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What Is a Talking Drum?

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  • Written By: Lumara Lee
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2016
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A talking drum is a percussion instrument that originated in western Africa hundreds of years ago and remains an important part of some African cultures today. This type of drum is made from a single piece of wood and has a head made of fish skin or animal hide, usually goat skin, tightly stretched over each end. Shaped like an hourglass, a talking drum has numerous cords fastened to each head that run along its length. When these cords are squeezed, it changes the pitch of the drum. It is called a talking drum because a skillful drummer can coax different sounds and tones from the drum that imitate speech.

The talking drum is closely tied to the Yoruba language in Nigeria. Yoruba is a tonal language, which means that different pitches of a sound have different meanings. It is this very tonality that gives the talking drum the ability to play the different rhythms and pitches that can be understood by people who know the Yoruba language.

This type of drum is traditionally held under the armpit and hit with a bent stick held in the other hand. The drum is squeezed between the arm and the body, causing the cords along its length to stretch and tighten the skin across the drum heads. The tighter the drum is squeezed, the higher the pitch becomes. Sometimes small stones are placed inside the drum to create a rattling sound when the drum is shaken or struck.

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Although the talking drum originated in Nigeria, its use spread and became popular in Ghana, Niger, and Senegal. There are different types and sizes of African talking drums, but most are small compared to some other African drums such as the djembe or ashiko. Drums are an important part of African culture, and the talking drum is the instrument used in everyday life and to honor rites of passage among the Yoruba people. Talking drums are used in rituals to commemorate births, initiations, marriages, and deaths. They are used to celebrate festivals, to honor people and gods, and to invoke spirits.

The sound from talking drums travels, so they can be used to communicate across great distances. Communication is the purpose for which the talking drum was originally developed. One drummer would play a message that could be heard miles away by another drummer who would in turn play the message to be received by another drummer. In this way a message could be relayed across many miles.

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