The Different Types of Drums Used in South Africa

Updated February 21, 2017

Drumming has long been an integral part of South African music. Today, versions of traditional drums are still in use, both in traditional music and modern music. Throughout South Africa, the drum is used in ceremonies, customary events, rites of passage and religious gatherings. The drum provides the characteristic energy and rhythm of South African music.


The djembe is an iconic drum in South Africa that has been used for centuries in tribal and popular music. Shaped like a chalice, with a wide top, a narrow centre and a slightly smaller base, the djembe produces a variety of sounds depending on the placement of the strike. Most have wooden bodies and a skin top. Generally played with bare hands, the djembe is popular among young people and contemporary musicians--and lessons are available in most South African cities. Djembes are often attached to the musician with a fabric or leather strap that attaches to lacing on the drum body, and can also be played as a floor-mounted drum. Often, several djembes in varying sizes are employed in a single musical group to create a range of tones.

Hand Drums

In many types of South African music, small hand drums are used to supplement the beat and sound of a group. Many of the drums have been imported from other countries and cultures. The Zulu Dlamo is a small drum that uses thick wooden sticks to create a sound. The ken-keni comes from Ghana, and is made of a cylindrical wooden piece with laced and stretched cow skins on both ends. The dun-dun is a slightly larger instrument made from a steel drum covered with cow hide--its large, full sound creates the baseline and is often used in combination with djembes.

Bass Drums

Bass drums are a key part of South African drumming music and are often used to establish and keep the beat of each song. In traditional music, South African bass drums do not necessarily resemble their Western counterparts that are used in marching and concert bands, but come in different designs. In Zulu drumming, for example, the bass drums are laid flat on the ground in front of the drummer; varying types of mallets are used to create different sounds. The height of the drum regulates the depth of the tone produced by the drum--the taller the drum, the more resonant space and the deeper the sound. If a drumming performance requires movement or dance by the drummers, leather straps are often attached to the drum to minimise the impact on the sound. Traditional bass drums are made from hand-carved wood and an animal-skin head.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Smith has been a scientific and engineering writer since 2004. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, newspapers and corporate publications. A frequent traveler, she also has penned articles as a travel writer. Smith has a Bachelor of Arts in communications and writing from Michigan State University.