What are African Drums Used For?

Updated April 17, 2017

The drum, known as the oldest musical instrument in the world, has a place in many cultures world wide. Across Africa, the drum comes in different shapes and sizes and is often regarded as a sacred instrument by many traditional African communities. Although modernity has changed aspects of the African way of living, the many applications of the African drum in traditional African society make it arguably the dominant musical instrument in the continent.


Traditional African communities across the continent use drums for communicative purposes, including calling emergency gatherings or meetings, announcing war, the start and end of the harvest season and the death of important people in society. The "talking drum" that has its origins in West Africa, for example, is a drum whose tone is regulated by squeezing and releasing the drum under the arm as part of the practical design for tension of the skin to the effect that the drum is said to "talk." The drum is played at a pitch analogous to that of regional spoken languages to produce a loud communicative rhythm that passes messages across villages. Variations of African drums that serve similar communicative purposes are found in other parts of the continent, such as the entenga drum played at the royal court of the Kabaka, the traditional ruler of Buganda, a region of Uganda in East Africa.


African drums are traditionally also used as a form of entertainment to leisurely pass nights, especially after a successful harvest season. Community drum circles around bonfires are formed to create a fun atmosphere where drummers play the whole night as people dance. Moreover, African drums are used as accompaniments during other traditional entertainment activities, such as wrestling matches, dancing competitions and warrior rituals. For example, the djembe drum that has origins in Mali is often used for traditional African pass-time entertainment because it is always accompanied with dance.

Herald Political and Social Events

African drums herald traditional African socio-political events that are communal affairs, such as weddings, burials, marriages, harvest festivals, birth celebrations, onset of war, triumph of war, initiation and coming of age rituals and homecoming of loved ones. The djembe drum is also used to herald festive socio-political events in traditional Africa.

Accompany Religious Activities

Traditional African religious activities, such as communal prayers, rain making, practices associated with purging of evil in society and activities designed to pay homage to the creator and ancestors are made complete by drumming. The Conga drum played throughout West and central Africa, for example, is a single-head drum made from hollowed logs and covered with stretched goat skin. The drum is the primary instrument used in traditional religious ceremonies, particularly in the Congo region.

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About the Author

David Kiarie has been an independent writer and communications practitioner since 2007. Based in Africa, he has written works that have been published in various platforms, including "Prime Scope Magazine." Kiarie particularly enjoys writing about Africa, including African travel and art. He has a Bachelor of Arts in language and communication and literature from the University of Nairobi.