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.

There are several idiophone instruments in West Africa, one of which is the balafon. The balafon, also known as balafo, bala, Balani, Gyil, and Balangi, is a type of tuned percussion instrument. It is played by using two padded sticks to strike the tuned keys.

Now, where did the balafon originate and what makes it special?

Brief History

An instrument known to have existed since the 12th century CE during the Mali Empire, the balafon has been and still is popular in West Africa. Its name has a Manding origin but the name varies in some parts like Senegal,Gambia,Sierra Leone, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso. Balafon means the “act of playing the Bala,” with “Balan” corresponding to the instrument, while “fo” a verb meaning “to play” in the Malinke language.

Guinea’s Susu and Malinke peoples, as well as the Manding people dwelling in Senegal, Mali, and Gambia are the popular users of the instrument. Balafon traditions were also recorded in Chad, Cameroon, and around the Congo Basin.

In ancient times, the balafon is considered a sacred instrument that is exclusive to trained and skilled caste members. It was stored in a temple for safekeeping and can only be played at certain traditional and ritual occasions such as funerals, weddings, and festivals. Not to mention that the balafon has to be purified first before being played.

Playing Styles

The balafon is played in a wide variety of ways, depending on the culture in a certain area. Some hold solo balafon performance, while others, especially those from Cameroon, create an orchestra consisting of six balafons. The instrument can also be a part of an ensemble, just like in Guinea and Mali, where people use an ensemble of three: low, medium and high pitches.

There are two main types of balafon. One is called the fixed key, which involves a fixed frame with keys strung over it. Most of the time, calabash resonators are placed underneath it. The other type is the free-key balafon. Its difference is that the keys are independently attached to a padded surface. The typical balafon features 17-21 keys. It is up to balafon players what kind of tuning they want – tetratonic, pentatonic, or heptatonic scale.

Popular Balafon Players

Given balafon’s rise to popularity, many artists have started using it in their music. Among the most famous ones include Ba Banga Nyeck, El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyate, and Modibo Diabate. Balafon players can be found all over Africa and other parts of the world. The sound created by balafon is associated with jazz and other music genres.

African clothing is the traditional clothing, often vibrantly coloured, worn by the people of Africa. In some instances these traditional garments have been replaced by western clothing introduced by European colonialists.

In Northeastern Africa, particularly in Egypt, styles of traditional dress have been influenced by Middle Eastern culture, this can be exemplified by the simply embroidered Jelabiya which are similarly worn in the Gulf states. The Northwest Africans are less influenced by foreign elements and have remained more in antiquity. The Djellaba (worn in Northwest Africa) shares similar properties with the Grand boubou, the Dashiki, and the Senegalese kaftan. in Nigeria women were head ties In Sahelian Africa, the dashiki, Senegalese kaftan, and the grand boubou are worn more prominently, though not exclusively (the Bògòlanfini, for instance, is worn in Mali). The dashiki is highly stylized and is rendered with an ornate V-shaped collar. In contrast the grand boubou is simpler, even more so than the djellaba, though the color designs reach impressive proportions, especially among the Tuareg, who are known for their beautifully dyed indigo robes.

In East Africa, the kanzu is the traditional dress worn by Swahili speaking men. Women wear the kanga and the Gomesi.

In Southern Africa distinctive shirts are worn, like the long dresses they wear. For instance, South Africa is known for the Madiba shirt, whereas, Zimbabwe is known for the safari shirt.

In the Horn of Africa, the attire varies by country. In Ethiopia, men wear the Ethiopian suit and women wear the habesha kemis. In Somalia, men wear the khameez with a small cap called a koofiyad.At Touch Of Africa,we carry this lovely traditional African fashion.

A kora is a harp built from a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a resonator with a long hardwood neck. The skin is supported by two handles that run under it, and it supports a notched double free-standing bridge. It doesn’t fit into any one category of musical instruments, but rather several, and must be classified as a “double-bridge-harp-lute.” The strings run in two divided ranks, making it a double harp. They do not end in a soundboard but are held in notches on a bridge, making it a bridge harp. They originate from a string arm or neck and cross a bridge directly supported by a resonating chamber, making it a lute too.

The sound of a kora resembles that of a harp, though when played in the traditional style, it bears a closer resemblance to flamenco and delta blues guitar techniques. The player uses only the thumb and index finger of both hands to pluck the strings in polyrhythmic patterns (using the remaining fingers to secure the instrument by holding the hand posts on either side of the strings). Ostinato riffs (“Kumbengo”) and improvised solo runs (“Birimintingo”) are played at the same time by skilled players.

Kora players have traditionally come from griot families (also from the Mandinka nationalities) who are traditional historians, genealogists and storytellers who pass their skills on to their descendants. The instrument is played in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and the Gambia. A traditional kora player is called a Jali, similar to a ‘bard’ or oral historian. Most West African musicians prefer the term ‘jali’ to ‘griot’, which is the French word.

Traditional koras feature 21 strings, eleven played by the left hand and ten by the right. Modern koras made in the Casamance region of southern Senegal sometimes feature additional bass strings, adding up to four strings to the traditional 21. Strings were traditionally made from thin strips of hide, for example antelope skin – now most strings are made from harp strings or nylon fishing line, sometimes plaited together to create thicker strings.

By moving leather tuning rings up and down the neck, a kora player can retune the instrument into one of four seven-note scales. These scales are close in tuning to western major, minor and Lydian modes.
In the late 20th century, a 25-string model of the kora was developed, though it has been adopted by only a few players, primarily in the region of Casamance, in southern Senegal. Some kora players such as Seckou Keita have double necked koras, allowing them to switch from one tuning to another within seconds, giving them increased flexibility.

The kora music being part of the oral tradition, its music was not written until the 20th century. The ethnomusicologists were the only ones to note some traditional airs in the normal grand staff method using the G clef and the F clef.
Nowadays, kora scores are written on a single G clef, following the Keur Moussa notation system. This notation system was created for the kora in the late 1970s by Brother Dominique Catta, a monk of the Keur Moussa Monastery (Senegal). The seven low notes that should be written on the F clef are replaced by Arabic or Roman numerals and written on the G clef.
While griots still compose in the traditional way (without writing scores), some Western musicians began to write partitures for the kora and adopted the Keur Moussa notation system at the beginning of the 1980s.

 

The djembe has a great cultural heritage in Africa. Although similar in cultural use and significance to many countries and tribes on the African continent, it has minute but significant differences.The Djembe is the drum of the Mandinka, Diola other people of Western Africa, and its origins dates back to the great Mali Empire of the 12th century. The djembe is also known as djenbe, jembe, sanbanyi, jymbe or yembe. It is made from an single piece of wood and carved into the shape of a goblet that is hollow throughout with a skin covering over the top.

djembesThe drum is played with bare hands.Of all the African drums, the djembe has become extremely sought after in the Western world and is regarded as the most popular. This drum has inspired master drum makers now found all over the world.The djembes below are made in Mali and Senegal. In and around the Kayes region. The drum rhythm or Diansa is performed in the evening for most celebrations, example during full moon, spring, summer and winter harvesting time, weddings, baptism, honoring of mothers, immediately after Ramadaan (the month of fast for all Muslim brothers and sisters) or other celebrations. Dancing is the most popular form of entertainment and various rhythms and beats are played on the djembe.

Similar type celebrations and cultural rhythms are applicable to Senegal as well as other regions of West Africa.African goatskins from Mali are the most suitable for covering the playing surface of a djembe, due to central Africa having the perfect climatic and grazing conditions for the goats. The West African goat skin are also thicker and tougher and impacts greatly on the quality of the sound.

The skins therefore undoubtedly, provide the very best sound. Skins used from other countries have poor sound quality and tends to break easily.The painting below depict African drummers from the Wolof tribe, natives of Senegal. They use a skin drum and it is played with one hand and a thin stick. The drum is placed on the ground or strapped to the side of the body and is played whilst the fans or audience, mainly single women of marital age, do the “Sabar”.

A dance where women roll the hips, create sexual movements of the buttocks in a provocative manner, to entice males. Various forms of the dance take place in Africa during special celebrations.

 

Doudou Ndiaye Rose is one of the most renowned African musicians of the 20th century. While he specializes in the sabar, he also plays many other types of drum such as saourouba, assicot, bougarabou, meung meung, lambe, n’der, gorom babass, and khine. The child of a Griot (West African bard caste) 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 amongst Dakar audiences. In 1960 he made the first head of the Senegalese National Ballet, and in the 1970s with his Doudou Ndiaye Rose Orchestra as well as his collaborations with Miles Davis and the Rolling Stones.

Family of drummers:

He is the founder and chief drum major of the Drummers of West Africa (all members of his family – he has 43 children in all),with which he also performs. He also leads an all-female drum group called Les Rosettes, composed entirely of his own daughters and granddaughters.

Styles:

Ndiaye Rose is purported to have developed 500 new rhythms, and, indeed, his music is quite complex, featuring ever-changing rhythmic structures which he conducts with his trademark vigorous style.He has also invented new types of drum that are available in our store.

In Africa masks can be traced back to well past Paleolithic times. These art objects were, and are still made of various materials, included are leather, metal, fabric and various types of wood.African masks are considered amongst the finest creations in the art world and are highly sought after by art collectors. Many of the pieces some replica’s, can be viewed in museums and art galleries in many parts of the world. Masking ceremonies in Africa have great cultural and traditional significance. Latest developments and understanding of Aesthetic principles, religious and ceremonial values, have brought about a greater insight into the ideas and moral values that African artists express in their art.

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