Saturday, June 25, 2011

Drums and Drumming Language across West Africa

Much has been written of West African drumming languages.  West African drums are the primary instrument at weddings, funerals, parties and celebrations and form the sound of inspiration and communication for fishing, farming and defence in West African life.

Missionaries John Carrington and his wife documented drumming language as it was used in the Congo in the early 20th century(1, 2).  The Carringtons described how surrogate drumming language was used to convey phrases of the two toned Kele language.  With two drums, the tonality of Kele could be conveyed.  Although specific vowel and consonant sounds were lost when played on the drum, it was possible, by adding extra phrasing, to reconstruct phrases of spoken Kele on the drums.

Like Kele, most other Niger Congo languages in West Africa are essentially two toned, including Akan languages.  The specifics of Akan languages I have discussed in the post  Akan Language:  Vowel Harmony, Tone and Downdrift.

West African drummed surrogates for spoken languages are conveyed using four essential methods:

  • two drums that communicate a limited vocabulary by mimicking basic dual toned intonation,
  • multiple drums (more than two) to convey greater tonal complexity than two toned methods,
  • a single pressure drum that is closely modulated to mimic spoken languages with tones, downstepping and downdrifting, or
  • a single Djembe drum, mode modulated by hand technique

Pressure Drums

In general, the pressure drum pitch is modulated by holding it under the arm and pressuring the drum strings. This modulates the tension on the drum head resonator.  Since these drums must be held under the arm, they are moderate in size.  The resulting moderate amplitude of the sound produced limits the distance their signal can travel to communal settings and the marketplace.  Pressure drums are usually struck with a hammer, which means that the attempt to modulate the tonal quality through the striking method is limited.

Long Distance Fixed Tension Drums

Fixed tension drums are generally designed to be both louder and wider pitched (more resonant) than pressure drums.  Two or more drums are used to convey pitch, as the fundametal pitch of these drums is fixed. These drums are usually long bodied and therefore loud, since their design is optimized for long distance communication.  They are variously struck with a hammer or with the hand.

Carrington noted that fixed tension drums in the Congo could communicate to a distance greater than thirty kilometers (twenty miles) on open terrain and about eleven kilometers (seven miles) in dense forest. (1)  West African peoples would communicate important messages to great distances using drum relays.  There are many documented cases of drummed messages being communicated to hundreds of miles in a matter of hours.

As a child, living up on a hill in Sekondi, Ghana, overlooking a number of villages, I can remember hearing the drums at night "talking" from varying distances.  You could hear one drum talk, then a space, then a response or a relay coming from a different direction.  Sometimes you could hear the relay of the message repeated at longer and fainter distances away.  There must have been an agreed protocol between the drummers as they knew to wait between drummed statements.  This is not surprising, as  it would take thirty seconds for a message to travel ten kilometers (fifty seconds to travel ten miles).  Sometimes there were long waits between messages, as the sender waited for a distant response.  

Drum Physics

In order to more completely understand the various drumming methods employed to convey surrogate drum languages, it is helpful to examine the underlying physics of drums.  Ethnically speaking, West African drums are differentiated on how they are optimized for fundamental tone pitch, loudness, and resonant bandwidth.  Additionally, striking and playing methods are used to control pitch modulation and mode modulation.  These concepts are discussed at length in the excellent online reference The Well-Tempered Timpani (4).

Most West African drums are manufactured with a single drumhead constructed of an animal hide.  Thin animals hides are preferred, because they allow a more resonant undamped sound.  Resonance is also controlled by the manner in which the drumhead is secured or tamped onto the shell.  Light tamping allows a less damped more resonant sound.  As to the body of the drum, virtually all West African drum bodies or shells are produced of wood.  Various shapes and heights of the shell core are employed, which contribute to both the loudness, resonance and overall tonal warmth of the drum.  West African drums are generally medium sized in diameter and often three or more feet in height.  The medium diameter drumhead usually produces a fundamental tone in the 200Hz to 1000Hz range.   Drum height is used to build loudness through the waveguiding properties of the wooden cavity.  The shape of the cavity is also important, especially with respect to the resonant quality of the drum. (3, 4)

One reason that West African drums are rarely tuned below approximately 200Hz is that humans do not hear well below 200Hz.  In terms of human perception of sound, it is more efficient to produce sounds above 200Hz.  There is also an optimum limit on high frequency sound, as high frequencies transmitted in the atmosphere experience greater fading than low frequencies.  Therefore, there is an optimal frequency window to achieve maximum distance sound communication which is somewhere between 200Hz and 2000Hz. Most West African drums used for long distance communication produce sound in this range.

In addition to loudness, highly resonant drums such as the Djembe and Kponlogo drums further aid the  distant listener because of their redundant tones.  Intermediate resonances can be attenuated or faded in a communication and the human ear will still be able to reconstruct the fundamental pitch and timing of drum sound.  In this sense, drum resonance increases the robustness of the long distance drum communication signal.

Modulation Techniques

Multidrum modulation is a achieved by having two or more drums tuned to specific pitches.  It is the simplest method of modulation.

Pitch modulation on a single drum is achieved by controlling the tension on the drum head.  This is only possible in the case of a drum which is designed for variable pitch modulation such as a Doundun drum.

Mode modulation is usually achieved by varying the manner in which the drum is struck with the hand.  This technique is used primarily with highly resonant Djembe drums.  With a highly resonant drum, different drum modes can be excited according to the manner and placement of the drum strike.  Depending on where the drum is struck, different modes in the drumhead are excited.  Striking a drum at the side produces resonant modes (1,1), (2,1), (3,1) and (4,1).  Striking the drum at the center processes "thump" modes (0,1), (0,2) and (0,3).  An excellent illustrated depiction of drum modes is described in the section Vibration of an Ideal Circular Membrane in reference (4).  The excitation of resonant and "thump" modes are easy to observe in this Djembe drum film clip.  At 58 seconds into the clip, you can see the drummer excite a damped thump sound from the drum by striking it in the middle.  Other modes are possible.  The tonal quality can thus be modulated by the way in which the drum is struck by the hand.  It is important to remember that mode modulation is best accomplished with a highly resonant drum such as a Djembe or Kponlogo drum.

Drums by Region and People

   The Doundun drum is played in Nigeria by the Yoruba.  It is a pressure drum and is usually played with a hammer.  Here's Ayan Bisi Adeleke playing it.

Ewe Drums
   Ewe drums, played by the Ewe people, are fixed tension, long bodied and therefore loud.  The drums are somewhat resonant.  Two or more drums are used to convey multiple pitches and the drums are usually beaten with a hammer. This short film describes talking drums as used in the Ewe village of Hohoe in Eastern Ghana. 

Atumpan and Fontomfrom Drums
   These drums are played by the Asante of Ghana.  Two or four drums are often played in tandem, for spectral breadth and optimal range.  The Fontomfrom drum is the largest of the two drums and is one of the tallest and therefore loudest drums in West Africa.  These drums are played with a hammer and sometimes with the hand.  Here's Kwame Ansah-Brew playing the Fontomfrom and Atumpan drums.
   Here are Atumpan and Fontomfrom drums played ceremonially at the funeral of Otumfuo Opuku Ware II, the fifteenth Asantehene (Asante King), in 1999. (link)
   An Akan drum can only produce approximately 500 words, excluding proper names and titles (Nketia, references 5 and 6).  For this reason, these loud drums are best for expressing stock phrases for warning and ceremonial purposes.

   The Kponlogo drum is the drum of the Ga people.  It is a superb, loud and resonant drum.  Two or more drums are used to convey pitch.  It is usually played with a hammer or with the hands.  Here's  Nii Okai Aryeetey playing a Kponlogo drum set.  Here are more Kponlogo drums (plus other instruments) played by the MABO ensemble.

   The Djembe originated with the Mandinka people although today, due to its warm resonant tone and clear fundamental pitch, Djembes have become popular across West Africa.   It is the most resonant of West African drums and is also quite loud.  It is usually played alone and is modulated through the hand striking technique.  Here's Nii Okai Aryeetey playing the Djembe. 
   For anyone interested in the details of Djembe manufacture, Ilya Magnes of Copenhagen has filmed a beautiful movie of the making of a Djembe in Gambia, from cutting down the tree to playing it.  It does show the slaughter of a goat (the hide is used for the drumhead), so the squeamish should skip that section.  Here it is: Making the Djembe (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).


West African drum communication is highly refined and has employed a variety of technologies to allow the surrogate communication of language over long distance.  It has evolved over thousands of years and has been essential to the survival of West African people.


1.  John F. Carrington, The Talking Drums of Africa, 1949

2.  James Gleik, The Information, A History, A Theory, A Flood, Chapter 1, Pantheon, 2011

3.  Wiki page: Drum, See "Sound of a drum".

4.  Richard K. Jones, The Well-Tempered Timpani

5.  J. H. K. Nketia, 1971.  "Surrogate languages of Africa", Current Trends in Linguistics vol. 7. pp. 699-732.
6.  J. H. K. Nketia, 1976.  "Drumming in Akan Communities" in T. Sebeok & D. Umiker-Sebeok (eds.), Speech surrogates pp. 772-806.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A note to readers

I'm currently working on an article on drum communication in West Africa.  It's proving to be a research topic in and of its own right.  I hope to publish the article next week.  In the meantime, the wiki page on drum communication is a good introduction to the topic.

Until then, here's Master Drummer Nii Okai Aryeetey from Accra playing Kpanlogo drums:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Akan Language: Vowel Harmony, Tone and Downdrift

Fun Twi (Akan) language introduction

At first glace, the Akan languages, and other African languages, might seem a bridge too far.  We might ask ourselves if Akan is simply too different and difficult to understand.  We might even imagine that Akan is not sufficiently interesting to us.  Thus we might miss taking a glimpse at this deeply philosophical language and fail to have the chance to see our own language in perspective.

For the curious among us, we are fortunate that Johann Gottlieb Christaller, a missionary to the Gold Coast in the 19th century, with his finely tuned ear, grasped the depth of the Akan languages, both in their grammatical complexity and their potential for philosophical expression.  His work served as a basis for a systematic approach for the study of Akan languages, which continues to this day.  This historical academic study of Akan languages has served native and non-native speakers, and linguists alike.  Linguistic aspects of Akan, such as vowell harmony, tone and downdrift, serve to inform us of where non-African languages, which generally use subsets of these methods of expression, might fit in the evolution of language.
There is a superb online teaching course for Akan languages.  I refer generously to this online course, Akan Teleteaching Course, to illustrate Akan grammar and methods of expression.

Vowel Harmony

In general, there are a total of ten vowels in the Akan language, which are grouped into two groups of five vowels.  Words are usually pronounced with vowels in one of the two vowel sets, but not both.  The vowel sets are differentiated by the position of the tongue.  The Akan Teleteaching Course, with its vowel harmony audio player examples, is an easy way to grasp the concept of vowel harmony.  Viewed another way, vowel harmony allows the speaker to use the expressive capability of ten vowels, but to efficiently alter the position of the tongue only between words.  The altering of the position of the tongue to pronounce vowels is known as palatalization.

The technical terms for Akan palatalization of the two vowel sets are retracted tongue root (RTR) and advanced tongue root (ATR). (link)


Like other Niger-Congo languages, Akan languanges are expressed with two tones.  The tones are not absolute, but are voiced relative to the tones of the preceeding syllables.  This method of tonalization is known as a register tone system.  I'll let the Akan Teleteaching Course introduction to tones do the talking for me here.  Possessive person body parts are generally low toned, as are references to younger persons.  Older persons are referred to with high tones.  Other rules for tone must be learned, just as noun gender must be learned for many Indo-European languages.


As in English and other Indo-European languages, the last syllable is inflected downward at the end of a statement.  This serves to tonally complete the idea.

Unlike English, downward inflection in an Akan statement trends downward over the entire statement, not just at the end.  The effect of this is a surprisingly easy ability to understand the phasing of an Akan speaker, even if one cannot understand the specific words spoken.  Statements start high and are downdrifted.

The rules for downdrifting are easy to understand, but I'll leave it to the Akan Teleteaching course to illustrate the process. (link)  They even have a spectrogram illustration of someone's speech which illustrates the intonation of tone and downdrift. (link)

Musical Example of Downdrifting

The effect of downdrifting is a series of phrases that are expressed in waves, with each new phrase upswept and then downdrifted so that the end of the phrase is punctuated by the lowest tone.  Within this overall downward trend, relative up and down tones are expressed to intonate within the downward trend.

Above is Kwaa Mensah, singing "Odo me me sum do no" [to purchase see: Otrabanda or Amazon] in Fante:  "She loved me and I loved her.  But now she is doing something I don't like, so we're finished."  You can hear Kwaa Mensah sweeping upward at the beginning of a phrase, then drifting down at the end of each phrase.  Final sentence ideas are punctuated by the lowest tones.  Again, the method of intonation is somewhat familiar to Indo-European speakers.

The clip is from the vintage recording of Palmwine music Vintage Palmwine recorded over many years at Bokoor Studios.

Word Order

As in English, sentences are generally expressed in subject-verb-object sequences(link).  English speakers can breathe a sigh of relief here.

Comparison with other languages

Vowel Harmony has been retained in many non-African languages, but strict vowel harmony has been lost in most Indo-European languages.  Many languages retain tone, but again, it has been lost in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and many other languages.  Some Indo-European languages such as Greek have lost their tonal aspects only in the last several thousand years.  Tonal systems are broadly classified into register tone and contour tone systems.  Akan languages fall into the register tone classification.  Most languages retains aspects of downdrifting, especially on the final syllable.  However, the structure of downdrifting is often less specific than in the Akan language.

Further Reading

Bruce Connell, Downdrift, Downstep and Declination (link)

Akan Music

John Collins, Music Makers of West Africa (link)

Vintage Palmwine Recording (link)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Boating and Fishing in West Africa

Pirogue Fishing Boats, Cape Coast, Ghana

The earliest written records of lake and river fishing in West Africa are about 500 years old.  However, we know that pirogue canoes have been manufactured there for at least 8,000 years and in all likelihood, for thousands of years before that.  In 1987, a 7,700 year old canoe was discovered in northeast Nigeria, on the Yobe River.  Carved from a single mahony tree, a wood that is highly durable, the bow and stern of the boat are finely worked points.  It is 8.4 meters long and 0.5 meters wide. In other words, a perfect river and lake pirogue for two or three people.  The proximity of the find to Lake Chad, a lake with abundant fish, suggests that similar canoes were used in the area to fish 8000 years ago, and likely well before that.  It is notable that at that time, Lake Chad was much larger than today.  The workmanship indicates that its maker was a craftsman in wood, much as West Africans are known today.  In fact, the canoe closely resembles lake and river fishing canoes used in the area today. The canoe also indicates that the people of West Africa of the time were not stationary dwellers, but had developed a means to navigate their waterways.

The principal freshwater fishing rivers in West Africa are the Senegal and the Bani, in the west; the great Niger, connecting Senegal and Mali with Nigeria in the west, north and east; and the Volta in the center, which flows southward through modern Ghana.  There is remarkable continuity of West African languages according to groupings centered on these rivers, as shown in the following Niger-Congo language classification map:

The greatest diversity of Niger-Congo languages exists on these rivers, which is suggestive that they originated in West Africa.  In Ghana alone, there are approximately 35 Niger-Congo languages spoken.  These languages also tend to group according to river watersheds, indicating that Niger-Congo life has been historically centered about rivers. Pirogue boats have historically been the only means of long distance communication on these rivers.  Fishing, by way of pirogues, has provided a key source of protein in West Africa for millenia.  (Niger history:  link ; Volta Estuary showing pirogue manufacture:  link; Pirogue racing on the Niger: link)

The ubiquity of these boats stems from the abundant rivers and fish, as well as the rain forest, with its huge mahogany trees.  Even in northern areas of the Niger where the Sahara dominates, pirogue boats floated from upstream are easily obtained.

Approximately three hundred years ago, the Fante of Ghana began to adapt their river fishing boats to ocean going fishing.  They also began to increase the size and length of their nets to permit ocean and beach seining techniques.  Other tribes along the coast of Ghana, including the Ga and the Anlo-Ewe, adopted fishing techiques from the Fante. (1, 2, 3)

It is notable that both beach and ocean seining techniques of the Ghanaian coast require highly coordinated teams with specialized tasks including tree falling, boat building, paddling, swimming, drumming, steering, net pulling, net mending, fish sorting, cleaning and preserving, and accounting, in order to be successful. (2)

This short video of Fante fisherman shows beach seining and paddling prior to the age of outboard motors (4).  As shown in the video, singing and percussion music are central to the role of net pulling and coordinated paddling required to overcome the heavy surf of Ghana's ocean beaches.  Beach seining is still very common, but wealthier fishing companies have fitted their boats with outboard motors and increasingly use ocean seining to secure their catches. (5)  This is driven by declining fish stocks due partly to European fishing vessels fishing off the coast of West Africa.

Fishing and boating in West Africa have a long history.  The methods of boat manufacture, boating and seining are locally developed and have made use of local innovations.  Techniques often employ highly coordinated teams in a way that is unique to the region.

Further Reading:

Akyeampong, E.,  Indigenous Knowledge and Maratime Fishing in West Africa:  The case of Ghana (link)

Atta-Mills et al, The decline of a regional fishing nation:  The case of Ghana and West Africa (link)

Kraan, M., 'One Man, No Chop':  Beach Seine Fishing in Ghana (West Africa) (link)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Modernity and Cultural Complexity in West Africa

Fante fishermen at Cape Coast in Ghana, hauling in their nets (link)

I'll put it simply.  I adhere to the view that modern humans and modern human thinking evolved in Africa.  Humans were fully modern in their reasoning, artistic and adaptive capacities tens of thousands of years ago, well before they ever walked or paddled out of Africa.

Sure, Europeans have been working hard to select for pale skin;  Equatorial Africans have been seeking a perfect blackness.  Apart from the practicalities of sun adaptation, we can only guess at why there is such strong selection for these characteristics.  I'd even go so far as to say that there are genetic differences that lead to different health outcomes for Africans and non-Africans.  Africans rarely get melanoma.  Non-Africans rarely get sickle cell anemia and other malaria adaptation induced illnesses.  However, we've both been under extreme selection for intelligence, sociability and resourcefulness.

As I look out there in the blogosphere, it's rather stunning to more often than not run across people who struggle with the Out-of-Africa model for human evolution.  Perhaps we partly struggle because we just don't know much about Africa.  There are few positive media stories and, with the exception of the history of slavery, almost nothing about African history or culture in the popular media.

My impression of Africa is quite different from most non-Africans. Through a quirk of British Commonwealth generosity in the 1960's, I spent some of my girlhood years in Secondi-Takoradi, on the coast of Ghana, in West Africa.  My dad accepted a position to teach science at a college there.  My memories are vividly sensual:  Fante fishermen rhythmically singing and hauling in their fishing nets, the intense but not unpleasant smell of the fish market on the beach, the long spacing of huge but steady waves crashing on the beach, rainy season thunderstorms, the thrill of drums "talking" between villages at night, the warm generosity of my nanny Agnes, and lanky and beautiful African children.  Not in skin color, but in lankiness, I recognized them as quite like me.

At the time, I had a childhood intuition that the experience had been something very special, but it was only years later that could truly put it in context.  I had been given an early opportunity to experience one of the great cosmopolitan cultures of the world.

One could say that I am merely romantizing a childhood experience, but much anthropological research would say otherwise.  The Akan People, Fante and the Asante, seem by every measure, to have unique cultural adaptations to their equatorial coast and inland world.  As I was listening to Robin I. M. Dunbar's discussion on the challenges that social network size poses to the human brain, the ritualistic social behavior of the Akan immediately came to mind.  They are a highly social culture and their social rituals act as a kind of glue that helps them overcome many of the impositions of living in a densely populated and tropical region.  I'll be publishing a bibliography in the next few days to flesh out some of my childhood memories. 

In addition, for the month of June, I'll be blogging on various aspects of the creativity, resourcefulness, sociability and innovation among the Akan people of West Africa.