Talking drums in West Africa imitate the rhythm and melody of language. Yorùbá in South Western Nigeria and Ashanti-Twi in Ghana, for example, are tonal languages. In a tonal language, the pitch of a syllable in a word changes its meaning, even if the pronunciation otherwise is the same.
The Yorùbá language uses three pitches, which are indicated by diacritical signs on the respective vowels in the written language; dò is the lowest, re the middle, and mí the highest pitch. Thus, the vowel “a” can have three pitches: à, a and á. Depending on the pitch, a word can have entirely different meanings. Bàtà (both vowels spoken in a deep pitch, dò dò) means “shoe”, while bàtá (the first vowel spoken in a deep, the second in a high pitch, dò mí) is a type of drum.
The bàtádrums of the Yorùbá imitate the pitch and rhythm of speech to cite proverbs, praise dignitaries or convey messages. These drums have two heads. The larger head is hit with the palm of the right hand and produces a low tone. The smaller head is played with a leather or plastic batter and produces a piercing high tone that contrasts with the bass of the bigger head.
- Read more: The bàtá drum in Yorùbá culture
Given the fact that the Yorùbá language uses three pitches, the setup of the bàtá drum with only two heads makes it difficult to imitate speech. Therefore, drummers use different hand techniques such as open, mute and slap, or beat both drum heads simultaneously to produce different pitches.
In recent times, a new combination of smaller omele drums in a set of three (called omele mẹ́ta) has been introduced, which allows for easier imitation of the three tones of spoken Yorùbá. In the video above, bàtá drummers Kolajo Mufutau Ayinde and Onaolapo Morufu Ayangbeni from Ibadan demonstrate how to use the omele mẹ́ta to play a counting rhyme.
|Ení bí Ení||One like one|
|Èjì bí Èjì||Two like two|
|Ẹ̀ta n tà agbá||Three to make the sale|
|Ẹ̀rin wọ̀rọ̀kọ́||Four wore and hung the words|
|Àrún n gùn ódó||Five for mortar pounding|
|Èfà ti èlè||Six of èlè|
|Bí róhun bí ro||If you see something, see something|
|Èro bàtá||The melody of bàtá|
|Mo gbálákẹ̀sán||I hear the ninth one|
|Gbangba lẹ̀wá||Ten is in the open|
Such rhymes are used to teach bàtá drum students how to get their instrument to speak.
- Read more: Drum Ensembles of the Ashanti
In Ghana, too, many languages are tonal and can be imitated on drums. The Atumpan drums of the Ashanti are played in pairs and can emulate the tonality of spoken Ashanti. In a drum ensemble, Atumpans are usually accompanied by smaller drums. The smaller Apentemma and Petia drums and bells such as Dawuro provide steady and interlocking rhythms. The drummer playing the Atumpan usually takes on the role of the master drummer. He leads the other drummers and, once the ensemble is in sync, drums out praises and proverbs on his drums, or improvises and gives instructions to the dancers.
Header: Photo © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich 2018