The talking drums are an instrument in the culture of the families that originates from West Africa. This hourglass shaped drum can be traced back to antiquity and is known by a variety of names including the “gangan” in Yoruba and “doodo” in Songhai. They are referred to as talking drums because they are able to be tuned to mimic the sound of human speech in terms of tone and accent such as emotion. A skilled player is able to play whole phrases. Most talking drums sound like a human humming depending on the way they are played. It has two drumheads connected by leather tension cords, which allow the player to change the pitch of the drum by squeezing the cords between their arm and body.
Hourglass-shaped talking drums are some of the oldest instruments used in the culture of groits of West Africa and their history can be traced back to the Yoruba people, the Ghana Empire and the Hausa people. The Yoruba people of south western Nigeria and Benin and the Dagomba of northern Ghana have both developed a highly sophisticated genre of griot music centering on the talking drum. Many variants of the talking drums evolved and were given special names, such as the Dunan, Sangban, Kenkeni, Fontomfrom and Ngoma drums. This construction is limited to within the contemporary borders of West Africa.
How the drums “talk”?
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. 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. The process may take eight times longer than communicating a normal sentence but was effective for telling neighboring villages of possible attacks or ceremonies. Each short word that was beaten on the drums, an extra phrase was added, 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”. The extra phrases provide a context in which to make sense of the basic message or drum beats.
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