West African Notes

West Africa’s Notable Drums

Rhythm and tempo is Africa’s trademark of music. Beats are part of everyday life on the continent and West Africa isn’t left out when it comes to instruments of music that give people of colour the gyration and moves which sets them apart and gives them a musical slant that has come to be recognized and respected over time. The role drums play in Africa’s world is a central one that goes beyond just music and in West Africa certain beats are only known to bounce off certain drums.


These are part of a family of hourglass shaped pressure drums; in the Yoruba language of West Africa, these include "gan gan" (the smallest member of this drum family) or "dun dun" (the largest of the talking drums.) The drum heads at either end of the drum's wooden body are made from hide, fish-skin or other membranes which are wrapped around a wooden hoop. Leather cords or thongs run the length of the drum's body and are wrapped around both hoops; when you squeeze these cords under your arm, the drum heads tighten, changing the instrument's pitch. While this type of instrument can be modulated quite closely, its range is limited to a gathering or market-place, and it is primarily used in ceremonial settings. Ceremonial functions could include dance, rituals, story-telling and communication of points of order.


This is a rope-tuned skin-covered goblet drum played with bare hands, originally from West Africa. According to the Bamana people in Mali, the name of the djembe comes from the saying "Anke djé, anke bé" which translates to "everyone gather together in peace" and defines the drum's purpose. The djembe has a body (or shell) carved of hardwood and a drumhead made of untreated (not limed) rawhide, most commonly made from goatskin. The djembe can produce a wide variety of sounds, making it one of the most versatile drums. The drum is very loud, allowing it to be heard clearly as a solo instrument over a large percussion ensemble. The Malinké people say that a skilled drummer is one who "can make the djembe talk;" meaning that the player can tell an emotional story. (The djembe was never used by the Malinké as a signaling drum to send messages).


They originated in West Africa; they were later adopted by Cuban culture in the late 1800s after the abolition of slavery. Cubans are responsible for adding metal tuning lungs in the 1940s so the drums would be easier to tune; previously bongos were tuned with a heat source. Bongos are held between the knees, and drummers traditionally play the instruments in pairs. Earlier models of bongs are made from wooden shells, but many modern varieties are constructed from fiberglass.

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