At the core of African music are several handcrafted instruments with very significant importance to the culture, the traditions and the tribe. The drum is one of these instruments. However, more than instruments, the drums are objects of art and they have religious, social and communication functions. Relying on the shape of the drums, we can divide the instruments into three categories: the goblet-shaped drums (usually called the djemb), the hour-glass shaped drums and the kettle drums.
The Goblet drum or djemb consists of a membrane (goatskin is the most commonly used to produce this membrane) stretched on top of a wooden base shaped as a goblet (cylinder on top of a conical stem). This drum is so popular that it is commonly referred to as the African drum and it is found in several different countries all around Africa. We can find the earlier origins of the Djemb in the Mali Empire of the 12th century.
Among all the different types of African drums, the Djemb has become extremely sought after in the Western world and is regarded as the most popular of the African drums. It is played only with the hands, and it produces a wide range of sounds, depending on where you hit the membrane and how you hit it i.e. the angle of approach made by the hand.
The talking drum or hour-glass shaped drum, with its tensions straps around the drum shell, is considered to be a communication tool as much as a musical instrument. Africans say it is used for “talking” because it reproduces tones of African speech. African drum language is a very specific language – a form of expressing words through instruments – as the drums imitate different tones of voice and they build a rhythmic pattern that can be seen as corresponding to letters. One of the most practical examples of its use as a communication tool is the way the drum calls the dancers and invites them to dance.
This communicative use of the drum was especially useful to the African slave population during colonialism because they could communicate safely and at the same time they could preserve their African traditions. Western men did not understand the language of the drum and even more than preserving their African traditions, this very specific use of the drum is one of the aspects that made him so popular in the Western World, trend that we can identify as an equivalent to the Gospel.
The kettledrums are usually drums that have two membranes stretched over various shaped and sized kettles. Unlike the Djemb or the talking drum, the kettledrums have carvings on them, usually female or male figures and they are considered to be very important ceremonial objects. The ornaments can connote power, status, they can refer to a deity or ancestors. each type of carved drum has a very specific use in a very specific ritual. The kettledrum, through it shape and its use, can be considered as the most spiritual drum – as the two other ones are rather used for musical or communication purposes.
You can see an African drum of any category in celebrations such as weddings, baptism, full moon, harvest time or full moon can be examples of events. The celebration will be conducted through the rhythm of the African drum. As Bishop Sebastian Bakare explains: “In villages throughout the country, the sound and rhythm of the drum express the mood of the people such is the power of the drum to evoke emotions, to touch the souls of those who hear its rhythms, that the earliest Christian missionaries to Africa forbade its use in church services” (Bakare cited by Wheeler, year:2). Communicative, musical, spiritual, the African drum is more than an instrument.