Posts Tagged ‘drums’

Encoding the Language

Having now given my presentation, I reflect back on how I made it through the talk. I dug up the few articles and works about the talking drums. There seems to be a wider literature about “language surrogates”, but those works treat talking drums in a very cursory fashion. When I began this project, I went straight for John Carrington’s slim volume on African talking drums, which written in the 1940s, provided me with little more than a conceptual understanding of the instrument. For this assignment I needed to successfully play the instrument, not just theorize. McClurken seemed to be looking for more than just theory when he gave us the option of demonstrating a form of early communication. I began to search for more materials, perhaps there was a teaching book for the talking drums? I found little of practical use, but there were some amazing individuals teasing out how the drums work and relate to other systems of encoding language, such as writing.

What I really need was more Youtube. I found a few users who uploaded themselves playing or taught the absolute basics of the system. The visual and audio of those videos solidified how to play the drums for me. I do admit that I still lack the ability to make my drums talk, but I do sound rather awesome when going off on a hippie jam. I studied the three tones and how those tones work in conjunction with the language. While I couldn’t tell you how to say a phrase, I can tell you that if there are x syllables in that phrase you hit the drum y times and the tone’s of the words in the phrase will tell you how to tighten the drum. My project technically tanked; I couldn’t actually use the device. However, I came away feeling confident that I could explain and demonstrate how one would communicate with the talking drum. Below I list the texts that provide good resources for further information on the talking drums. You will notice that few of the sources are completely up-to-date. Talking drums have seemingly lost their status as a true speech surrogate and now represent a past cultural tradition rather than a current and practically used linguistic practice.

To gush for a moment: I loved this project. It’s rare for me to combine my love of languages, drums, and history into one assignment. Hats off to you Dr. McClurken.



Arewa, Ojo and Niyi Adekola. “Redundancy Principles of Statistical Communications as Applied to Yoruba Talking-Drum.” Anthrops Bd. 75, H. 1./2. (1980): 185-202. Accessed: 20/09/2011,

Armstrong, Robert G. “Talking Drums in the Benue-Cross River Region of Nigeria.” Phylon vol. 15, no. 4 (4th Qtr., 1954): 355-363Accessed: 20/09/2011 08:47,

Carrington, John F. Talking Drums of Africa. London: Carey Kingsgate Press, 1949.
Nzewi, Meki, Israel Anyahuru, and Tom Ohiarumunna. “The Lingual Fundamentals of African Drum Music.” Research in African Literatures vol 32, no. 2 (Summer, 2001): 90-104. Accessed: 21/09/2011,
Ong, Walter J. “Oral Cultures and Oral Performances.” New Literary History vol. 8, no. 3(Spring, 1977): 411-429. Accessed: 21/09/2011,
Related Youtube Videos:

Ayan Bisi Adeleke – Master Talking Drummer: Drum Talks, 2007. Accessed: 9/19/2011.

___________. How To Play a Simple Rhythm on The Talking Drum, 2010. Accessed: 9/19/2011.

Ilubabamini. Talking Drum Lesson, TDL 001, PART A, 2011. Accessed: 9/27/2011.

________. Talking Drum Lesson, TDL 001, Part B., 2011. Accessed: 9/27/2011.

Drum Talk

Next Thursday, the InfoAge Class will be presenting or discussing early forms of communication. I opted to do a practical application piece. Having read James Gleick’s chapter on the African Talking Drums, my curiosity piqued so badly that I found a little drum of my own. The troubling aspect of all this is, learning how to play in order to communicate is rather difficult and the amount of people who know how to play fairly few. The reality of all this is that I may need to drop the project and come to class with a piece of paper in my hand and tears on my cheek. Well, perhaps I am exaggerating, yet it still stands that given a limited time frame, I cannot get the device worked out quickly enough.

Let me just share a video of a master player at work: 

He has a great style, but I am wondering if the style of play and the art of communicating what Carrington described not grossly disconnected somehow. If this is so, how/why/when? The easy answer is the people playing no longer need talking drums to communicate over great distances of space. No one has altered the device. You still use your left arm to squeeze the cords around the drum in order to change its pitch, yet the people playing today are not the same as those playing it before them. That may seem like an obvious statement. However, consider the notion that the technology hasn’t changed. The context, which that technology used to exist in, has vanished. I talk as if that vanishing act is new, but Carrington notes in his slim text on talking drums, that even he noticed fewer boys learning how to play messages on the drums.

The drums present two learning issues. First, as an early form of communication, fewer people use or bother studying them. Perhaps language/drum enthusiasts go out of their way to learn it, but like technology such as the telegraph, knowledge of how to decipher the messages has fallen to the wayside. There is a sort of irony to advancing technologies. They feature pieces of older technology, yet those of us who know how to use the most update to date technology would be hard pressed to even deal with VHS or audio cassettes. What I am trying to get at is, early technology does not imply simple technology. One must not assume an early technology to be any easier to manipulate than the modern piece. We lack the context in which people used/developed the technology. We also have our brains reformatted and calibrated for certain types of machinery. So, the earlier pieces of tech require a shift in thought process, which truly is an art of patience.

Secondly, the talking drums themselves our linked to a language that I have no background in. Much like not knowing Morse code, even if I could operate the device, I would not understand the messages I am sending or receiving. Call it foreign technology if you will. I am a foreigner to the technology of talking drums in two ways, namely locality and temporal. There is a foreign language component. Talking drummers model their message after a base tonal language and must assume that the listener or recipient will do the same. Not having the foreign language base becomes a problem for the casual learner. You can mimick sounds, but without understanding meaning, you are only babbling and not speaking. I already noted temporal issues in the above paragraph. Looking at a different time makes you a sort of foreigner, even if that time is within your own location’s history. You are still disconnected and potentially unaware of certain contexts. Yes, early American English is still English. No, you still would have a whole lexicon of slang and idiomatic phrases that would mystify you, much like a foreigner with a beginning grasp of another country’s language. This foreignness stacks hurdles for me to leap over in this project. It is happening slowly but still happening.

In learning how to communicate with the Talking Drums, I am meeting up with individuals in Fredericksburg who know a thing or two, but the prospects of me communicating with the drum are looking grim. Who knows perhaps I will make a breakthrough soon? If nothing else, I can talk about the links between the drum and language.

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