Talking Drum: History, Types and Fact
The talking drum is one of the cultural instruments that has endured and survived generations. It’s 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.
The history of the talking drum is as old as most of communities; used in notifications or alerts and entertainment in palaces and most ceremonies, Yoruba land is incomplete without its use. The talking drum, as the name suggests, is thought to mimic language by closely imitating the rhythms and intonations of the spoken word.
For many years, the talking drum has been noted as one of the symbols of the old African tradition and an instrument of music indigenous to the Yoruba culture of western Nigeria and Benin republic and Ghana. However, the talking drum is more than just a cultural artefact or a musical instrument. The talking drum has served a deeper purpose over the years, a purpose which with the advancement of technology and the improvement in communication principles – cellphones, internet etc, has slowly dissipated into misty myth and legend.
The talking drum
Known in many different cultures by different names; dundun or gangan by the Yoruba of Nigeria, Benin republic and Ghana, mbaggu by the Fulani of sub-saharan Africa, tamanin by the Dyula of Mali and Burkina Faso, doodo by the Songhai people, kalangu by the Hausa of Nigeria etc, the talking drum is an hourglass-shaped membranophone. It is a made of a hollow wooden stock which is hourglass shaped with both ends covered by the drum skin – which can be of animal or even fish origin. The drum skins are connected across the hourglass frame by leather tension cords. The pitch of the drumbeat is modulated by the player squeezing those tension cords against his frame as he plays. In this manner, the drummer is able to mimic the sounds of human speech.
Origins of the talking drum
It is not certain where exactly the talking drum originated, however it is clear that it originated from Sub-saharan Africa where it is still played to this day. In West Africa, there are many variants of the talking drum in size and style of play, especially in relation to the different languages spoken in the regions, however one thing is consistent; the application of the drum in the relaying of messages.
How the drum talked
When danger approached a village, the talking drum was used to warn villagers using sounds plucked from the beat in tones that match the speech of the land. The drumbeat travels across the air with clarity and faster than a horse rider would, thus serving as an effective means of communication. It however requires special skill to be able to play the talking drum and use it to transmit messages that were intelligible to the receiver. Like an intricate Morse code or telegraph, the pitched shaves and beats of the drum meant different words, which however had to be followed up by explanatory phrases so that the meaning was not lost in ambiguity. Traditionally, as among the Bulu of Cameroun, a drummer had a name tag with which he was known – like a handle, and messages from that drummer started off with the handle and signed off the same way. The messages were then relayed poetically with short phrase messages often becoming eight or ten times longer.
A simple call tag like Still Weather would be drummed as something like “The storm does not fall, the sun is at rest, the breeze is still, the sky does not weep” and messages such as “Come back home” would be drummed 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”. In this way, the messages were passed along poetically while also ensuring clarity. Every beat meant a sound in a phrase, and every phrase coincided with a word. In this way, the words were broken up into specific phrases which were drummed out in separate sounds.
The Griots of West Africa
Similar to the bards and travelling minstrels of the medieval age, the griots of West Africa are living flesh and blood repositories of ancient knowledge. These men and women possess the stories of their people, triumphs and failures, stories that are recalled using the talking drum. With the aid of the talking drum, the storytelling griot narrates the story of a time, punctuating her words with the drum and building the suspense and excitement for the climax. Praise songs for eminent personalities, as well as prayers are also accompanied by the tones of the talking drum.
In recent times, the griots and the culture of passing down tradition orally has fizzled in African society. While the talking drums live on, their major applications are for their music in various genres such as the Fuji and Juju music of Nigeria and the Mbalax music of Senegal.
Types and Important of Talking Drums In Yoruba Land
Nigeria is an interesting country to be and to visit. There is so much to be proud of with respect to arts and culture. Drumming especially is a vital part of the cultural heritage of the Yoruba people of Southwestern Nigeria. Drums are used in special occasions, festivals, carnivals, ceremonies. They even add special effects and style to some bits of our culture. Drums are differentiated by the sound they make, how they are made, history, and appearance. For Yoruba people, ceremonies dictate the kind of drums to use. Here is a look at some of these important drums.
Gangan/ Dundun (Talking Drum): Gangan is also known as ‘Talking drums’ . It holds a special place in the tradition of the Yoruba people, and its use in Yoruba folklore cannot be overemphasized. Its origin can be traced to the Old Oyo Empire in South-West, Nigeria. It was introduced as a means of communication during inauguration of the Alaafin of Oyo. Talking Drums are used to imitate different tone and chant patterns of the Yoruba language. Its hourglass shape makes it possible for it to be held under the arm. It is made of adjustable cords. This cords can determine the pitch of the drum. If the cords and strings are pulled hard, the sound or tone from the drum would increase and if the chords are softly squeezed, the sound will be low. They are frequently used in modern churches, festivals, wedding ceremonies and carnivals.
Bata: Bata is another important drum used by the Yoruba people, a double-headed drum shaped like an hourglass with one cone larger than the other. It’s used majorly in religious functions, festivals, carnivals and coronations. It’s also used to convey messages of hope, divination, praise and war. A set of batá consists of three drums of different sizes. The drums are similar in shape to an hourglass and each drum has two different sized heads. The batá are played sitting down with the drum placed horizontally on the knees. This allows the drummer to play with both hands. The Iyá (“Mother”) is the largest drum and leads the group, playing long, complex patterns with many variations and initiates conversations with the other two drums. Iyá are often adorned with a garland of bells and bronze caps called “Chaworo” which enrich the vibrations and the timbre when the drummer plays the instrument.
The Itótele is the middle-sized drum, playing long, but less complex patterns with some variations as well as answering and occasionally initiating conversations. The Okónkolo is the smallest of the three playing short, simple patterns with occasional conversations and variations. The Bata drum has different parts which include; “Igi Ilu”(wooden frame work), leather, “Egi ilu”(thick brooms for support), “Osan”(wire work), “Iro”(black substance placed on the drum surface), “Bulala”(drumstick made from leather), and cowries.
Omele ako: Fondly called ‘Omele’, it is known as the “Sakara”drum. It is a shallow drum with a circular body made with baked clay. Goat skin is used in making the heads of the drum while spaced pegs around its body are used for tuning. They are used during wedding ceremonies, traditional coronations and festivals.
The Gbedu drum is said to have been brought to the Lagos area in the seventeenth century by Edo diplomats, symbolizing the hegemony of the Benin Empire Among the Yoruba, the Gbedu drum signifies royalty.
It is covered in carvings representing an image of a goddess, animals and birds. They are played by drummers using both their palms and drumsticks. It signifies royalty in the Yoruba land. In ceremonies such as the “Isagun rites”, the Oba might dance to the music from the drum and no one else is allowed to do the same.
Ashiko: Another important musical instrument among the Yoruba people, Ashiko is a tapered cylindrical shaped drum with its head on the wide end and its narrow end open. It’s usually made with hardwood and goatskin hide, played with the hands and tuned by ropes. They are mostly used in festivals and community celebrations.
Saworoide: Saworoide also known as “Saworo”is a type of talking drum decorated with brass bells and chimes. Such bells are attached to leather straps for support. They are called “Chaworoide” and “Chaworo” in Cuba.
Shocking Facts About The Talking Drum
The talking drum that voice of Africa which is a means of communication, a tool for celebration and a voice that speaks counsel in the past, present and the nearest future, you are about to be open to the world of astonishing secrets of this instrument that is heard and marveled all over the world
1 The talking drum has numerous other names and some of them are Gangan, Dundun, Doodo and Igba
2 The talking drum’s history can be traced to the descendants of Oduduwa, the Yoruba people
3 The word ‘Ayan’ means drummer, most drummers like to add the prefix to their names and examples are Ayangbade, Ayanbinrin, Ayangbade, Ayanniyi just to mention a few
4 The first drummer according to Yoruba history was a man called Ayangalu
5 The talking drum remain one of the oldest instruments of West Africa
6 The talking drum is an hour glass shaped musical instrument which has a replica in Asia called ‘Idakka’ only that it can only mimic vocal music but the talking drum can mimic vocal music and speech
7 The talking drum was used as a means of communication in the past in is still being used today and will continue to in the nearest future
8 English emigrant, John F. Carrington was so fascinated by the drum and drummers that he wrote a book ‘The Talking Drums of Africa’ which was published in 1949 which explained how African Drummers could communicate complex message over long distances some about 4-5 miles away.