba language.
Playing styles are closely linked with the drum’s construction and the tonal qualities of each language. There is a clear difference in playing styles between areas with predominantly Fulani and Mande-speaking populations and traditionally non-Mande areas further east.
The predominant style of playing in areas further west such as Senegal, Gambia, western Mali and Guinea is characterized by rapid rolls and short bursts of sound between the stick holding hand and accompanying free hand, and correlates with the various pitch accent and non-tonal languages heard in this area. This is a style typically heard in the popular Mbalax genre of Senegal.
In the 20th century the talking drum became a part of popular music in West Africa. It is used in playing Mbalax music of Senegal and in Fuji and Jùjú music of Nigeria (where it is known as a dùndún, not to be confused with the dundun bass drum of the Mandé peoples).