African Drums & Drumming
Hand Drums and the African Experience
African drums are so iconic of Africa that an African drummer is almost a stereotype. The fact is that drums have been an intrinsic part of African life for countless generations – to an extent that is probably beyond the grasp of non-Africans.
It’s generally accepted that Africa is the cradle of humanity, so it’s not unreasonable to conclude that music formed a part of the African experience before many, if not all, other civilizations were even born. Music is deeply woven into the fabric of African life, and drums are the primordial musical instruments.
Drums play an important role in every aspect of African life, including the physical, emotional and spiritual. African hand drums are played to communicate, celebrate, mourn and inspire. They’re played in times of peace and war, planting and harvesting, birth and death.
Drums have been such a large part of Africans’ daily experience for so long that drumming pulses throughout their collective unconscious. It’s in their genes. Drums are inseparable from the African culture – they help define it. So much so, that when the slave trade scattered Africans throughout the world, the love of drumming they took with them irrevocably altered the world of music.
Today, some of us recognize some of the prominent African hand drums, but few of us realize how extensive their influence has become. Hand drums such as the conga and bongos are not normally thought of as African drums, but careful consideration will reveal their roots. Listen to the music these drums play a role in (Latin jazz for example), and you will hear typically African characteristics.
Africa is a vast continent (covering 20.4% of the world’s land), with a current population of over one billion. Much of this population either originated or still lives in small villages, each comprising its own subculture. What this means to our discussion is that it would be impractical to fully cover the immense assortment of African hand drums, given our limited scope.
Because of our limited scope, we’ll focus our discussion on a few of the most noteworthy African drums.
Some Prominent African Hand Drums
For a detailed study of this important African hand drum, please visit our page on the history of the djembe.
One thing that makes the sabar unique to African drumming is that it’s played by hand AND by stick. The player holds a long, thin stick (galan) in one hand for producing the high notes and also strikes the skin with the empty hand. The shell is an elongated cylinder with tapered ends (like a conga though generally smaller). The goatskin head is attached by stringing it to pegs that are attached to the body, or by directly attaching it to the pegs. Tuning is accomplished by driving the pegs further into the body, which pulls on the skin.
The Sabar drum has been used to communicate from village to village over considerable distances. The rhythms can imitate spoken phrases which could then be heard for over 15 kilometers.
Sabar celebration in an African village
Like most African hand drums, the sabar is not a solo instrument. It’s part of an ensemble and contributor to community events such as births, baby naming ceremonies, weddings and other holidays. Sabars are even played for wrestling matches, and each wrestler will have his own special rhythm.
Wherever sabar drums are drumming, dancers are dancing.
The bougarabou is unique because it’s a solo instrument. Like the conga, however, it comes in sets of distinctly tuned members, so it’s not a case where a lone instrument takes center stage. Rather, it’s a lone musician playing a set of drums. This was not always the case; until fairly recently the bougarabou was played as a single drum. Often, the drummer also wears a series of metal bracelets that contribute to the sound.
The bougarabou has a longer history than its cousin, the djembe, and tends to be larger. Another difference is that it’s almost always skinned with cow skin, so it tends to have a deeper, richer sound than the djembe. This is especially true if the hair is not shaved off the skin, as is the tradition.
Village bougarabou celebration.
Notice that in the following video these African drums are not rope-tuned, as are most bougarabous these days. They are also quite large, as bougarabous now go, and at least one of them is shaped strikingly like a conga. It’s common for the audience and dancers to clap with wooden chunks of palm peduncles and sing.
A talking drum being played.
The talking drum is an hour-glass shaped African drum that enables villages separated by vast distances to communicate with each other. Like the sabar, it is played with a striker and an empty hand. Unlike the sabar, the talking drum has two heads that are attached to each other by leather thongs that run the length of the shell. By regulating the tension of these thongs, the pitch can be manipulated so as to mimic the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech. Not surprisingly, this is particularly apt for African tongues, since they tend to be tonal.
Various versions of this drum can be found in Africa. The different playing styles reflect the differences in construction, as well as the differences in the various languages.
Known also as fontomfrom by the Akan people, ngoma by the Bantu, tama by the Wolof, gan gan and dun dun by the Yoruba, dondo by the Ashanti, lunna by the Dagomba and kalangu by the Hausa, these drums are also musical intruments and have become prevalent in popular music, especially Jùjú and Mbalax.
Like many African hand drums, the udu has a rich cultural history. Starting out as a clay water jug that eventually had a hole added to the side, the udu is believed to have been created by the women of the Igbo people of Nigeria. In the Igbo language, udu means pottery, or vessel.
In fact, some of the larger udus are no different from water storage pots used by the Igbo. This type of udu can be found scattered throughout the Igbo region in Nigeria. There are udus in the fields that serve as storage containers for locally cultivated food. They can also be found throughout the community in the shade, accompanied by hollowed gourds used to scoop out the cool water they contain. They’ll even be found in the trees, where bees will colonize them and produce honey that will be harvested by the community.
Water udu performance.
Technically, the udu is both an aerophone and an idiophone. The instrument is played by striking either hole with the open palm, rubbing the textured body or slapping it with the fingers or any part of the hand. The holes can be covered with the palms or the bare belly for various sound effects.
In skilled hands, the Udu is a surprisingly versatile hand drum.
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