Music, the art of the muses, is an important part of social and cultural life in Africa. In Africa, music intersects with every aspect of life and expresses life through the medium of sound. For instance, music is used to mark some significant events such as childbirth, marriage, hunting, and even political activities. By helping mark the important moments in life, music is used to underscores the divine and external value of human life. Aside from this, African music also helps to connect people together in a variety of ways, strengthening the fabric of the community, which in turn reinforces people’s commitment to supporting each other and the community. The uniqueness of African music thus lies in its functional nature.

Besides using the voice, a wide variety of musical instruments are used in African music and this adds to its uniqueness. One such musical instrument is the Talking Drum. The Talking Drum is an hourglass-shaped drum mostly found in West African countries such as Nigeria, Mali, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. It has two drum heads, connected by leather tension cords which allow the player to modulate the pitch of the drum. Some of the groups of variations of the Talking drum among West African ethnic groups are:

  • Tama (Wolof)
  • Gangan, Dun dun ( Yoruba of Nigeria, Eastern Benin)
  • Dondo (Akan of Central Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire)
  • Lunna (Dagomba of Northern Ghana, Mossi of Burkina Faso)
  • Kalangu (Hausa of Northern Nigeria, Niger, Northern Ghana, and Cameroon)

How does the Talking Drum perform its magic of talking? The pitch of the drum is varied to mimic the tone patterns of speech. This is done by varying the tension placed on the drum head. The opposing drumheads 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 a 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.

One of the crucial roles of music in Africa is as a mode of communication. The Talking Drum is used to communicate different types of important information, to transmit messages or ideas, and to recount historical events. In a social setting, the talking drum is used to recount the eulogy of kings, chiefs, and dignitaries.

The talking drum is widely considered to be one of the oldest musical instruments in West Africa. It was mainly used by African griots to assist in story-telling, communication, and guidance. It was also used as a summoning to a ceremony dance, or an aid in telling fables that taught important lessons. In the 20th century, however, the Talking Drum has become a part of popular music in West Africa, especially in the music genres of Juju (Nigeria) and Mbalax (Senegal).

Although modern technology in forms of cell phones, laptops, television, and the internet have swooped in and largely replaced the need for the talking drums as a primary medium of communication, it (talking drum) still remains a significant part of the cultural heritage of West Africa. The talking drum which is now used in celebrations and entertainment has traveled far and wide across the globe through music, exhibiting its richness. The talking drum is a true instrument that gave life to African music.

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