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.


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