Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Talking Drums of West Africa

Originating from and primarily used in West Africa, talking drums were historically used to send messages over long distances. They were some of oldest instruments used by griots, and also used in religious rituals and royal occasions. They continue to be used today in popular music.

Listen to an ensemble of talking drums here.

Talking drums are known by many different names - almost as many as there are languages in the region - such as dundun, lunna , tamanin, and dondo. They come in different sizes and have two drum heads and an hourglass shape with leather strings attached from one end to the other. Because of the tension in the strings, they can be manipulated to make different sounds. The drums are typically tucked under the arm and squeezed  when struck to change the sounds. A curved stick is used in order to strike the center of the drum (this protects the edge, which would break) and allows the drummer to hit the drum with lots of force. These sounds are made to mimic the tones, rhythm and pitch of regional languages. By mimicking speech, messages can be conveyed from one village to the next.

Hear a talking drum being used with a demonstration of its many tones here.

Getting messages to outlying areas was faster with a drum than by sending someone out. These messages were to inform or warn others of impending war, attacks and ceremonies. 

Talking drums being used during festivities at a cultural festival in Ghana
Photo Credit: Paul Williams (CC)
Drums of all sorts are at the heart of West African culture. You can find crafts to make your own West African drums here and here

Find all our posts related to West African instruments and music here.


  1. So interesting. I didn't know there were decipherable messages to the drum beats. Thanks for sharing Marie!

    1. I've even read there were poetic lines sent as drumbeats!

  2. Reminds me of the Dragon Riders books by Anne McCaffrey, they use drums to send messages cross country.

    1. Drums seem to play an important part in the cultures and history of many different areas.


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