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The Talking Drum: Kalangu, Gangan, and Odondo

Updated on May 23, 2017

African drummers

African drummers
African drummers | Source

The African Talking Drum

The talking drum is one of the oldest musical instruments used by master drummers. It’s a highly stylized instrument that has its origin in the West African regions of Africa. The drum can be found in Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria. It is prominent among the Yoruba ethnic group but can be found in neighboring Nigerian countries like Togo and Benin republic, and some other ethnic groups like the Hausa.

The Yoruba ethnic group is mostly located around the western area of Nigeria; they have transformed this ancient instrument into a thing of beauty and wonder. The drums are carved out of tree trunks and is made having an hourglass shape with long leather tension cords attached from the drum head to the base of the drum.

The crown or top side is usually made out of stretched animal skin pulled taut, which covers a hollow midsection, the drum could have a single membrane or double skinned and comes in varied sizes depending on the origin and function.

Talking Drum Shape

The drums are traditionally carved from tree trunks and molded into an hourglass shape. The head usually has a membrane that is made out of dried animal skin like sheep, cow, goatskin depending on the functionality, but today’s drums head are made out of suede material. They have many leather tension cords fastened to the head which cascades down the sides and is attached to the bottom region.

The drum can be decorated with animal skin, cowries, shells and rattle beads that add to its stylized sound. The talking drum has greatly contrasting sizes such as the dual small sized Bata drums that is carried round the neck with the drum positioned chest high.

The Bata drum is played using two small drum sticks; another small talking drum is the gangan and the larger version the dundun. Talking drums can come in small, medium or large sizes, the smaller ones like the Bata, gangan and tama usually produce a pleasing rendition and could measuring between 14cm to 8cm in diameter, the massive dundun could have a length exceeding35cm and drum head of about 20cm.

How the talking drum is played

The talking drum from its description when struck produces a pitch which mimics speech tone (a prosody of human speech), the drummer does not interpret speech verbally but chooses to use an interpretive description that closely represents the spoken word. The drum can also mimic verbal speech directly when short sentences are used by beating the drum head with a bent drumstick and manipulating the leather cords, achieving this is no mean task and it takes years to become a master drummer.

In order to create this fascinating display the drummer places the drum between his arm and body holding the stick implement in the other hand, with the arm that grasps the drum he positions his fingers slightly around of the crown. He then skillfully squeezes the tension cords which adjusts the strain on the drum head so that the drum when struck produces the mimic tone of a spoken language.

Only top drummers with years of studious dedication can make a talking drum talk, he can modulate pitch and render its interpretation of whole phrases in an exciting manner. Some talking drums also have cowries and beads attached to the tension cords which when shaken adds to the trilling dramatization. The drums can be played for young maidens, masquerades and cultural groups who dance to the enchanting beat.

Talking drums sound

The sound from the talking drum has both a low and high base tone. The animal skin on both ends and the shell construction is resistant, strong and weighty combined with the hourglass shape that looks like two drums attached at the mid section, contributes to the drums advanced acoustician and impressive projection capability. The leather tension cords when skillfully manipulated alongside the drum sticks produces an enhanced low or high pitch depending on the master drummer’s fundamentals.

The talking drum Tama

The talking drum Tama
The talking drum Tama | Source

The history of the talking drum

History of the drum

Oyo in western Nigeria is believed to be the cradle of Yoruba civilization and the talking drum is believed to have a significant role in the history of the ethnic group. The talking drum was used in the old days as a means of communication between tribes; the drum because of its ability to mimic the spoken word effectively relayed long distant messages of coronations, deaths, celebration and war. It was also used for entertainment, praise singing, fun, folklore and leisure.

Talking drums have mystical connotations and are linked to deities and gods; the drum is also used for prayer, as a means to bless the community or an individual and as stated earlier to relay important messages. The drums shell is forged from special trees and each drum is given a name which aids it when used to communicate and invoke special favor from the ancestors.

Lead drum

The talking drums ability to mimic pitch, volume phrases and pauses as wells as adapt tone of any musical instrument makes it a very versatile drum. The drum in a musical performance can stand alone or could be added to an ensemble of drums such as the Bata, gungun and dun dun the senior drum or modern instruments like in the case of juju music, highlife, afro juju music.

Kalangu Hausa musician in Zaria, Nigeria

Types of talking drums

1 Dondo

2 Kalangu

3 Odondo

4 Gangan

5 Bata

6 Lunar

7 Atumpan

8 Tama

9 Dundun

Talking drums

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Kalangu African drum

The Kalangu African drum is a talking drum that has its origin bound to the Hausa people of northern Nigeria; the Hausa ethnic group occupies a vast geographical region covering over two thirds the entire nations. The climate and topography in Nigeria have very stack differences, in the south the weather is humid and damp with tropical conditions compared to the savanna desert land and high temperatures prevalent in the north.

The Hausa people are predominantly Muslim making up sixty five percent while Christians number about thirty five percent and paganism mixed with other religions make up the remainder. The Kalangu drum is sculptured having an hourglass shape, it is an ancient percussion instrument used during festivals, coronations and special occasions.

Talking drums are played to relay important stories and the changing pitch and drum tempo relays certain fundamental messages, if the tempo is slow, paused and dull it could speak of sad happenings and occasions but when loud upbeat and fast conveys joyous feelings.

The dance that accompanies the Kalangu beat is usually in strict formation either in a straight line or semicircle were dancers either male and female or a single gender are brightly costumed in tightly fitted colorful apparels and swivel skirts that sway to their slow tempo shuffle.

The performance is usually accompanied with songs, high pitch native flutes and other drums. The traditional Kalangu drum can be found in other countries like Ghana, Benin republic, Niger and Cameroon.

Abuja upwards is the Hausa territory in northern Nigeria

African drum

African drum
African drum

Ethnic tribes and their talking drum

Akan people
Hausa people
Yoruba people
Dondo drum
Kalangu drum
Dundu drum
Odondo drum
Karbi drum
Gangan drum
 
Dondo drum
Bata drum

Sabar drum

The Sabar drum is an interesting drum that communicates rhythmic correspondent over several kilometers, it is loud repetitive and is played with rapid roll rhythms cut short by pauses and energetic bursts of sound. The Wolof people, serer people of Senegal and Gambians use the Sabar drum.

Sabar is a big bass drum that can stand four feet, it is hourglass or cylindrical and polished with a wide double skin head and it’s played using a stick in one hand accompanied by the other hand to striking the drum. The drum is played during traditional ceremonies, rituals, spell casting, healing, joyful and somber occasions, in certain occasions the accompanied dance has a seductive sometimes sensual undertone.

Odondo and Atumpan drum

Odondo drum

The Odondo drum is a West African talking drum; Ghanaians use this percussion instrument to relay messages the same way the Senegalese use their Sabar for distant communication. The Odondo is hourglass shaped and can use variable pitch to convey messages and meaning.

The drum is positioned under an arm and struck with a drum stick using the upper arms to control the tempo of the tone. The Odondo is common and bares different acronyms like dodo and Dondo in regions like Togo and Liberia.

Atumpan

The Atumpan talking drum is carved from a single trunk and stands one meter high with drum head measuring about 42cm, they are covered in symbolic elements, fabric, colored patterns, sketches and shapes. Atumpan weight a lot and is a goblet shaped drum poisoned on a base or placed on wooden stakes.

The drum is placed in pairs each facing the other the large producing lower tone than the smaller drum, the drum is favored by the Akan people and could be hoisted on shoulders while another man plays the drum with two sticks. The drum beat is usually high tempo and fast.

The skin membrane of the Atumpan is stretched on a metal ring and fastened by conical pegs for rigidity; the pitch symbolizes the gender following such as low for female high for male , the drum like others in its category carry messages, tone and interpretations long distances.

The Lumar drum

Lumar drum

The Lumar drum is a cylindrical drum that is played with two sticks, the drum is hoisted over the neck by a rope and hangs down to midsection and is used as a bass instrument. It’s a stainless steel instrument that can be used to accompany modern drums, trumpets and is seen in many contemporary bands.

Gangan

Gangan is used in western Nigeria by the Yoruba ethnic group; it is the smallest percussion drum and can be found in countries like Togo, Benin republic. The drum is hourglass shaped with cords running down the sides. Other drums of importance are the omelet oko and Bata which is a combination of two or three small drums carried by a shoulder strap and struck with a single stick.

The Sato drum

Talking about African drums would be incomplete without mentioning one of the most amazing drums that have come out of Africa; the Sato drum can be found in Badagry. Badagry is a border town in Lagos state that shares a border with the republic of Benin; they are Egun and Yoruba speaking people.

Badagry is a serene town known as a tourist hub with several firsts like the first house built with an upstairs, a slave trade port and you can find many ancient artifacts and historical treasures. The Egun people are also steep in cultural practices of worshiping deities and gods but Christianity and Islam also have devoted followers.

The incredible Sato drum stands nine feet tall (9ft) and could measure three feet wide (3ft). Cultural enthusiasts would find the seven man master drummers fascinating because the massive drum requires seven drummers to play the percussion instrument. The monster drum was first seen in Kaduna state of Nigeria in 1972, and other similar drums can be found in Nmufo in Ogun state western Nigeria.

The drummer must be orphaned by one or both parents before he is allowed to beat the drum, a drummer with one parent gone can only beat the drum with one hand while the orphan with two dead relations is allowed to beat the drum with both hands.

The hollow drum is played using seven long sticks and certain families are allowed to play the drum, the families are Lokossa, Aghokomeh and Dadapame descendants of the original drum carvers Kodjo, Avidagba and Tosavi. The drummers have to jump simultaneously to play the drum, and display incredible agility, fascinating acrobatics and coordinated dance steps.

The Sato drum has a loud frightful sound but the entire ensembles of dancers, drummers, brilliant outfits are worth the spectacle. The Sato comes out only during very important occasion like joyful celebrations, burial of a highly prominent member of their society, the presence of top level dignitaries and other tradition celebrations.


Conclusion

The African talking drum is more than a percussion instrument it carries the tradition, hopes and dreams of a people, the messages it relay boarder on story telling, oration passed down through the ages, folklore and music. Drums feature prominently in festivals, death and kinship uniting the people with its ageless renditions.

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