The drum was a heartbeat of daily life among many indigenous cultures, including the native peoples of the African continent. The many different variations of the traditional drums were used for daily needs and for ceremony, religion and special events. Legend and folklore accompanied the drums and their role among the many tribes of Africa.
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There are many types of traditional African drums. Among the best known are the talking drums of West Africa. These drums get their name from the range of tones that can be brought from them by manipulating the stings down their sides and tightening their heads. The bougarabou drum is a set of drums. They have elongated shapes and are usually played in sets of three to four drums. The djembe is another well-known type of African drum. Played with the hands and shaped like a goblet, the djembe comes from the Bamana people of Mali. Other types include the water drums, ngoma drums, Kutiro and more.
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Traditional African drums served as musical instruments, objects for ceremony and as a method of communication. Some drums were part of everyday lives and others held special significance – giving power to its owner or created to honour ancestors. In many instances, the traditional African drums are connected to spiritual endeavours and medicinal purposes. The drums also had roles in ceremonies, such as births, weddings, funerals and festivals. Today, drums continue to be used in African life. They are played at baptisms, weddings, festivals and dances throughout the world.
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The making of traditional African drums is a craft that is often passed down through families and among some cultures is a hereditary job. The shells of the drums are most often made of hardwoods, such as alder, oak, maple or mahogany. The type of wood used in making the drum determines much about the outcome of the final instrument and its sounds. Skins for drumheads were generally made from animals such as goats or cows.
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From culture to culture, who plays traditional African drums varies. In some tribes, only those with a hereditary right to be a drummer are allowed to play the instruments, while among other peoples, drums were the one instrument that could be played by anyone in the village. The drummer was often believed to become possessed by the spirits of the drums – those of the drum maker, the animal whose skin was taken for the drumhead, and the tree from which the wood came for the making of the drum’s shell.
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Specific rhythms are often used in the playing of the traditional African drums. In West Africa, the traditional rhythms are polyrhythms, bringing up to seven different parts together to make a rhythm. Singing and dancing often accompany them. Names of various rhythms include Kakilambe, Liberte, Soko, Soca, Diagbe, Fankani, Abondon and Tiriba. The rhythms were passed from generation to generation through oral tradition. There is a movement now to record the traditional rhythms in writing to ensure their preservation.