Aroused -The drum’s pulse is a serpentine demon,  Stealing your viscera, strumming your spine.

In ancient times, an interest in percussion developed after repeatedly, clapping, calling, striking hollow logs or water. Forest dwellers like the Baka pygmies of Congo still accompany their polyphonic songs with these methods.

Perhaps percussion evolved through an observance of nature, of hearing the rhythmical knocking sound of the woodpecker high up in the canopy, or the gorilla beating its chest.

This is speculative as drum history, development and dispersal is lost in time.  What we do know about the drum rhythm is its power to intuitively move, motivate and inspire humans.

At its most basic, the drum is a tubular form, of differing length, made from a variety of material appealing to an inventive mind: wood, metal, clay, plastic – the selection is endless and sometimes choice is expedient.  I have seen skins strung over the wheel frames of vintage Ford vehicles, or the mouth of wrought iron cooking pots.

In Africa, Each drum sound is unique. Technically they are called membranophones as a membrane or skin is stretched and secured over the form of the top or bottom aperture, or drumhead (sometimes both). So sound depends on the shape and construction of the drum shell, the type of drumheads and their tension.

Different types of skin is used. Some for cultural reasons, i.e. only cattle hide. Or quality: the best Djembe drum skin originates from goats in Mali. Or for effect: when hair is not shaved off the skin, as in the Bouganabou drum, the sound appears rich and deep.  Leather also attributes status, for instance the water monitor skin used on Kuba royal drums of the Congo. The thickness and density of skin may reverberate at a different speed and pitch, but the sound of the drum is mainly altered due to the tension of the skin.  For preservation, drum skins are daubed with fat (in ancient times, hippo fat.)

Each group has a preferred method of attaching skin to drum frame.  Sometimes used when wet, membrane or skins are tied over the drum head and pulled tight with fastening such as strings, leather thong, or by being pegged securely at intervals on the outside of the drum.

The drum is struck with hands, curved beaters or mallets at different speed and positions on the skin creating cadence and rhythm. The Sabar drum is played combining both – one hand and stick. Drumsticks differ in shape. The decorative form of some beaters became sophisticated art-works, like those of the Ashante people, Ghana from the 1940/50s.

Drums are played by people of all ages and genders, depending on the tribe, location, status and circumstance. They are often used in ensembles. Art/ artefacts have always been subject to trade with others so particular groups can also play several varieties of drums, at once.

The body position in relation to the drum changes as drummers sit or stand to beat instruments.   Supported depending on scale and weight, drums are hand held, placed under the arm, squeezed between the thighs and leaned at an oblique angle to be played. Or they are freestanding on carved legs or base, allowing the drummer a greater range of movement around the drum.

agba ogboni yoruba
Drum, Yoruba people, Nigeria

Some freestanding horizontal drums of huge scale, such as those of the Ibo people are called slot drums (idiophones). Here, the aperture is a long narrow wooden slit and the sides of this are struck at different points with mallets, often by two drummers, producing a range of sound.  The reverberation depends on the shape of the internal hollow space and the density of wood resonating and crafting the sound.  Large slot drums of superb form made by the Azande and Mangbetu people and small hand held cylindrical versions of 30 – 40 cm, originate from numerous ethnic groups across the Democratic republic of Congo. (See the photographs of Hugh Tracey, ethnomusicologist, 1903-77, who also made 35 000 indigenous musical recordings during his career.)

azande brit museum
Azande slot drum, Congo

Udo drums are basically jugs made from clay, with an additional hole in the side, played by Ibo women, Nigeria.

History of art advocates the concept that form follows function, but considering the range of sculptural shapes across the continent, what are the functions of drums in Africa?

They are sounded for a multitude of reasons, differing circumstances, general and personal events.  Drumming varies accordingly, with the beat logically changing from the secular occasion to the sacred. As does the accompanying dance.

At some events, drumming is for joy and entertainment, jollying up marriages, births and happy times. Drummers wear bracelets of bells activated by movement and dancers rattles or shakers round the ankles, as accompaniment.

Drums are an essential aid to ancestral worship and spirituality.   They are played during rituals, masquerade ceremonies and village processions in Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and many other countries.

They are used during religious observances and processions: at Easter, Epiphany and Christmas in Ethiopia, Congo, Nigeria and Southern Africa.

They commemorate annual agrarian and first fruits festivals celebrating food security across the continent.

Drumming inaugurates change such as royal investitures, and during the modern era, adapts to include electioneering, political rallies and sporting events.

Drummers can communicate instantly over long distances, as sound carries. This caused the development of the concept of the talking drums of Africa played to simulate phonetic phrases or mimic intonations of speech relaying news, signaled others of plagues, invasions or like the large Ibo slot drums regaling people to enlist in defence, or war.

In his book: My people, Credo Mutwa describes how a drummer relays a message from a hilltop, carried downwind, ceasing to beat only when he hears another drum in the distance, relaying it.

Drums herald the completion of age grade ceremonies, announcing the passing and funeral of dignitaries, where drumming doesn’t include dance and drums may be silenced by being turned upside down,

Drums are powerful visual reminders of tribal lore and heritage.  In Southern Africa, drums (ngoma) are part of traditional healing ceremonies and circumcision rites. The beat, by both men and women, focuses the mind during trance, possession and spiritual transmutation facilitating ancestral communication.

In some instances, dancers lead the drumming, and the quality and development of an initiates dance ascertains readiness to qualify. Prior to some healers’ graduation ceremonies, drum skins are daubed with red oxide, a substance associated historically with the ancestors.

Sangoma drums South Africa
Sangoma drum with red oxide, South Africa

The San bushmen of Southern Africa also use percussion for trance dances – By keeping a steady rhythm with clapping, singing, and the pulsing sound of ankle shakers as dancers twirl in a circle, to ultimately heal themselves, and others in their group.

The sound of drumming nudges nature.  The robust drums of the Balobedu people, were played by women in rainmaking ceremonies for 200 years. The magical traditions of these rain queens from Molototsi in South Africa originate from the Karanga of Zimbabwe.

The Black Jews of Southern Africa (the Lemba) owned a drum, called “ngoma Lungundu”, an artefact of historical importance that was originally carried with looped handles, slung between 2 poles, used in warfare and attributed with mythical powers, akin to the arc of the covenant.

Like this example, drums can have prestige, entity and are considered potent.  Prior to the 1900s, drums were empowered through ritual, linking the drums status to Kingship often through blood sacrifice. Certain bones were placed in drums or skulls and severed heads of enemies were attached to drums and displayed, as in this drawing by Richard Burton in: “A misson to Gelele, King of Dahomey”, 1864.

Burton, drawing

In Madagascar, music from djembe drums and other instruments honor the dead as part of celebrating famadihana ceremonies (2nd burials), or by inducing trance at spiritual occasions.

Group identity, besides being linked to certain drums also depend on the actions of those drumming and on drum ceremonies:

In Burundi, drums remain unchanged in form over centuries and when not in use, they were kept in sacred designated spaces.   Conceptually layered with meaning and symbolic significance, these artefacts hold gravitas. The appearance of these drums at festivals, their playing and the accompanying drummers choreographed dance moves and sequenced elegant gestures is part of a centuries old ceremony, recognised by Unesco in 2014, as intangible cultural heritage.

Drum shapes vary in style and scale. They can be tubular, hourglass, kettle, barrel shaped or round.  The most successfully exported drum, now found worldwide is a goblet shaped drum, originally made by the Bambara or Mandingo people in Mali, known as “djembe”: translated as those who gather together in peace.

On slave ships bound for the new world, drumming was used to dance slaves for exercise, above decks. Africa’s wonderful musical culture was transposed to the new world, through its people, however drums were not well regarded, as according to South Carolina slave code, article 36 (1740) “”it is absolutely necessary for the safety of the province that all due care be taken to restrain Negroes from using or keeping drums which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purpose.”

With drums set aside in America, other musical instruments gained precedence. But in the voice, technical methods and playing of blues men such as Sonny Terry or Howling wolf, among others, are the stylized remnants of drumbeats, intonations and mimicking of sounds (familiar from talking drums), that can be discerned in their music  generations later.

Drums as artworks can be embellished in multiple ways, by those making beautiful things according to the aesthetic tradition of their people.

drum, Mangbetu people, Congo

In many instances, the shaping of drums was performed by the blacksmiths caste or ritual specialists who carved masks, creating robust dynamic forms.

In Southern Africa, traditional healers made their own drums. These are simple in style, unadorned. One might say, unpretentious servants of spirit. Their significance paramount.


Drum, Chokwe people, Angola

In West and central Africa, decoration occurs on the mid-section or body of the drum.  Besides carving and geometric incising, other decorative techniques, or ways of empowerment include embedding surfaces with studs, cowries or pieces of metal to form patterns. Henna decorated the skin or wood is coloured with oxide, enamel paint or beads. They may be wrapped with leopard skin, or festooned with rattles.


This beautiful Luba drum from the Congo shows incised lines following the form of the drum and recalls diagrammatic elements of the masking tradition.

Luba drum, Congo

Or this Senufo drum of rugged form, with crisp three dimensional images depicting creation myths and symbols.

senufo drum2
Drum, Senufo people, Ivory Coast

In others, for example the Fante drums of Ghana, figurative Iconography painted with enamel paint, portrays a multitude of references: alluding to history, symbols and rituals, emblems of slavery, or signifiers of modernity in the form of watches and security locks. The concepts and portrayal also surpass mere creative images by visually depicting linguistic references and proverbs relevant to the Akan group of languages.

drums - Copy
Drum, Fante people, Ghana

If one considers for a moment how these drums are seen and experienced in different ways, by the onlookers, they excel at multiple levels of visual communication:

Figuration acts as a graphic reminder to the audience of their identity, political status and past. It reiterates moral homilies and evokes their sense of humour. These drums are a diverse cultural repository of the time, rich with meaning and dramatic heritage incomparable in the Western artistic tradition. The drums embellishment is an advert of the sculptor’s proficiency and the drummer’s reputation and these drums appearance, at functions, becomes a celebration for the audience.

fante drum
Drum, Fante people,Ghana

Contrary to this open display before many onlookers, drums in repose were usually stored in their own shelters. Credo Mutwa, describes a drum shrine as:

“….a little hut in which the sacred drums were kept and treasured for the ancient sacred things they were.”

Large anthropomorphic drums of the Fon people Benin, were kept in enclosures, secluded. These huge white drums had minimal carving but explicit genitalia reinforcing notions of the link to fertility, fecundity and abundance.

Along Africa’s East coast, drums lack grand sculptural gesture and are generally simple in form, perhaps due to Arab or Swahili influence over millennia.

Maconde drum, Mozambique

But the djembe is exported everywhere, found for sale in most flea markets. In Johannesburg, a djembe player reflected about drumming:

“..for me it’s all about playing with others, collaborating to make something out of nothing, adapting and improvising as you hold your own…   you get swept along after playing for a couple of hours, one feels euphoric, your scalp alive. But your hands numb from the beating.”

 Drums are undoubtedly Africa’s profound sound, of deep intensity, integral to nature.

The drum rhythm is a breath you never truly exhale when leaving this continent. Spliced to the soul, it is stashed until death.


Bibliography and additional research:


  1. AUBRECHT, OFF BEAT. (blog) August 10, 2016. African drums and drumming
  2. AUBRECHT, OFF BEAT. (blog) October 3 2016. A historic look at rudiments.

Mutwa. Credo. My people, (undated) page 71.

Tracey. Hugh. (ILAM) International Library of African Music, created in 1954. Cape Town, South Africa.

MUSEUM: Horniman, London, for collection of  musical instruments.