African Hand Drums and Percussion


The percussion of Africa are classified into two main categories:

    1. Idiophones
    1. Membranophones (Hand Drums)


The idiophones are the most common African instruments.  An idiophone (literally, “self sounding”) may be broadly defined as any instrument upon which a sound may be produced without the addition of a stretched membrane or a vibrating string or reed.  Societies that have no drums or other instruments can resort to idiophones for accompanying their songs. 

Of course, their use is not confined to pure musical functions.  Some are used where appropriate signals for attracting attention, assembling people, or creating an atmosphere (especially during religious rites and ceremonies).  They may also be used for transmitting verbal messages or for reinforcing verbal communication, for marking the movements of special personalities such as priests and persons undergoing sacred initiations, or for marking the movements of cattle and other animals (or even domestic birds) that need to be watched or identified. 

Expect where idiophones are used as acids to the farmer or the pet owner, or where they are treated purely as symbolic objects rather than as sound producers, the instruments may function simultaneously in a musical context for communication and dramatic emphasis.

There are two categories of idiophones:

    1. Shaken Idiophones, also called shekers, rattles, and shakers.
    1. Struck and Concussion Idiophones

Struck idiophone may take the form of a resonant slab of stone or wood (such as the merewa of Ethiopia) struck by a smaller piece of the same material, of multiple rock gongs such as those observed in northern Nigeria, or of rock gongs and stone clappers, such as those played in the religious service of some Yoruba cults.  This group also includes two round sticks of the same size which are struck together, two flat sticks struck together as clappers, or a percussion beam around which a number of people squat and strike rhythmically with sticks.  Still other varieties consist of iron or wooden bells with clappers, as well as clapperless iron bells struck with sticks, rods, or small animal horns.  There are single clapperless bells-usually shaped like a cone or a boat-and double bells.  The latter appears in the form of two metal cones mounted on a single frame, or two bells held together by an arch.

Scraped and Friction Idiophones

Other idiophones played in African societies include the rasp, a piece of notched bamboo or palm stem scraped with another stick scraped, or, as noted in Cameroons, with a bracelet of brass, or a notched stick scraped by being through a fruit shell.  In this case the tone may be varied by pressing and releasing a flat piece of hollow fruit shell at one end of the rasp.

Stamped Idiophones

There are two main types of Stamped Idiophones: stamping sticks and stamping tubes.  Stamping sticks are used for hitting the ground.  One of the two forms of stamping tubes consists of a piece of bamboo tube cut so that only one end of it is open.  To produce a sound, the closed end is hit at an inclined position the Ga of Ghana.  This bamboo stamping tube is used for accompanying female choruses.  About three bamboo tubes tuned to different pitches are played together, each one playing a different rhythmic pattern.

Tuned Idiophones

Tuned Idiophones lend themselves to playing the melody line of the song.  Tuned Idiophones are of two types: the mbira or sansa (hand piano) and the xylophone.

1. Mbira (Sansa, hand piano)

The melodic type of mbira consists of a graduated series of wooden or metal lamellae (strips) arranged on a flat sounding board and mounted on a resonator such as a box, a gourd, or even a tin.  The wooden lamellae may be made out of strips of the bark off of raffia palm trees or rattan cane, while the metal keys may be made out of iron or, in somewhat rare cases, brass.  Rattling pieces of metal, a chain, or a number of snail shells may be attached to the sounding board or to the resonator to increase the ratio of noise to pitch; a similar effect is produced by winding little strips of light metal loosely around the base of each key.

2. Xylophone

There are three types of xylophones: the graduated series of wooden slabs or keys are mounted over a resonance chamber such as a pit, a box or trough, or a clay pot.  Pit xylophones are found in a few places in West Africa (Guinea, Nigeria, and Chad), in Central African Republic (among the Azande and the Kala), and in Kenya (among the Kusu).  Box xylophones are played by the Zaramo and Tanzania, while xylophone keys tied over pots are found in Iboland in Nigeria.



Membranophones ( Hand Drums)

In many African societies, the emphasis on percussive instruments finds it highest expression in the use of membranophones, hand drums.  These instruments range from simple makeshift types played by women in ritual contexts, like skins stretched over pots or oxhide stretched on poles, to specially constructed instruments with elaborate decorations, treated as objects of art.

Hand Drums are usually carved out of solid logs of wood; they may also be made out of strips of wood bound together by iron hoops.  Earthernware vessels are used as drum shells as well, while potsherd is used as a hoop for making round frame drums.  Another material used for making membranophones is the large gourd or calabash; this is very common in the savannah belt of West Africa.  In modern times, various hollow vessels have been used in few isolated cases as substitutes.  The use of tins, light oil drums, and other such materials has been noted in Ghana and Kenya.  Toy hand drums for little children, which used to be made out of hard fruit shells or other natural hollow vessels, may now be made out of discarded tins. 

A wide variety of drums exists in Africa; each society usually specializes in a small number of drum types.  For example, hourglass-shaped, or Talking Drums are found in both eastern and western Africa.  Many examples of those found in eastern Africa are single-headed; when two heads are used, they are not treated as they are in West Africa, as tension drums.

Hand Drum designs are typically restricted to very specific geographical areas.  The Ugandan drum, for example, is peculiar to eastern Africa.  Outside of Uganda, versions of it are found in Ethiopia, as well as in Kenya and Burundi.  Similarly, other varieties of small hand drums are found in the hand and played with the fingers or palm of the free hand, or held under the arm and played with both hands.  In Uganda, a version of this drum (called ntimbo) is similarly held under the arm “on leather belts slung over the left shoulder and beaten with both hands.”  Among the Nyisansu of Tanzania, it is held in one hand and beaten with the free hand or with a leather thing.  Hand Drums that look very much alike are played in the savannah belt of West Africa.  They include long, narrow drums and shorter, cup-shaped drums, both played by hand, a number of double-headed drums, and single-headed gourd drums. 

Sometimes objects are placed inside sealed hand drums.  For example, seeds or beads may be deposited in the shell of a closed drum, as in the Ethiopian atamo hand drum or the Hausa hourglass drum used by the praise singer.  Rattling metals or jingles may be attached to the rim of the drum, as is the practice in Senegal, Guinea, and Mali; or, instead of a rattling metal, little bells may be used, as in the Yoruba iya ilu drum. A jingle may also be suspended across the drum head, as in the case of the akasaa placed on the male (in this case, low-pitched) atumpan drum used by the Akan of Ghana.

Although most drums are played by percussive means, there are special drums that are played by friction.  Among the Akan of Ghana, for example, the etwie friction drum is played by rubbing the drum head (on which powder has been sprinkled) with a stick.  In eastern and central Africa, a cord or stick which runs through the center of a friction drum is rubbed with wet hands to activate the membrane. 

Drums may be played singly, in pairs, or in larger ensembles.  In the latter case, the drums grouped together are usually graded in tone and pitch, so that each one can be heard in specific positions in which tone or pitch contrasts are desired.  In some cultures in eastern Arica, these contrasts are provided by individual players playing on a set of tuned drums in a kind of hocket arrangement.  The most outstanding of these are the set of fifteen entenga drums of the Kabaka (king) of Uganda.  The drums are tuned to definite pitches, and are used for playing tunessimilar in form and structure to those played by xylophones.  Twelve of the drums comprise the main melody section and are played by four drummers, each of whom has a playing area if five drums.  The three drums of the rhythm section are played by two people: one plays only one drum, while the other plays the remaining two-a small and a big drum.

Smaller sets of tuned drums have also been observed in Uganda: the namaddu drum chime (set of tuned drums) of the Gwere consisting of five drums, and the seven-drum chime of the Lango.  Similarly tuned drums are found in Digo country in Kenya and in Zaramo country in Tanzania.

In addition to their musical uses, the sounds of membranophones may function as speech surrogates or as signals (call signals, warning signals, etc.).  Other uses of drums, especially for nonverbal communication, occur in a few societies, which make special drums for symbolic and representational purposes.  For example, the etwie friction drum of the Akan is supposed to imitate the snarl of the leopard; therefore, it is played to extol the might and majesty of the king.  Another royal drum called aburukuwa is supposed to imitate the cry of a bird of similar name.  Other examples of symbolic or representational use of membranophones occur among the Lovedu, the Ankole, and the Bambara.

W.W.NORTON & COMPANY, “the music of Africa,” (1974) pg.69-90

Edited by Sarah Zwack