Ivory Coast Village Meeting Calling Drum
Detail: Carved wood, with animal skin drum
Ivory Coast meeting drum. Drums are among the most important art forms in Africa, used both as a musical instrument and as a work of sculpture significant in many ceremonial functions, including dance, rituals, story-telling and communication of messages. This drum is from the Ivory Coast.
In Africa, New Guinea and the tropical America, people have used drum telegraphy to communicate with each other from far away for centuries. When European expeditions came into the jungles to explore the primeval forest, they were surprised to find that the message of their coming and their intention was carried through the woods a step in advance of their arrival. An African message can be transmitted at the speed of 100 miles in an hour.
Among the famous communication drums are the drums of West Africa. While this type of instrument can be modulated quite closely, its range is limited to a gathering or market-place, and it is primarily used in ceremonial settings. Ceremonial functions could include dance, rituals, story-telling and communication of points of order. From regions known today as Nigeria and Ghana they spread across West Africa and to America and the Caribbean during the slave trade. There they were banned because they were being used by the slaves to communicate over long distances in a code unknown to their enslavers.
Talking drums were also used in East Africa and are described by Andreus Bauer in the ‘Street of Caravans’ while acting as security guard in the Wissmann Truppe for the caravan of Charles Stokes.
The traditional drumming found in Africa is actually of three different types. Firstly, a rhythm can represent an idea (or signal). Secondly it can repeat the profile of a spoken utterance or thirdly it can simply be subject to musical laws.
Drum communication methods are not languages in their own right; they are based on actual natural languages. The sounds produced are conventionalized or idiomatic signals based on speech patterns. The messages are normally very stereotyped and context-dependent. They lack the ability to form new combinations and expressions.
In central and east Africa, drum patterns represent the stresses, syllable lengths and tone of the particular African language. In tone languages, where syllables are associated with a certain tone, some words are only distinguished only by their suprasegmental profile. Therefore, syllable drum languages can often transfer a message using the tonal phonemes alone.
In certain languages, the pitch of each syllable is uniquely determined in relation to each adjacent syllable. In these cases, messages can be transmitted as rapid beats at the same speed as speech as the rhythm and melody both match the equivalent spoken utterance.
Misinterpretations can occur due to the highly ambiguous nature of the communication. This is reduced by context effects and the use of stock phrases. For example, in Jabo, most stems are monosyllabic. By using a proverb or honorary title to create expanded versions of an animal, person’s name or object, the corresponding single beat can be replaced with a rhythmic and melodic motif representing the subject. In practice not all listeners understand all of the stock phrases; the drum language is understood only to the level of their immediate concern.
Some people, such as the Melanesians, extend this idea further by freely inventing signs to make up their drum signals. This is in sharp contrast to the Efik tribe of Nigeria who use notes which exactly correspond to the tones of their morphemes. Different still is the Ewe language found in Togo, where only full sentences and their combinations are translated into the drum language. No smaller units are used; a sound picture represents a whole thought. This is similar to the Tangu tribe of New Guinea, where signals represent phrases, the mnemonics of which are parts of song melodies, quasi-poetic rhythms or purely personal rhythms.
When a drum is used in speech mode, it is culturally defined and depends on the linguistic/cultural boundaries. Therefore, communication suffers from translation problems as in vocal communication. There is no single international drum language.