An Overview on African Drums

Historically, the African drum has played a very crucial role in the society of the Africans for hundreds of years back. It is stated that the Ancient Africans were the first ones who invented musical instruments in the form of drums. There are several types of African drums that have been globally known as the Djembe and Talking drum. African drums were created for multiple purposes such as religious rights, entertainment, and cultural celebrations.

A Brief History of the African Drum

Drumming is a significant part of Africans’ cultural lives. This culture has been inherited from one generation to the next generation since centuries ago, until the present epoch. Most of the professional historians say that the African drum is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world. The creation of the African instrument was naturally made from human initiative. This proves that music is inherently part of human life.

Some historians explain that the Ancient Africans created the drum mainly for communication purposes. During that time, the Africans already formed a society or community life. Due to the fact that they lived in remote places, caves, and mountainous areas, it was very hard for the African people to communicate with each other in the case of an emergency. In this case, the African drum was the best way to give signal information.

Years later, they found out that the sound of the African drum has something greater than just a loud alarm tool. Every time the drum was beaten, it somehow produced the sound that could make the African happier. This marks the birth of the drum as a musical instrument and entertaining tool. Gradually, they developed the quality of the instrument and improved the skill of drumming until it became real music.

The sounds of the African drum can make you feel at ease. This feeling brought them to realize that the drum could be a tool to communicate with higher beings which are also called gods. Then, the Africans began to use the hand drum and music in their religious activities and cultural rights.

The development of African drums started when the European countries like Spain, England, and France explored the African continent. The colonialism marked the beginning of African civilization.

Living under the pressures of colonialism did not stop the Africans from preserving their own cultures such as playing their traditional drum instruments. The Africans at that time were strictly prohibited by the European invaders, but they continued to play the African drums secretly. Later on, the European colonizers got interested with the African hand drums. The Africans who played the instruments excellently would be called to join the musical shows. The white even pleaded the Africans to teach them to play the hand drums. When the European went back, they also brought back the African drum and the knowledge behind the drums. From then on, the African drum was gradually introduced to the other parts of the world. Until now, the African musical instrument has been known throughout the cultures globally.

Different Types of African Drums

A. Djembe – Greatest African Drum

Djembe is considered to be the most famous African drums in history. The hand drum has been widely used all around the world. Djembe music is always related to reggae music. According to some historians, this African hand drum came into existence around the end of the 12th century in Mali and was first invented by the Mandinka tribe. The Djembe drum has been an integral part of the religious and ritualistic life of Africans (West Africa) for many generations. It is believed that this African instrument was only played by Griots. Griots are well-reputed African musicians that are very wise knowledgeable, and intelligent. They used this African drum as a story-telling tool to pass important histories knowledge, religious habits, and cultural information from one generation to the other. This African drum is closely connected with dancing and singing. Therefore, it is a must for djembefola (djembe players) to master the accompanying songs and know dance moves to the rhythms they play. 


            There are three primary sounds that can be played on a djembe drum namely slap, bass, and tone. In order to produce the slap sound (high-pitched), a djembefola has to beat the near-edge part of the instrument. There are various techniques to create clap sounds, it depends on the djembe player. To create the tone sound (medium-pitched), one must play with the hand on the edge of the djembe’s upper part. The bass sound (low-pitched) is produced by striking the drum in the middle of the upper part strongly. As of now, djembe drums are perceived as African drum beats. It somehow represents the identity and cultural values of the Africans.

Some sociologists explain that the western people began to accept the black Africans as human beings when they started to acknowledge the artful works of Africans such as Djembe instruments.


B. Talking Drum – West African Drum

The talking drum is originally coming from West Africa. This hand drum is so authentic and surprisingly amazing! The pitch of this hourglass-shaped hand drum instrument can be managed to imitate the tone and rhythm of human speech. The talking drum has two drumheads which are connected with leather and tension cords that allow the players to harmonize the pitch of this African drum by pressing the cords between the body and arm. Talking drum is also known as Dondon, Dundun, Tamanin, and Odondo. The head of this African drum is made from rawhide such as goatskin, cow skin, and other animals’ skin. Some historians state that the Talking drum was first originated from Yoruba (Benin, Nigeria, and Togo). This African instrument represents their identities.

            It is super fun to be able to play this West African drum excellently. But, it is also not easy to learn it. You need to be patient and highly motivated in the learning process. There are two main techniques for playing the talking drum namely by sitting and standing. You can study and use both. Nonetheless, it is always best to choose the one that is more comfortable for you. There are some essential aspects in playing this West African instrument: holding technique, squeezing technique, realizing tactic, and beating techniques.


C. Bougarabou – African Drumming Rhythms

Bougarabou is quite similar to the Djembe drum. It is famous for its harmonious and thundering sound which is commonly used as African drum music for dance. Bougarabou is a single-headed drum with an elongated goblet shape to it. According to history, this African drum is originated from Jola people in Casamance, one of the well-known places in Southern Senegal. Some historian believes that this drum is originally coming from the Gambia. This African drum is usually used to back up djembes in the percussion family. Normally, people play this African goblet-shaped drum in a standing position using bare hands.

african drum bgm trib

The Gambians commonly play this African instrument in a set with several drums, played by a single drummer. The drummer has to wear a series of metal bracelets that can contribute to the sound effect. During a special celebration, the Bougarabou is played to accompany dancers and singers. The dancers usually clap their hands while singing. In today’s era, the popularity of Bougarabou has reached almost all corners of the world.


D. Ngoma Drum – African Drum Music for Dance

The Ngoma drum is a traditional African drum that originates from Bantu Populations in the Africa continent, specifically in Congo. The term “Ngoma” derives from the Kongo word which means drum. This African instrument is made out of wood and its upper part is covered with cow skin or other animal skin. Ngoma is used by the natives to signify particular dances, songs, social events, and rhythms. This African drum is commonly played to accompany traditional dances. This musical instrument is also known as Engoma which is largely used in the African Great Lakes region and Southern Africa. In its original place, Ngoma is referring to a set of seven drums. 

Nowadays, we can find the African dancing drum which is the modification of the Ngoma drum. The form of the drum is quite tall and allows players to move and play the drum more freely in a standing position using their bare hands. There is a Ngoma stand which functions to make the drum stable, to maximize the sound, and to raise it off the ground. With the right technique and proper position, the drum can produce a powerful sound and impressive rhythm that persuades everyone to dance.


E. Ashiko Drum – African Drum Beats

The Ashiko drum is originated from Yoruba which is now known as Nigeria and Benin. There are two meanings of Ashiko namely freedom and drum. The history of this African drum is said to be full of mysticism and skepticism. Rumor says that Ashiko is a cheap djembe drum. Actually, they are wrong. Historians have confirmed that it is really a unique instrument originally coming from Yoruba. The historian event emphasized that this African percussion instrument is one of the world’s oldest hand drums. The form of the Ashiko drum is very similar to the djembe and Ngoma drum.

            The traditional Ashiko drum’s head is made out of thick skin. It can be cow skin, goatskin, mule hide or any thick hide. It can create thunderous, deep and resonate sounds. In terms of sound, Ashiko is more similar to a conga drum. It is quite complicated to play this African instrument, therefore, one needs an excellent teacher in order to be able to play it well. Using bare hands with proper techniques, Ashiko can produce a broad range of tones and can produce more bass sounds than the Djembe drum. In Nigeria and Benin, they always include Ashiko drums as part of musical orchestral shows.


F. Doumbek – The North African Drum for Religious Rhythms

The Doumbek is a goblet-shaped drum that originates from Egypt. This African single head membranophone drum is mostly used by the Ancient Egyptians for religious rhythms and ritual purposes. The Doumbek drum is also known as Darbuka. Some historians perceive that this hand drum is originally coming from Arab. The Arabic word “darabukka” means to strike. The authentic Doumbek is made of wood or clay with an animal skin stretched over the top of the percussion using rope, nails or leather thongs. This African drum is deeply connected with oriental music. In Middle Eastern, this instrument is played to accompany belly dancing, folk, and traditional music.

doumbeck other drum

            Originally, the Doumbek instruments were first played in three different countries namely Armenia, Egypt, and Turkey. There are two main ways to play this North African goblet drum; playing it under the arm and resting on the leg. There are also two main types of Doumbek namely the Egyptian style which is also known as Tabla that has rounded edges around its head and the Turkish style Darbuka. There are three main sounds can be produced by this African Goblet drum; Doom (bass), Tak (high-pitch), and Ka.


G. Dunun Drum – African Music for Cultural Rites

The Dunun is also known as Djun-Djun, Dundun, or doundoun. Dunun drum is a closed double-headed cylindrical-shaped African drum invented along with the Djembe drum. This African drum is categorized in the West Africans bass drum family and is typically made from a wooden shell, with cowhide as the drum head. There are metal rings attached to the drum and woven rope is used to tighten the drum skins, in semblance with the rope used to tie the heads of the Djembe drum. This musical instrument is traditionally played in the Mande drum ensemble with the Djembe drum. Each type of African drum has different tuning technique, construction, size and generates a different pitch as well. The dundun is originally from Mali and later was spread throughout the coastal regions of West Africa.

A Dunun set is typically played horizontally on the wooden stands with a large wooden drumstick. The traditional playing style of Dundun is played by hitting the skin with a stick held in the right hand, and the bells mounted on top of the drum is played with a striker held in the left hand. A drumming ensemble typically has three dunduns but it can be set up differently depending on which style is needed. Sometimes the musician doesn’t use the bells, and the player can carry the Dunun using a shoulder strap and play it while standing. This African instrument is usually played to accompany dancing during cultural ceremonies. Most of the time, this musical instrument is played along with Djembe to develop the more complex rhythms of Africa.