Types of West African Drums

Updated February 21, 2017

Drums are one of the most ancient musical instruments, and many have their origins in Africa. West African drums have attractive shapes and features and are often used to commemorate special occasions. Some of these percussion instruments have been further developed by other countries, making the drum a staple in multicultural music.


The djembe (pronounced GEM-bay) was originally used by the Mandigo tribes of West Africa. Djembes are believed to have originated around the 13th century and are still used by those living in the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Mali. The drums are made from hardwood trees, and are shaped like goblets and decorated with ornate carvings that hold special meaning for the person who made or owns the drum. A ksink-ksink -- a resonator made of sheet metal -- is often added to the djembe to intensify the sound. In traditional West African culture, djembes are played at celebratory occasions, like weddings and baptisms, while everyone in earshot sings and dances.


Bongo drums originated in West Africa; they were later adopted by Cuban culture in the late 1800s after the abolition of slavery. Cubans are responsible for adding metal tuning lungs in the 1940s so the drums would be easier to tune; previously bongos were tuned with a heat source. Bongos are held between the knees, and drummers traditionally play the instruments in pairs. Earlier models of bongs are made from wooden shells, but many modern varieties are constructed from fibreglass.


Congas are another original West African drum that has been further developed in the Cuban music culture; congas are called "tumbadora" in Spanish. The drums can be played while sitting or standing, and many modern versions are made from fibreglass instead of wood. Congas are often paired with small drums like a quinto or tumba for variations in tone. Muted, subtle sounds are achieved by striking the edge of the conga with the left hand; deep and intense sounds are heard when the musician strikes the middle of the drum with the right hand.

African Talking Drum

African talking drums are also called "waisted drums" because they're shaped like an hourglass. The drums are created in a variety of sizes; the smallest is called the "gan" and the largest is the "dun." These instruments were traditionally used to carry messages from village to village in West Africa, and are played in the morning to signify the blessings or prayers of a new day. African talking drum heads are made from animal hide; strips of leather connect the top and bottom drum covers together. The instrument is played with a stick while positioned under the left arm; the musician squeezes the drum to change the pitch and timbre.

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Tamiya King has been writing for over a decade, particularly in the areas of poetry and short stories. She also has extensive experience writing SEO and alternative health articles, and has written published interviews and other pieces for the "Atlanta Tribune" and Jolt Marketing. She possesses a Bachelor of Arts in English and is currently pursuing higher education to become a creative writing professor.