How African Drums Are Made

Written by phillip ginn
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How African Drums Are Made
(Photo by William Stadler)

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The construction of African drums is deceptively simple, as there are only two stages: wood carving and the placement of animal-skin heads. Traditionally, drums are made by hand.

Carving the Wood

Wood is hollowed and carved into the desired shape. Traditional djembes, the most famous drum from Africa, are made from bala, lingue, douke, melina and African Mahogany woods. Present-day drums can be made with other hard woods, like oak, maple, beech and alder, depending on the maker. While it has been recommended that drums should only be purchased if made from a single piece of wood, there are drum makers who create drums from several pieces due to the lack of tree replanting and the amount of wood wasted during carving. Creating the drum from several pieces also allows for a combination of woods, which delivers different tonal qualities.

Placing the Head

Once the shell has been hollowed and carved, the outside is sanded and finished. An animal skin is then stretched over the top to form the drum head. Heads are typically made of cow or goat skin of varying thickness, each enhancing different frequency ranges and attack qualities. The heads are pulled taut by the tightening of a rope laced from the heads to the drum body or to another head, depending on the drum. The rope used to make the drum should be strong and non-stretching, though rope that has been pre-stretched with very little give has also been used.

Traditional djembes use only rope to secure the skin, but modern ones may feature a set of two metal rings through which the skin is clamped, the outer of which has loops for the rope. The rope is laced through the loops and strung to a third metal ring with loops placed lower on the drum.

Drums such as the doundoumba set (often called a djun djun, which has been proposed to be incorrect) are double-sided, meaning the drums feature a head on both ends. These heads are stung together by rope that spans from one head to the other. In some cases, there is a stringing pattern exhibited in the middle of the drum. This set of three drums consist of a large doundoumba, a medium-sized sangan and the small kenkeni. They feature a metal bell that accompanies the rhythm while played. These drums can be played by both the hands or by using wooden sticks.

Most of the engoma, or ngoma drums---a set of seven drum of varying sizes---feature cow skin heads on both ends and are intricately laced together. However, some drums, such as the engalabi, feature a lizard skin head on one side that is attached with wooden pegs.

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