Talking drum

The “talking drum,” also known in various countries as the “dondo” or the “dundun,” is a West African hourglass drum a percussionist can manipulate to mimic a human voice. The drummer does this by constricting the ropes that run along its sides to tighten or loosen the drum head and by using a mallet to hit the head in particular ways to elicit particular sounds. (Watch Nigerian master drummer Ayan Bisi Adeleke make his drum talk.) Historically, West Africans used the tones they created on talking drums to communicate important messages from village to village, such as the announcement of a celebration or a warning about coming attack. This was especially useful for drummers “talking” in tonal languages such as Nigeria’s Yoruba, as you can hear in this example from Youtube, or in the Bantu language Bulu, an account of which you’ll find in this 1942 Time Magazine article: “Formerly every Bulu man and almost every woman had a special drum signature, like a radio program’s theme song–a cryptic sentence full of jungle implications. Sample talking drum names: ‘Even if you dress up finely, love is the only thing’; ‘The giant wood rat has no child, the house rat has no child’; ‘You’ll die of witchcraft at midnight.'”

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