The Significance of Drums in African Societies, Heritage, Culture and Traditions

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

In African culture drumming and drums hold a deeper, symbolic and historical significance. They herald political and social events attending ceremonies of birth, death and marriage. They spark courtships, herald home-coming and going and they accompany religious rites and rituals, calling up ancestral spirits.

In other occasions, they are used as an alarm or a call to arms stirring up emotions for battle and war. They can also inspire passion and excitement and even cause trances, a momentary loss of consciousness to either the drummer or the listener. They symbolize and protect royalty and are often housed in sacred dwellings. They are especially protected during battle.

Drums has also proven that as human beings we are so much more connected. As profoundly described by the great Martin Luther King Jr. “...We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Moreover, Carl Jung, the great Chinese Philosopher, spoke of an Old Man, thousands of years old, existing within the psyche, who remembers all and has seen it all. One of those stories Jung talked about was, as the story goes: “In Switzerland, I was introduced to some people who traveled about the world in a van full of drums. Beating drums is a natural form of communication. A group of us began drumming and soon found ourselves in spontaneous synchronization, a multitude of overlapping rhythms somehow beating in harmony. Time stood still and we became as one mind. It seemed as if we had been beating drums together for all of eternity. Perhaps archetypal memory was awakened, because the consciousness of that Old Man was evoked in the drumming. I can still recall the feeling that thousands of minds were one.”

Resoundingly, UNESCO in 2006, founded “The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” The Convention entered into force on April 20th. 2006 with thirty States after the deposit of its instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession. The Register of Good Safeguarding Practices contains programs, projects and activities that best reflect the principles and the objectives of the Convention. The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is made up of those intangible heritage elements that help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance. The List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding is composed of intangible heritage elements that concerned communities and States Parties consider require urgent measures to keep them alive. Inscriptions on this List help to mobilize international cooperation and assistance for stakeholders to undertake appropriate safeguarding measures.

Among the list are numerous African nations and their cultural practices and heritage. One of them is Burundi's “Ritual Dance of the Royal Drum.” The sacred drummers of Burundi.” Since ancient times, drums have been considered sacred in Burundi. Traditionally, the word ingoma meant both drums and kingdom.

Drums and Dancing

I heard this particular story from Elizabeth Gilbert in her TED Talk about “Your Elusive Creative Genius,” in which she perfectly illustrated a tradition in Northern Africa for example, centuries ago, people used to gather around for moonlight dances of sacred nature along with music that would go on for hours until dawn. The dancers were always magnificent and terrific. And once in a while, very rarely, something magical would happen, and one of these performers would almost become transcendent.

As Gilbert descried, “it was like time would stop, and the dancer would sort of step through some kind of portal and he wasn't doing anything different than he had ever done, 1,000 nights before, but everything would align. And all of a sudden, he would no longer appear to be merely human. He would be lit from within, and lit from below and all lit up on fire with divinity.” When this rare thing happened, people knew it for what it was and to their amazement, they will put their hands together and start chanting, "Allah, Allah, Allah, God, God, God." Gilbert went on to add how the "Olé, Olé, chant that we frequently hear in soccer/football games and other sports originated. According to Gilbert, “when the Moors invaded southern Spain, they took this custom with them and the pronunciation changed over the centuries from "Allah, Allah, Allah," to "Olé, Olé, Olé, which you still hear in bullfights and in flamenco dances. In Spain, when a performer has done something impossible and magic, "Allah, olé, olé, Allah, magnificent, bravo," incomprehensible, there it is -- a glimpse of God.”


The membrane of the drum is most often constructed from the skin of an antelope, goat, sheep or cow and less frequently from zebra, wildebeest or reptiles like crocodiles and monitor lizards. The skin is dried out in the sun and the hair shaved. It is then stretched over the hollowed out, preferably hardwood, drum base.

The skin is tightened with leather straps and nailed or pegged on. Resin on the membrane will control tone and a good drummer will treat the surface with beeswax before a performance, holding the drumhead over an open fire to stretch the skin. Twine is used to lace two skins together on double-headed drums or just simply to secure the membrane such as the one opposite.

Drums can be both musical instruments and sculptures. Images can reference proverbs, cultural traditions and ways of behaving, reflect values that are important to communities. They can feature anthropomorphic images like feet, hands, female breasts, human heads as well as full or squatting figures that carry the drum on their backs. These motifs can be symbolic, carrying great spiritual meaning or they can just be decorative and tell a story. Female imagery is often used to evoke fertility. 

Drums exist in a modern context in Africa in 3 major ways: 

   1. They are still used in the traditional manner for celebrating ceremonial events,  rituals and  spiritual healing - a rhythmical representation of each happening in the cultural life of a village  or community.

   2. They are often employed as tourist attractions in many African countries, promoting and  exhibiting African heritage and culture. They can be part of exciting extravaganzas featuring  costumes, music, dance and poetry. They can take any shape and form as long as they emit the  required sound! See photo below of drums used in a Shangaan festival in Zimbabwe:

They are also part of social enterprises that uplift and empower local communities. By  connecting the traditions to the modern market, the old ways are kept alive and relevant. Projects like this one raise the profile of the impact drums have on both traditional and modern societies. Djembe Drum, Paragon Heartwood Project, Mali. Their influence reaches deep into the hearts and homes of all corners of the world.

3. And then there is music.........

Just pure, uninhibited, joyous ‘making music’ and dancing to the sound of the African drum and its infectious, primal beat and rhythms.

Watch the youtube video above to get a taste of the magnificient display of drums featuring one of the legends of Africa singer, songwriter, composer and performer Youssou N'dour in paying homage to the late legendary drummer Doudou Ndiaye Rose. As you arrive in the continent depending on the country you are visiting, we encourage you to allow the sounds of the drums to transport you wherever that you may be and take a moment to appreciate and understand their beauty. Hopefully these beautiful sounds will stay with you as great memories that perhaps will be a constant reminder of how precious life is, especially in moments of our mundane life that can sometimes seem hopeless. Never lose hope for everything is temporary so live in each moment and take each day at a time.

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