The dùndún drums of the Yorùbá

Alexis Malefakis

The name of the dùndún itself spells out the sound of the drum; in the tonal Yorùbá language, the first syllable “dùn” is pronounced in a low tone, the second syllable “dún” with a high tone. Dùndún. The hourglass-shaped drum plays not only rhythms, but also melodies. Dùndún drummers imitate the melody of human speech on their instrument. In this way, they recite praise poetry and prayers or make comments on the proceedings of a festive event.

The Ṣẹ̀kẹ̀rẹ̀ player Elesin Nla and his band perfom for camera of anthropologist Alexis Malefakis in Ìbàdàn, Nigeria. Video: © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich 2019.

The dùndún drum is part of a larger category of talking drums that is widespread in Western Africa from Senegal to Cameroon. It was introduced to the south of Nigeria together with Islam by the Hausa from the north. In some Yorùbá origin myths the dùndún is called the “drum from Mekka” and thus associated with Arabic culture.

A dùndún drum from the Ulli Siebenborn collection /
Photo © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich (Kathrin Leuenberger) 2019

Unlike the bàtá drum, the dùndún is not rooted in the worship of Òrìṣàs that many Muslims and Christians today regard as backward. As their instrument is not associated with un-Islamic or un-Christian practices, dùndún drummers are more often invited to play at wedding ceremonies, child-naming and house-warming festivities, and at Islamic festivals such as Eid-el Kebir and Eid-el Fitr, than their bàtá colleagues.

Today, traditional authorities and some politicians have their own personal dùndún ensembles. At public events these praise their status and deeds by reciting their oríkì on their drums and thus helping them to attract attention. Successful dùndún drummers know the notables of a city or entire region. They know their family lineages and histories as well as important events in their biographies. In order to be able to earn money, it is crucial that they keep their knowledge on important societal events and dignitaries up to date. This knowledge allows them to appear at public events, often uninvited, to earn some money by playing the oríkìs of the present notables on their drums.

A group of dùndún drummers performs at a political rally in Ìbàdàn’s city hall.
Photo © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich, Alexis Malefakis 2018
Dùndún drummers wait outside the city hall for potential patrons.
Photo © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich, Alexis Malefakis 2018

In communities where the annual festivals of Òrìṣàs are still celebrated, the characteristic rhythms and oríkìs of the deities are nowadays often played by dùndún drummers. Even though the dùndún is not clearly associated with the religion of Òrìṣà worship, the talking drum in many cases has replaced the older Ìgbìn drum ensembles that used to perform for the Òrìṣàs in former times.

The oríkìs of Ògún and Obàtálá played by a dùndún ensemble in Ifẹ̀ in 1984.
With kind permission of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin/Andreas Meyer

Dùndún drummers can imitate human speech more easily on their instrument than bàtá drummers. The two heads of the drum are connected through leather strips. If the drummer manipulates the leather strips while beating on the head with a flared stick, they can change the pitch of the drum and even create glissandi, which also occur in spoken Yorùbá. The two fixed pitches of the bàtá drum, on the other hand, requires great skill from a drummer to imitate the three tones of spoken Yorùbá. A dùndún drummer can play a wide range of tones with a uniform, open sound, which makes it much easier for a listener to understand the recited oríkì, proverbs and prayers.

In dùndún ensembles, the small gúdúgúdú drum provides a steady rhythm over which the dùndún drum imposes proverbs, prayers and messages.
A gúdúgúdú drum from the Ulli Siebenborn collection /
Photo © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich (Kathrin Leuenberger) 2019


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



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