The Vast Role of Drums in African Societies & their Significance

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Given the vastness of the African continent, one unique instrument seems to unify all Africans and in doing so provides a singular identity when one hears the sound of it and that is nothing other than the African drum. No matter which country you are from in Africa or where you may be, hearing the sound of a drum will bring people together or spark curiosity in the minds of anyone who hears it. Perhaps the curiosity to know who is beating the drum or what it is for and the message it carried is what makes people come together when they hear the sound of the drum or drums. Although, hearing the sound of any drum has different meanings and connotations depending on a culture, or tribe the singular objective is the drum serving as a means of communication, unity, and bringing together people from various tribes.

Some call it the beating heart of Africa but from a traditional standpoint the power of the African drum is also its spiritual connotation specifically as an ancient instrument used to celebrate all the aspects of life. In traditional African societies, drums hold a deeper, symbolic, and historical significance. Since the sound of drums carries messages through the air, they herald political and social events attending ceremonies of birth, death, and marriage. They spark courtships, home-coming and going and they also accompany religious rites and rituals, calling up ancestral spirits. 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.

Moreover, they also symbolize and protect royalty and are often housed in sacred dwellings. Even more important is to protect them during battles simply because they are considered sacred. From a spiritual level drums have the power to mobilize forces that we do not see by calling them into being. And for that to happen the drum has to be played in a particular way which requires specialists with skills and techniques in the manner in which the drum needs to be played. Therefore, the drummers have to be from hereditary families such as griots who are skillful, masterful orators and professional storytellers, poets, and musicians who maintain a tradition of oral history. Griots are commonly found in The Gambia, Senegal, and Mali to name a few. A renowned drummer is a Senegalese drummer that if we do not mention here will make this post incomplete. And that’s none other than  Doudou Ndiaye Rose (born Mamadou Ndiaye; 28 July 1930 – 19 August 2015).


DAKAR, SENEGAL: Senegalese percussionist Doudou Ndiaye Rose with his group plays 16 April 2004 on the island of Goree during the opening of the Dakar-Goree Jazz Festival which runs until 19 April 2004. AFP PHOTO SEYLLOU (Photo credit should read SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images)

A Senegalese drummer, composer, and bandleader, and was recognized as the modern master of Senegal’s traditional drum, the sabar. He was the father of a musical dynasty that includes some of the most successful traditional musicians of contemporary West Africa. The child of a griot family, Ndiaye Rose began performing in the 1930s but continued to make his living as a plumber for some time. Shortly before Senegalese independence he performed with Josephine Baker and became a favorite with Dakar audiences. In 1960 he made the first head of the Senegalese National Ballet, and in the 1970s with his Doudou Ndiaye Rose Orchestra. He also collaborated with Miles Davis and the Rolling Stones. In 2006, he was declared a “living human treasure” by the UN cultural agency for keeping alive traditional rhythms. He was one of the first musicians to bring Senegalese traditional music to the world stage.

In addition, in traditional Yoruba society, Yoruba drums serve as a spiritual symbol in some ritual practices serving as a means of communicating with ancestors. In addition, in Ibo culture drums signify much about the same thing. One writer that captured the essence and significance of drums is the prolific writer and a giant of world literature, Chinua Achebe in “Things Fall Apart.” Here’s an excerpt; “In drums can be seen as a symbol of the living, beating heart of Umuofia and its age-old traditions. In the village, drums aren’t simply musical instruments; they provide a background rhythm against which many of Umuofia’s most important rituals take place.” 

Although, we will not be able to cover all the different types of drums and their significance, however, there are a few prominent ones worth discussing. One of the most popular drums is the Talking Drum. The Talking Drum is one of the most sacred instruments of West Africa. Shaped like an hourglass, the drum has a unique melodic sound which means it can imitate the tones of language and in this way speak words. Along with its spiritual power and healing properties, the talking drum is also a source of history, poetry, and proverbs. 

Amongst the many usages of the drums are ritual dances that could even result in trances. One popular one is the ritual dance of the royal drum in Burundi. The ritual dance of the royal drum is a spectacle combining powerful, synchronized drumming with dancing, heroic poetry, and traditional songs. The entire population of Burundi recognizes it as a fundamental part of its heritage and identity. The dance calls for at least a dozen or so drums, always in an odd number, arranged in a semicircle around a central drum. Several are beaten in a continuous rhythm, while the others keep to the beat set by the central drum. Two or three drummers then perform dances to the rhythm.

The ritual drumming is performed during national or local feasts to welcome important visitors and is said to awaken the spirits of the ancestors and drive out evil spirits. Bearers are recruited from sanctuaries across the country, many of whom are the descendants of drum sanctuary guards. The ritual dance of the royal drum, the values it embodies and the specialized drum-making skills are passed down essentially through practice but also through formal education. Today, the ritual dance of the royal drum is an opportunity to transmit cultural, political and social messages, and a privileged means of bringing people of diverse generations and origins together, thereby encouraging unity and social cohesion.

Along with rituals are also mythological stories about drums. In “A Dictionary of African Mythology,” Harold Scheub, a collection of fascinating, mysterious, and revealing tales capturing the immense sweep and diversity of African mythology into one encapsulating book. Among the many diverse myths is the mythology of Ngoma-lungundu, A Drum That Is the Voice of God (Venda/South Africa, Zimbabwe). The myth goes: 

The Drum of the Dead was brought to its present location by the Senzi people, who are today called the Venda. The sacred drum of the Senzi belonged to their departed ancestors at the time when they were living in the north. Among all their musical instruments, the greatest, and that which was feared and revered most by all the people, was this instrument of the royal ancestor spirits, the Drum of Mwali, the ancestor god of the Senzi and the Kalanga. This drum was called the Voice of the great God, Mambo wa Denga (King of Heaven), the lord of all the ancestor spirits. The king was feared because he could work miracles with this drum of the gods. His enormous city was built on a mountain. The drum was seen and beaten by no one except the high priest, Dzomo la Dzimu, the mouthpiece of God, and the king, Mwali. 

No one could look upon the king: he spoke through the high priest, whose voice reverberated in a terrifying way. The palace was guarded by lions, the dogs of the king, and by snakes who had heads on either end. When rain was needed, the king was petitioned, and when the drumming of Ngoma-lungundu was heard, they knew that the king had heard them. The drum could not be looked at. Once, when the people quarreled among themselves, Mwali, angry, spoke through the drum and many died. But the people continued to fight among themselves, and in the end, Mwali left them, to go under the earth, to become the ancestor-god of the people. When they hear the earth shake, they know that he walks on the clouds or under the earth. When the king vanished, many people fled or died with him. Mwali bequeathed his powers to Tshilume, his eldest son, to whom he gave a small drum of the spirits, also called Ngoma-lungundu. This drum helped the prince when he was troubled by his enemies. It brought rain when it was needed. Some years later, Mwali’s voice told the son to move his people to the land beyond the Limpopo. And so the people moved. The drum, enclosed, was carried by six men, with the injunction by Mwali that it must never touch the ground. 

During the migration, the people were protected by Mwali and the drum. They came to the Kalanga people, who were overwhelmed by their numbers and acquiesced to their presence. They continued to move south. They went to the country of the Nyai, and Mwali told them to move on. Then the drum of the spirits fell to the ground one day because it had not been placed carefully in a tree. A storm resulted, lions sent by Mwali ravaged the people, many died. The king went up a hill and did not return. Then all abated, and they continued under a new king to the valley of the Limpopo.

When the king died, Hwami took over the leadership. Few people remained, but the drum made their enemies fear them. But the Pedi did not fear the drum, so Hwami and his people moved to another place. They migrated to the country of Tshivhula and settled. Dyambeu, Hwami’s great-grandson, succeeded him, and they traveled to the east, using Ngoma-lungundu to subdue any who stood in their path. On the Plain of Tshisonga, they built a camp and prepared a shelter for Ngoma-lungundu. But at one point the drum, blown by the wind, fell to the ground, and the people were massacred and the drum taken by the enemy, the Tavhatsindi. With the help of Mwali, they recovered the drum and overcame the Tavhatsindi. The eldest son of Dyambeu, Bele, was selected, king.

We hope this broadens your understanding of African drums. Feel free to share with us any stories about drums in African society. Although there are many stories some are worth sharing and passing on.

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