What Is the Talking Drum Used For?

This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

When someone first hears the term ‘talking drum,’ images of some high-tech electronic drum kit synthesizer that can produce spoken words might enter their mind. 

After all, real drums do not talk, do they? Well, you are not going to be able to have a conversation with one, but talking drums do exist, and they can reproduce sounds that sound very much like the human voice.

Quite the opposite of the high-tech synthesizer drum we mentioned, talking drums are actually one of the oldest musical instruments that exist.

The history of their use can be traced back centuries. They are primarily used in West African countries, although their popularity has grown, and they are now played in many countries worldwide.

In this article, we will take a closer look at what is the talking drum used for, their history, how they are constructed, what they are used for, and even point out some mainstream rock artists who have used talking drums on bestselling albums.

History of Talking Drums

Talking drums can be traced back as far as the 7th century AD. Primarily they are from West Africa, and there they are given a variety of names depending on which African language is being used to describe them. The more popular names and the associated languages are:

  • Dondo, Ordondo – Akan
  • Tamanin – Bambara, Bozo, Dyula
  • Donno, Lunna – Dagbani, Gurunsi, Moore
  • Gangan – Yoruba
  • Tama, Tamma – Serer, Wolof, Mandinka
  • Doodo – Songhai
  • Kalangu, Dan Kar’bi – Hausa
  • Mbaggu, Baggel – Fulani

That list of names for the talking drum and the number of different languages with a specific name show just how diverse its use is and how much a part of West African musical culture the talking drum is.

Obviously, not every talking drum is made the same way, and some of these names refer to variations, but in all cases, the sound produced is similar.

The ancient use of talking drums is thought to have been the way for people in West Africa to communicate with the spirit world, given that the sound is so close to the human voice.

They were also used to communicate with specific tones, rhythms, and volume of sound created by the person playing the drum being contextualized into actual meaning, which could be interpreted by others who hear them.

Examples would be someone announcing their return from a journey or summoning a tribe to a ceremony.

Construction of Talking Drums

The construction and the materials used to make talking drums have been unchanged from how the earliest drums were made. The typical drum’s main body shape is that of an hourglass, whereby it is widest at either end and then narrows towards the middle.

Again, we stress there are variations where the narrowing degree of angle is more or less. Some may not even have an hourglass shape.

In almost all cases, a single piece of wood is used to make the drum’s body, which will likely be handcrafted.

Some talking drums are left plain, but those that catch the eye have designs carved on their exteriors. In many cases, these designs are impressive, with intricate carvings across the wood’s entire surface, often akin to artwork.

The drumhead is generally made from genuine goat’s skin or sheep’s skin on each talking drum’s end.

Around the drumhead’s circumference, a series of ropes are threaded through, and these then run vertically to the drumhead at the other end of the drum and threaded around it in the same way.

What Is the Talking Drum Used For

What Are Talking Drums Used For?

The ropes we mentioned play a crucial role in how and what the drum is used for. The drum is usually held under the arm and then played by striking the drumhead with a stick.

As it is held, if the person playing squeezes the drum, the ropes tighten and adjust the drumhead’s tautness, thus altering the sound made when the drumhead is struck.

By squeezing and releasing in varying degrees, it is possible to produce a whole series of different sounds, and this is then used for the purpose for which the drum is being played.

In traditional settings, such as in West Africa, the talking drum is still used to communicate.

Still, it is now more of a musical instrument played individually and by whole groups of people. The talking drum is also widely used within popular music in West Africa, with many famous musicians and artists from that area using it.

It forms part of certain music genres in Africa. The Juju and Fuji music of Nigeria are two such musical genres that use the talking drum; Mbalax music originates from Senegal.

The talking drum has also been used on what we might consider contemporary music beyond Africa’s shores.

Talking Drums In Modern Music

Some of the music industry’s most famous rock and pop artists have used traditional musical instruments through the years. The Indian sitar use by The Beatles is one of the first to come to mind, whereby it was played on at least 6 of their songs, including their hit, ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.’

Unfortunately, there is no evidence of the Beatles using a talking drum, but other rock and pop artists have.

These include rock group Fleetwood Mac who played it on a track called ‘Wood Turning,’ King Crimson, who played one in the appropriately named track, ‘The Talking Drum,’ and Tom Watts, who used a talking drum on ‘Trouble’s Braids.’

The talking drum is now a highly popular instrument taught and played in schools, which means children are being introduced to it at an early age and hopefully will grow to love playing and listening to it for years.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.