Facts About African Tribal Drums

Updated April 17, 2017

In Africa, the drum is a means to communicate across distances, and also a vital part in religious and community rituals. Each tribe displays its own drumming styles as well as its own traditional drums. The most common drum in Africa is a membranophone, or a drum with a hollow body capped by a parchment head. This type of drum creates sound through a stretched, vibrating membrane.

Types of Drums

Familiar types of African drums include the talking drum, djembe, ngoma, doumbek and sakara. The talking drum is shaped like an hourglass and popular in West Africa. It was used in group ceremonies, according to the BBC. Leather cords are attached to taut animal hide—the head on each end of the drum—and extend across the drum’s body. Musicians moderate pitch by tightening or loosening the cords. The djembe, known as the healing drum, first appeared in the 12th century in Mali. Capable of wide tonal range, this goblet-shaped drum can produce a triad of major sounds and does not require accompanying drums.

The East African ngoma drum is constructed from pliant wood and wrapped with cow hide. Depending on size, the sounds range from a bass to a sharp slap. The small doumbek is a chalice-shaped drum played in North Africa, and is made of ceramic. Musicians produce resonating sounds by tapping their fingers on the drum head. A Nigerian hand-held drum played with sticks, the sakara, is made from a clay base with a goatskin stretched over the top. It caomes in four sizes, ranging from the small Atele to the large Iya-Alu.


African drums are typically carved out of logs of wood or made with wood strips secured by iron hoops. Their heads consist of dried, stretched animal skins. Other materials used for the base are clay, metal and calabash, or hollowed out gourds. Today, musicians make drums from discarded tins and oil containers, reports the Dread Library.

Use in Communication

Prior to the telegraph and radio, African tribes used drums to transmit messages. Regular drums can be heard for three or four miles, but an extraordinary drum can be heard from 25 miles away, according to Dr. Albert Irwin Good, a Presbyterian missionary in Cameroon, as reported by Time magazine.

How to Play

Most African drums are played with hands and fingers. While the bass sound is produced by striking the middle of the drum, an open sound is accomplished by tapping between the drum’s centre and edge, according to Experience Africa. A third sound is a slap, which is produced by a cupped hand striking the drum with fingertips.


African music is characterised by the intricate intertwining of opposite rhythms, known as polyrhythms. Layers of different rhythms are played simultaneously, thus endowing African music with great dynamism. In contrast, European classical music exhibits complexity in harmonies, reports Ancient Future.

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About the Author

Kay Tang is a journalist who has been writing since 1990. She previously covered developments in theater for the "Dramatists Guild Quarterly." Tang graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and political science from Yale University and completed a Master of Professional Studies in interactive telecommunications at New York University.