How to talk with drums

Alexis Malefakis

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.

A set of Yorùbá bàtá drums from the Ulli Siebenborn collection / drummuseum.com
Photo © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich (Kathrin Leuenberger) 2019

The Yorùbá language uses three pitches, which are indicated by diacritical signs on the respective vowels in the written language; is the lowest, re the middle, and 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.

Kolajo Mufutau Ayinde and Onaolapo Morufu Ayangbeni demonstrate how to count on omele mẹ́ta drums. Video: © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich 2018.

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 agbáThree to make the sale
Ẹ̀rin wọ̀rọ̀kọ́Four wore and hung the words
Àrún n gùn ódó Five for mortar pounding
Èfà ti èlèSix 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.

A poem played on Atumpan drums, Asante, Ghana.
Excerpt from the DVD „Fɔntɔomfrɔm. Trommelbau und Trommelspiel in Asanta/Ghana“ © Ethnologisches Museum / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin 2011. With kind permission by Ethnologisches Museum Berlin / Andreas Meyer.

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.

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Header: Photo © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich 2018

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