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Kalangu, Gangan, Odondo: An Exploration of the Talking Drums of Africa

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This author loves to research and write about traditional cultures.

This article will take a closer look at the wonderful talking drums of Africa.

This article will take a closer look at the wonderful talking drums of Africa.

The Origins of the 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 origins in West Africa, including Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria.

It is prominent among the Yoruba ethnic group but can also be found in neighboring countries like Togo and the Benin Republic and within some other ethnic groups like the Hausa.

The Yoruba are mostly located around the western area of Nigeria and have transformed this ancient instrument into a thing of beauty and wonder.

Talking drums are highly stylized percussion instruments with origins in West Africa.

Talking drums are highly stylized percussion instruments with origins in West Africa.

How Talking Drums Are Made

Talking 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 skins, such as sheep, cow, or goatskin depending on the functionality, but many of today’s drum heads are made out of suede material. They have many leather tension cords fastened to the head, which cascade down the sides and are attached to the bottom region.

The drums can be decorated with animal skin, cowries, shells, and rattle beads that add to its stylized sound.

Different Sizes

They can have greatly contrasting sizes, such as the dual, small-sized bata drums that are carried around the neck with the drum positioned chest high and played using two small drum sticks.

Smaller ones like the bata, gangan, and tama usually produce a pleasing rendition and can measure between 8–14 cm in diameter. The massive dundun can have a length exceeding 35 cm, with a drum head of about 20 cm.

Small drums like the gangan can be accompanied by larger ones like the saworoide for an even more expansive sound.

Small drums like the gangan can be accompanied by larger ones like the saworoide for an even more expansive sound.

How the Talking Drum Is Played and What It Sounds Like

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

Only top drummers with years of studious dedication can make a talking drum talk; they can modulate pitch and render its interpretation of whole phrases in an exciting manner.

Mimicking Verbal Speech

When struck, the talking drum produces a pitch that 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 easy task, and it takes years to become a master drummer.

Advanced Acoustics and Multiple Pitches

The sound from the talking drum has both a low and high base tone. The animal skin on both ends and the shell construction are both resistant, strong, and weighty. Combined with the hourglass shape that looks like two drums attached at the mid section, this contributes to the drum's advanced acoustics and impressive projection capability.

When skillfully manipulated alongside the drum sticks, the leather tension cords produce an enhanced low or high pitch, depending on the master drummer’s fundamentals.

Supremely Adaptable

The talking drum's ability to mimic pitch, volume phrases, and pauses and adapt to the tone of any musical instrument makes it a very versatile drum.

In a musical performance, it can stand alone or be added to an ensemble of drums, such as the bata, gungun, and dundun (the senior drum). It can even be incorporated with modern instruments like in the case of juju music, highlife, or afro juju music.

Embellishments and Uses

Some talking drums also have cowries and beads attached to the tension cords, which when shaken add to the trilling dramatization.

The drums can be played for young maidens, masquerades, and cultural groups who dance to the enchanting beat.

Talking drums can also be used to communicate messages across great distances.

Talking drums can also be used to communicate messages across great distances.

The Uses of the Talking Drum Amongst the Yoruba People

Oyo in western Nigeria is believed to be the cradle of the Yoruba civilization, and the talking drum is believed to have a significant role in the history of the ethnic group.

Communication Between Tribes

Talking drums may be used as a means of communication between tribes. Because of its ability to mimic the spoken word effectively, it can be used to relay long-distance messages of coronations, deaths, celebration, and war. It has also been used for entertainment, praise singing, fun, folklore, and leisure.

Mystical and Religious Uses

Talking drums have mystical connotations and are linked to deities and gods. They are also used for prayer and as a means to bless the community or an individual.

The drum's 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.

A Closer Look at Different Kinds of Talking Drums

Let's take a deeper look at some of the many different kinds of talking drums and how they differ across cultures.

Kalangu

Though it can be found in other countries like Ghana, the Benin Republic, Niger, and Cameroon, the kalangu is a talking drum that has its origins bound to the Hausa people of northern Nigeria. Occupying a vast geographical region covering over two-thirds of Nigeria, the Hausa people are predominantly Muslim, making up 65%, while Christians number about 35%—paganism mixed with other religions make up the remainder.

Sculpted into an hourglass shape, the kalangu is an ancient percussion instrument used during festivals, coronations, and special occasions.

Different Pitches and Tempos for Different Messages

Kalangu are played to relay important stories, and the changing pitch and drum tempo convey 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, it may convey joyous feelings.

Accompanying Dances

The dance that accompanies the kalangu beat is usually in strict formation, either in a straight line or semicircle, where dancers 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.

Sabar

Played by the Wolof people, Serer people of Senegal, and Gambians, the sabar is an interesting drum that can communicate rhythmic correspondence over several kilometers. It is loud, repetitive, and is played with rapid roll rhythms cut short by pauses and energetic bursts of sound.

A big bass drum that can stand up to 4 feet high, the sabar is made into an hourglass or cylindrical shape and polished with a wide double skin head. It’s played using a stick in one hand accompanied by the other hand to strike the drum.

The sabar is played during traditional ceremonies, rituals, spell casting, and healing, in both joyful and somber occasions. In certain occasions, the accompanied dance has a seductive, sometimes sensual, undertone.

Sabar drums are loud and played with rapid roll rhythms cut short by pauses and energetic bursts of sound.

Sabar drums are loud and played with rapid roll rhythms cut short by pauses and energetic bursts of sound.

Odondo

The odondo 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. It is hourglass shaped and can use variable pitches to convey different 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 names like dodo and dondo in regions like Togo and Liberia.

Ethnic Tribes and Their Talking Drums

Akan PeopleHausa PeopleYoruba People

Dondo

Kalangu

Dundu

Odondo

Karbi

Gangan

Dondo

Bata

Atumpan

Favored by the Akan people, the atumpan is carved from a single trunk and stands about 1 meter high, with the drum head measuring about 42 cm. It is generally covered in symbolic elements, fabric, colored patterns, sketches, and shapes.

Often quite heavy, they are usually goblet shaped and positioned on a base or placed on wooden stakes.

Atumpan are placed in pairs, each facing the other, with one producing lower tones and one producing higher ones. The drum can also be hoisted on someone's shoulders while another person 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 can symbolizes a particular gender, such as low for women and high for men.

Much like other similar drums, the atumpan can carry messages, tones, and interpretations over long distances.

Atumpan drums are placed in pairs, each facing the other, with one producing lower tones and one producing higher ones.

Atumpan drums are placed in pairs, each facing the other, with one producing lower tones and one producing higher ones.

Lumar

The lumar is a cylindrical drum that is played with two sticks.

Hoisted over the neck by a rope, it hangs down to about the midsection and is used as a bass instrument. The lumar is a stainless steel instrument that can be used to accompany modern drums and trumpets and is seen in many contemporary bands.

Gangan

The gangan is used in western Nigeria by the Yoruba. It is one of the smallest percussion drums and can also be found in countries like Togo and the Benin Republic. The drum is hourglass shaped, with cords running down the sides.

Though one of the smaller talking drums, the gangan nevertheless produces wonderful tones and pitches.

Though one of the smaller talking drums, the gangan nevertheless produces wonderful tones and pitches.

Sato

Talking about African drums would be incomplete without mentioning one of the most amazing drums that have come out of the continent. The sato can be found in Badagry, a border town in Lagos state that shares a border with the Republic of Benin made, up mostly of Egun and Yoruba people.

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

Who Can Play the Sato and How It Is Played

The incredible sato stands about 9 feet tall, can measure roughly 3 feet wide, and requires seven drummers to play the massive percussion instrument. The monster drum was first seen in the Kaduna state of Nigeria in 1972, and other similar drums can be found in Nmufo in the Ogun state of 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 only 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 thus display incredible agility, fascinating acrobatics, and coordinated dance steps.

The sato has a loud, frightful sound, but the entire ensembles of dancers, drummers, and brilliant outfits are worth the spectacle. It only comes out during very important occasions, however, like joyful celebrations, burials of highly prominent members of society, and in the presence of top-level dignitaries and other traditional celebrations.

Uniting the People Through Ageless Performances

African talking drums are more than percussion instruments. They carry the traditions, hopes, and dreams of their peoples.

The messages they relay reflect broader storytelling, oration passed down through the ages, folklore, and of course wonderful music.

Featuring prominently in festivals, death, and kinship, talking drums unite the people with their ageless renditions.

Comments

unknown on January 22, 2020:

it's cool

GBAJABIAMILA AMINAT ABIKE on January 12, 2019:

According to one of my course, African communication system, taliking drum is used to communication in olden days to communicate and relay important message like deaths, celebration ,wars and so on , I also understand that talking drum there is different types of talking drum(Bata, odondo gangan kanlanga) that are used in different countries, which talking drum are held most important in those countries to communicate with each other.

femi (author) from Nigeria on May 07, 2018:

I think they are carved from specific tree trunks.

OmoJesu on May 04, 2018:

Please I want to know how make a talking drum stick.