The African Drum

In Africa, drums are much more viable than other musical instruments. Apart from being used in traditional worship, they are means of communication par excellence.

The talking drum (gudugudu) of the Azande of Congo, Sudan and The Central African Republic saved many people from slave traders and the colonial forces. It was so efficacious in warning the people of danger and passing on secret messages that kept the Belgians on tenterhooks to the extent of banning it to gain control of the people.

In Uganda, for the Baganda, every clan has its particular drum beat called: ‘omubala’. It marks important occasions in which a particular clan is involved, e.g., marriage, installation of heirs, funerals, installation of a chief, initiation into clans, etc.

Here, the drum is an indicator of identity. Some drum beats call the public to action: ‘ssaagala agalamidde’ (I don’t want to see anyone lying down) calls for public works, ‘ggwanga mujje’ (nation, come!) is a warning for a public danger or a call to fight a common enemy; with ‘mujaguzo’ (occasion for feasting), the king calls his people to feast…to mention but a few. When Christianity came to Uganda, a special drumbeat was invented for calling people to pray. The drum then has the function of social control.

Africans have drums whose beats are never separated from their producer. For the Akan of the Gulf of Guinea, the drum text becomes the standard version of a historical event, a personality, an institution and fundamental beliefs preserved in the collective memory of the people.

The drum is only beaten on given occasions; its message is not for intellectual knowledge or personal analysis. The message of the drum is reliable because it is unchangeable; it undergoes neither the precariousness of time nor the subjectivity of the drummer. It always remains the same, transmitting the same message on the same occasions.

As the spoken word is the prolongation of the personality of the speaker, the drum is the prolongation of the personality of God, ancestors, divinities, kings and sometimes the people as a whole.

Kings have drums and the royal family in the Great Lakes area of Eastern Africa is called the family of the drum. This is the sign that their right to rule is divine and originates from the beginning of creation. In Kinyarwanda, the drum found a place in the Our Father! Instead of “Thy kingdom come.”

The Banyarwanda Christians say: ‘Ingoma yawe ivuge hose’; which means: “May your drum sound/speak everywhere”. We have God’s word, power and authority expressed here.

Drumsticks are called ‘minyolo’ in Luganda. The same word opening is very evident in it. Beating the drum is like opening the mouth or the house in which the divine word is closed. In Runyankore/Rukiga, the same sticks are called ‘mirusyo’ from the verb ‘kuruka’ which carries the meaning of knitting or sewing. It is an instrument of cohesion. In Akan, the talking drum is called ‘tchreman’. The word is composed of tchre (to show, to teach and to educate) and of man (assembly, nation, ethnic group and country).

Etymologically, ‘tchreman’ (drum) designates an individual who instructs and educates his people. It is a teacher and educator. The drum is then the instrument through which the man of culture expresses himself. The communal character of the drum message comes out clearly.

Behind the drum, a teacher is instructing the public and since the origin of the drum goes back to the moment of creation, that teacher is no other than God Himself and the ancestors. The particular drums are just copies of the created drum, they are the material support of the spiritual drum, which in our view coincides with the word of creation.

Even as a musical instrument, the drum emits the rhythm, that vibratory technique of universal concordance to which people dance; and dances are celebrations of life, which end up intensifying the vital force of the community and individuals.

The very makeup of the drum shows its social and cosmic dimensions. It is always round and its main body is a tree trunk whose hollow top is covered with animal skin. Sometimes stones are enclosed inside it. The round top represents heaven while the wooden body recalls the Tree of Life, the axis that unites heaven, earth and the underworld.

The animal world is present in the skin; vegetation is seen on the wood while the stones inside the drum represent the mineral world. One can now understand why political and religious power is connected to the drum and why quite often there is a royal drum that has powers parallel to those of the king as it was for Bagendanwa, the Royal Drum in the Ankole kingdom. Some African tribes can rightly say: the word became drum and it speaks to us. (Edward Kanyike)

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