Back in 1999 I visited Nigeria, West Africa. Of the many souvenirs I picked up, one included a talking drum.
This is an hourglass-shaped drum known as a Dundun or Gangan by the Yoruba people. Squeezing the leather cords, that connect the two drumheads, can change the pitch of the drum. This enables the instrument to mimic the tone and prosody of human speech. The pitch can be changed during a single beat, producing a warbling note. Volume, and rhythm can be captured, however not the qualities of vowels or consonants.
Originally, the instrument was used to communicate between villages up to 5 miles apart. Like Chinese languages, many African languages are tonal, and so the drum is able to represent the tones of the syllables of conventional phrases. But how are complex messages sent without the use of vowels or consonants?
An English emigrant to Africa, John F. Carrington, in his 1949 book The Talking Drums of Africa explains:
“Using low tones referred to as male and higher female tones, the drummer communicates through the phrases and pauses, which can travel upwards of 4–5 miles. This process may take eight times longer than communicating a normal sentence but was effective for telling neighbouring villages of possible attacks or ceremonies.”
The message “Come back home” might be translated by the drummers as:
Make your feet come back the way they went, make your legs come back the way they went, plant your feet and your legs below, in the village which belongs to us
The extra phrases provide a context in which to make sense of the basic message or drum beats.
Ayan Bisi Adeleke playing the Talking Drum
The Talking Drum in contemporary music: