Africa: The Sound of Drums

Drums play an important role in the life of African people. Traditionally, drums represent the soul of the community. They are used for celebrating ceremonial events and rituals within the community. Here are some popular African drums.

The Karyenda comes from Burundi and used to be the main symbol of the country. It also represented the Mwami (King of Burundi) and had semi-divine status. It is believed that the Mwami could interpret the beatings of the karyenda into rules for the kingdom.

As expected, these drums were sacred and were mostly used in rituals, major events for the king, such as royal coronations. They were also used at funerals, and weddings were announced through the drums. The beating of the drums also signalled certain rites, such as when the Mwami rose in the morning or retired in the evening.

Djembe or Talking Drum dates as far back as 500 a.d. where it served as the secret drums in major societies for the rite of passages, ancestral worship, rituals, and social dances. According to the Bambara people in Mali, the name of the djembe comes from the saying ‘Anke djé, anke bé’ which translates to ‘everyone gathers together in peace’ and this name defines the drum’s purpose. In the Bambara language, ‘djé’ is the verb for ‘gather’ and ‘’ translates as ‘peace’.

It is believed that this drum contains three spirits. First, the spirit of the tree from which it was made. Then, the spirit of the animal whose skin is played, and the spirit of the carver, or the one who cut the tree and the people who assemble the drum.

Traditionally, only those born into the djembe family would be allowed (or interested) to play the djembe. This caste sings and performs during rituals, baptisms, weddings and sometimes funerals, and are trusted with the music of their ancestors.

Talking drum is a two-sided (with two stretched membranes) hourglass drum (made from a single block of wood), which is played with a curved stick and held under the armpit (sometimes called the armpit drum for this reason).  The arm presses on strings that stretch the skins (originally made of animal guts), modulating the sound.

The Entenga drums were part of a set of royal instruments of the Buganda Kingdom in Uganda. According to tradition the Tebandeke Mujambula, (1704 – 1724), the Baganda King loved the drums so much that he asked the drummers to play every morning at 3 am. He felt that the drums were so perfect, that this was the only time of the day when it was quiet enough to appreciate them fully. These drums have also been used to accompany traditional African religious activities like prayers, droughts, and removing evil spirits in the communities.

Among people of Kamba in Central Kenya, the mukanda is a double-membrane drum, covered at both ends, used to accompany the acrobatic dance wathi wa mukanda or mbeni, danced mainly by both boys and girls. The same drum, however, is known as mwase when used in the spirit-dance of the same name, played and danced mainly by women.

Kithembe originally referred to a cylindrical, leather honey-container, used as a drum in the religious dance, kilumi. Later the honey-container was abandoned and the drum, open at one side, which replaced it was given the same name. Nowadays the mukanda drum, is sometimes referred to as the ngoma/mwase/kithembe.

Though the drum has become a very popular musical instrument in Kenya, its historical background is unclear. The then president Kenyatta for example says that the Kikuyu borrowed the drum from the Kamba, the kehembe being known in Kikamba as kithembe. It also seems that the Luo drum ahangla, which resembles the Luhya sikuti drum both in design and playing technique, is an instance of borrowing. A sikuti-like drum is indeed found in most of the Bantu linguistic communities of Kenya.

Ngoma (also called engoma or ng’oma or ingoma) are instruments used by certain Bantu populations of Africa. Ngoma gets its name from the Kongoword for ‘drum’. These drums are used in ceremonies in Central and South Africa, where the primary aim is to assist in healing during ceremonies.

The rituals involve regular music and dance and can result in stress reduction, social support, and support of pro-social behaviours. Ngoma usually serves as a means to unite the tribe and help in health or life transitions. The ngoma drum is also used in Zimbabwe, mainly for traditional dances and celebrations. Photo:  

(Franklin Ugobude and John Mutesa)

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