The talking drum is one of the earliest musical instruments used by percussionists. It originated in West African areas, but exists in Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria as well. It appears most commonly among the Yoruba ethnic group. However, it may also be found in nearby Nigerian nations like Togo and the Benin Republic, as well as other ethnic groups like the Hausa. The instrument contains two drumheads joined by a leather tension cord. They allow the player to modify the pitch of the drum by pressing the cords between their arm and torso. Depending on how performers play talking drums sound like human humming. Similar hourglass-shaped drums exist in Asia, but can’t imitate speech.

The talking drum apparently played an important part in the Yoruba ethnic group’s history. The instrument formerly allowed communication between tribes. Its ability to imitate the spoken word efficiently communicated long-distance news of coronations, funerals, celebrations, and war.

Talking drums have mystical implications, and associations with deities and gods are commonplace. Unique woods make the shell of the drum, and each drum has a name, to help it speak and inspire particular favor from the ancestors.

Execution of the talking drum

Performers alter the pitch of the drum to approximate speech tone patterns. They do this by altering the tension applied to the drumhead. Opposing drum heads connect by a shared tension cord. Players hold the drum’s waist between their arm and ribs, such that when squeezed, the drumhead tightens. This generates a higher note than when the drum is idle. It’s possible for performers to adjust the pitch within a single beat, producing a warbling tone.

There are several sizes of hourglass talking drums, with proportions varying between ethnic groups. However, they all follow the same structure. The Tama drum of the Serer, Wolof, and Mandinka people use talking drums distinguished by smaller dimensions, with a total drum length of 13 centimeters (five inches) and a drum head diameter of seven centimeters (2.75 inches). These talking drums have a significantly higher-pitched tone than other talking drums of the same kind.

The Yoruba and Dagomba people, on the other hand, have some of the biggest drum proportions in their Lunna and Dùndn ensembles, with an average length of 23–38 centimeters and a drum head diameter of 10–18 centimeters. These appear in Yoruba talking-drum ensembles with smaller talking drums comparable to the Tama, known as Gangan in Yoruba. Drum construction and tonal properties of each language intertwine closely. Between locations with mostly Fulani, Mande-speaking inhabitants, and historically non-Mande areas further east, there is a distinct variation in playing styles.