Dundun: Talking Drums of the Yoruba People

by Michelle Assaad


Music is an integral part of life to the 8 million Yoruba people living in West Africa; in fact there is rarely an occasion where there is not a musical accompaniment. To the Yoruba people music “is closely bound up with kinship, religion, politics and economics” (Campbell, Patricia Sheehan. “Christopher Waterman on Yoruba Music of Africa,” 1995, Academic Search Premier). Music is used to celebrate the stages of life such as birth, coming of age, marriage, and death and includes many aspects of “expressive behavior such as dance, visual and plastic arts and poetic speech” (Campbell, 1995, Academic Search Premier). What the Yoruba people consider to be representative of their musical culture would be the dundun, otherwise known as the Talking Drum.

the-talking-drum-olawale-babatundeWhile there are many types of Talking Instruments in the Yoruba musical culture such as the bata, the special drum of Shango, the god of thunder, the oye, a small flute and a talking elephant tusk, yet the dundun drums are the most commonly played and widely used of all the talking instruments (Beier, Ulli. “Talking Drums Of The Yoruba,” 1954, JSTOR Arts & Sciences VIII). The reason that the dundun is said to have the capacity to talk is because the dundun, or the hourglass-drums as the Europeans call it, has a special ability to easily imitate the speech patterns and tones of the Yoruba language (Adekola and Arewa, 1980, JSTOR). The Yoruba language depends much more on tone and glides than it does on vowels and constantans, like English, for example (Ajayi, Omofolabo Soyinka. “Aesthetics Of Yoruba Recreational Dances As Exemplified In the Oge Dance,” 1989, OmniFile Full Text Mega). In fact, many words can only be distinguished from one and other simply by their tones (Beier, 1954, JSTOR Arts & Sciences VIII). The dundun does not use a Morse code system as is widely believed but rather it simply “emits the three tones which are analogous to the pitches of the natural language: low, middle and high” (Adekola, Niyi and Arewa, Ojo. “Redundancy Principles of Statistical Communications As Applied To Yoruba Talking Drums,” 1980, JSTOR). For example, the Yoruba word, bata. Because the Yoruba language is tonal, the pitch of the syllables determines the meaning of the word (Campbell, 1995, Academic Search Premier). So therefore, if the word bata is said using two low tones, the word is translated as “shoe”, however, if it is spoken with one low tone and one high tone, it is translated as the drum of choice of the thunder god, Shango (Campbell, 1995, Academic Search Premier).

drum 2The dundun drum is made up of a goatskin membrane, and a resonator, or body, which the goatskin membrane is stretched over (Adekola and Arewa, 1980, JSTOR). The resonator can be made of wood or any other material that is solid (Adekola and Arewa, 1980, JSTOR). The drum is made up on two heads that are connected to each other by leather thongs that stretch the entire length of the body of the drum (Campbell, 1995, Academic Search Premier). The pitch of the drum can be controlled by the drummer, who uses his left hand to tighten the leather thongs (Beier, 1954, JSTOR Arts & Sciences VIII). It is the pressure of the thongs against the membrane and the body which produces the desired high and low pitches that are required for the drums to talk (Adekola and Arewa, 1980, JSTOR). The clarity of the message of the drums depends highly on the skill, willingness and very much so on the strength of the drummer (Adekola and Arewa, 1980, JSTOR). The ability of the drummer to “control pitch allows the drummer to imitate the contours of spoken Yoruba and to articulate various types of poetic speech” (Campbell, 1995, Academic Search Premier). The dundun drums can have the range of about an octave, however, the exact range of a drum truly does depend on the strength and the skill of the drummer (Beier, 1954, JSTOR Arts & Sciences VIII). As a matter of fact a master drummer becomes more than a musician in the eyes of the Yoruba. A true master drummer “becomes an educator, philosopher, historian, eclectic, even royalty connected to the power of the spirits of the ancestors” because of the ability to convey information and stories (Ruskin, Jesse. “Talking Drums in Los Angeles: Brokering Culture in an American Metropolis,” 2011, RILM Abstracts of Music Literature).

imagesThe Talking Drums are used for a wide variety of reasons. One reason is for a dance called Oge, in which there is a dundun ensemble consisting of 5 drums: iya-ilu (or the “mother drum”), gudugudu, kerikeri, isaju and kanago (Ajayi,1989, OmniFile Full Text Mega). Dundun drums are also used to summon villagers, announce visitors to the village, pass messages to the next village and play orikis—the poetry of the Yoruba which speaks of metaphorical descriptions of kings and gods (Beier, 1954, JSTOR Arts & Sciences VIII).  Dundun drums are also used in Egungun ceremonies, which are “concerned with the appeasement of deceased ancestors, are also considered occasions for the reincarnation of these ancestors in the form of the masked dancers or ”spirits,”(Veal, Michael E. “Fela: The Life and Times of An African Musical Icon,” 2000, EBSCOhost). They are also used in Gelede masquerades which “serve to placate both female elders and female divinities,” which affect the fertility of the community (Veal, 2000, EBSCOhost). Dundun drums are also used to sounding praise names, proverbs and getting possible patrons for the drummer by praising them so much so that some drums are jokingly called “Stalking drums” (Beier, 1954, JSTOR Arts & Sciences VIII).

afrobeatsThe most important function of the Talking Drums is the ability to send messages and stories long distances (Adekola and Arewa, 1980, JSTOR). Drums have little bells or “jingling discs” which produce a “high degree of acoustic effect” (Adekola and Areaw, 1980, JSTOR). These bells, which are wrapped around the circumference of the goatskin can easily be heard by nearby villages and therefore gives a better approximation as to the distance of the messenger (Adekola and Arewa, 1980, JSTOR).  The further away a village is from the dundun, the more the high and medium pitches fade only to leave the low pitches of the dundun (Adekola and Arewa, 1980, JSTOR).

The dundun has extremely diverse functions: it serves the role of poet, historian, philosopher, news teller and summoner (Ruskin, 2011, RILM Abstracts of Music Literature). Most recently, Talking Drums took a front seat at the soccer World Cup when Nigeria played. The fans of Nigeria gathered their dunduns and cheered for their team playing the instrument that they feel represents the Yoruba people best.



Works Cited

Ajayi, Omofolabo Soyinka. “Aesthetics Of Yoruba Recreational Dances As Exemplified In The Oge Dance.” Dance Research Journal 21.2 (1989): 1. RILM Abstracts of Music Literature. Web. 26 Apr. 2013

Arewa, Ojo, and Niyi Adekola. “Redundancy Principles Of Statistical Communications As Applied To Yoruba Talking-Drum.” Anthropos 75.1/2 (1980): 185-202. Humanities & Social Sciences Index Retrospective: 1907-1984 (H.W. Wilson). Web. 26 Apr. 2013.

Beier, Ulli. “The Talking Drums Of The Yoruba.” African Music 1 (1954): 29. JSTOR Arts & Sciences VIII. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.

Campbell, Patricia Shehan. “Christopher Waterman On Yoruba Music Of Africa.” Music Educators Journal 81.6 (1995): 35. Academic Search Premier. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.

Ruskin, Jesse. “Talking Drums In Los Angeles: Brokering Culture In An American Metropolis.” Black Music Research Journal 31.1 (2011): 85. RILM Abstracts of Music Literature. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.

Veal, Michael E. Fela : The Life & Times Of An African Musical Icon. Philadelphia, Pa: Temple University Press, 2000. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 26 Apr. 2013.