Black History: Special Delivery!!

Talking Drum

Before there were telephones, Morse Code, emails, text messaging, or even instant messaging there was the “Talking Drum”. The talking drum is an instrument that mimics the rhythm and tone of human speech. Dating back to between the 7th and 13th centuries, it is believed that the talking drum may have originated from three possible sources: Ghana Empire, the Hausa people, and/or the Yoruba people. Talking drums have many different names depending on their origin including, Dondo, Tamanin, Lunna and Dundon; to name a few. Each African tribe had its own rhythmic patterns and sounds when playing the instrument; creating their own musical “dialect”. The talking drum was used as a form of communication; being that it was often faster and easier to communicate with other groups via drumming rather than delivering in-person messages. The talking drum was often played during ceremonies and as a form of entertainment. It should be noted that talking drums are not limited to African and have also been found in Asia as well.

The instrument has an hour-glass shape and is also referred to as a membranophone. It is made of wood and is hollow on the inside. Both ends are covered by an animal, or fish skin. The “skins” are connected by cords, (usually made of leather), that are tightened at various tensions to produce different tones/sounds. The pitch of the drum is controlled by how its player applies tension/pressure to the drum as it is played. The drums are made in various sizes. As a means of communication between groups, talking drums facilitated delivery and receipt of messages across long distances. For example, when communicating between villages, a drum player might begin by “drumming” the name of the recipient, followed by the name of the sender, which would then be followed up by the actual message.

Enslaved Africans bought the talking drum to North America and employed it as a form of sending secret messages that slave-holders would not understand. The talking drum could be heard miles away; making it a very effective means of communication. Slaveholders eventually realized that the drums were “talking” and banned their use in certain areas of the Carolinas and Georgia, eventually spreading the ban across the U.S.

“It is absolutely necessary to the safety of this Province, that all due care be taken to restrain Negroes from using or keeping of drums, which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes.”
— Slave Code of South Carolina, Article 36 (1740).

The talking drum remains an active part of communication and musical entertainment, religious and cultural ceremonies around the world!