African Talking Drums: More Than Just a Musical Instrument, the Word’s First Portable Phones

Have you ever heard of an instrument called a talking drum? They are African drums, often with an hourglass shape, and often used in African music recordings. But there is a reason they’re called talking drums. Much like smoke signals of the Native Americans, Africa tribes used talking drums to communicate with each other.

Unlike those smoke signals, however, which basically sent generic messages, talking drums can be used to approximate the spoken language, and under the most ideal of conditions complex dialogues can take place between drummers positioned as much as twenty miles away. Usually, the conversations would only take place between drummers who were about five miles away and then passed on from drummer to drummer to the villages that were farther away.

The use of talking drums as medium of communication was used to its greatest extent by those peoples who live in such western African countries as Ghana and Nigeria. The talking drum works well to communicate highly developed thought because the actual spoken languages of these African tribes have a tonal component to them in which each syllable of a particular word contains a different pitch.

The talking drums can be used to quite effectively to mimic these pitches and since language has a natural rhythm anyway, the drums are particularly apt for communication. Obviously, anyone using a talking drum would have to possess what is called “perfect pitch” by music teachers and the use of a drum to communicate would not work at all with a language that isn’t dependent on tonal differences such as English. If a talking drum were played in a way that mimicked English, all we’d know upon hearing it would be how many syllables are in each word.

The Yorubas epitomize the use of talking drums. The talking drum of the Yoruba tribe is, in fact, shaped like an hourglass and is known as a dun-dun. The drummer holds the dun-dun over his arm and strikes it with a curved, hammer-like stick. On the outside of the talking drum are tightened leather cords which can be squeezed to control the pitch of the drumbeat. The actual beat of the drums, as indicated, can travel for several miles across the wide open expanses of the African plains.

Talking drums are used not just to send messages, but also play a part in several social rituals. They are often used to pay solemn tribute to tribal spirits or used to honor currently living tribal chieftains. Talking drums might even be compared to Simon Cowell: the ability to speak with drumbeats is often exercised during traditional African pastimes ranging from dancing to wrestling. A person using a talking drum can comment, whether positively or negatively, on another’s dancing or wrestling abilities.

So effective were the use of talking drums to communicate messages that for a time they were outlawed in the United States for fear that they could be used to incite rebellion among slaves.

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