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The Talking Drums Of West Africa

Sep 10, 2008
Most musical instruments today, and indeed, throughout history, have been a kind of luxury. Used for entertainment or perhaps in certain religious ceremonies, they have nevertheless been something that humans could, if necessary, do without. Of course, there are those who claim they would die without music, and I would be among the first to expound upon the importance of music to the human spirit and psyche. Still, music is, in its simplest definition, an extravagance, something created for pure enjoyment. Yet there is at least one musical instrument that has historically been used for another purpose. The drum, with its resounding notes and relative ease of use, has been used as a means of long-distance communication for thousands of years.

There is evidence that many different ancient cultures used drums to communicate over long distances. These cultures often existed in forested or isolated areas, which made the use of aural communication a logical solution. The people of ancient Sri Lanka, for example, were using drums to communicate between the state and the community 2500 years ago. Various Native American tribes used both pressure and slit drums to send messages between individual camps. Even Europe had its own drum for communication, the "Txalaparta," which was used in a part of Spain called the Basque Country. But the most famous of all drums used for communication are the talking drums of West Africa.

The West African talking drum has its roots in the ancient Ghana Empire, which existed from approximately 750-1076 CE and was located in modern southeastern Mauritania, western Mali and eastern Senegal. This instrument is a pressure drum with an hourglass shape and drum heads on both ends. The body is wood and the heads are made from hide, fish skin or other membranes. Leather cords run the length of the drum's body and are wrapped around the hoops framing both heads. These cords are the key to the talking drum, as they are the source of its pitch modulation. When the drummer tightens his arm around the drum, thereby squeezing the cords, the heads tighten and the instrument's pitch is altered. It was this characteristic that allowed the ancient tribes of Africa to send such complex messages over long distances.

When the Europeans first began to explore the jungles of Africa, they were continually surprised to find that the tribes had been forewarned of their presence. Due to the Atlantic slave trade that flourished between the 16th and 19th centuries, talking drums made their way to the Americas. They were, not surprisingly, banned for a time when slave owners realized that the slaves were using the instruments to communicate between plantations. This ban, fortunately, has gone the way of the Atlantic slave trade, and today talking drums are valued both for the ancient civilizations they represent and their unique musical capabilities.

In modern Africa, the talking drum is very popular in various kinds of music. It is used in both Mbalax, the national popular dance music of Senegal and Gambia, and Fuji, a popular musical genre in Nigeria, as well as other kinds of music in other countries.
About the Author
Victor Epand is an expert consultant for guitars, drums, keyboards, sheet music, guitar tab, and home theater audio. You can find the best marketplace at these sites for drums, talking drum, African drum, pressure drum, sheet music, guitar tabs, and subwoofers.
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