The talking drum is an hourglass-shaped drum from West Africa, whose pitch can be regulated to mimic the tone and prosody of human speech. It has two drumheads connected by leather tension cords, which allow the player to modulate the pitch of the drum by squeezing the cords between his or her arm and body. A skilled player is able to play whole phrases.
The pitch of the drum is varied to mimic the tone patterns of speech. This is done by varying the tension placed on the drumhead: The opposing drumheads are connected by a common tension cord. The waist of the drum is held between the player’s arm and ribs, so that when squeezed the drumhead is tightened, producing a higher note than when it’s in its relaxed state; the pitch can be changed during a single beat, producing a warbling note. The drum can thus capture the pitch, volume, and rhythm of human speech, though not the qualities of vowels or consonants.
The use of talking drums as a form of communication was noticed by Europeans in the first half of the eighteenth century. Detailed messages could be sent from one village to the next faster than could be carried by a person riding a horse. In the nineteenth century Roger T. Clarke, a missionary, realised that “the signals represent the tones of the syllables of conventional phrases of a traditional and highly poetic character.Like Chinese languages, many African languages are tonal; that is, the pitch is important in determining the meaning of a particular word.The problem was how to communicate complex messages without the use of vowels or consonants, simply using tone. An English emigrant to Africa, John F. Carrington, in his 1949 book The Talking Drums of Africa explained how African drummers were able to communicate complex messages over vast distances.Using low tones referred to as male and higher female tones, the drummer communicates through the phrases and pauses, which can travel upwards of 4–5 miles. This process may take eight times longer than communicating a normal sentence but was effective for telling neighboring villages of possible attacks or ceremonies.He found that to each short word which was beaten on the drums was added an extra phrase, which would be redundant in speech but provided context to the core drum signal.
Playing styles are closely linked with the drum’s construction and the tonal qualities of each language. There is a clear difference in playing styles between areas with predominantly Fulani and Mande-speaking populations and traditionally non-Mande areas further east.
The predominant style of playing in areas further west such as Senegal, Gambia, western Mali and Guinea is characterized by rapid rolls and short bursts of sound between the stick holding hand and accompanying free hand, and correlates with the various pitch accent and non-tonal languages heard in this area. This is a style typically heard in the popular Mbalax genre of Senegal.
From eastern Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana, towards Niger, western-Chad and Nigeria, (with the exceptions of areas with Fulani and Mande-speaking majorities) the playing style of the talking drum is centered on producing long and sustained notes by hitting the drum head with the stick-holding hand and the accompanying free hand used to dampen and change tones immediately after being hit. This produces a rubbery sounding texture to its playing, which mimics the heavy and complex tones used in languages from this area (see Niger–Congo tonal language chart). This characteristic style can be clearly heard in the popular music of this area, particularly in those where the talking drum is the lead instrument, such as Fuji music of the Yoruba of Nigeria.