Oral Literature in Africa
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17. Drum Language and Literature1

Introductory—The Principles of Drum Language. Examples of Drum Literature: Announcements and Calls; Names; Proverbs; Poetry. Conclusion.


A remarkable phenomenon in parts of West and Central Africa is the literature played on drums and certain other musical instruments. That this is indeed a form of literature rather than music is clear when the principles of drum language are understood. Although its literary significance has been overlooked in general discussions of African oral literature, (e.g. Bascom 1964, 1965a; Berry 1961; Herskovits 1960), expression through drums often forms a not inconsiderable branch of the literature of a number of African societies.

Communication through drums can be divided into two types. The first is through a conventional code where pre-arranged signals represent a given message; in this type there is no directly linguistic basis for the communication. In the second type, the one used for African drum literature and the form to be considered here, the instruments communicate through direct representation of the spoken language itself, simulating the tone and rhythm of actual speech. The instruments themselves are regarded as speak­ing and their messages consist of words. Such communication, unlike that through conventional signals, is intended as a linguistic one; it can only be fully appreciated by translating it into words, and any musical effects are purely incidental.

This expression of words through instruments rests on the fact that the African languages involved are highly tonal; that is, the meanings of words are distinguished not only by phonetic elements but by their tones, in some cases by tone alone. It is the tone patterns of the words that are directly transmitted, and the drums and other instruments involved are constructed so as to provide at least two tones for use in this way. The intelligibility of the message to the hearer is also sometimes increased by the rhythmic pattern, again directly representing that of the spoken utterance.

It might seem at first sight as if tonal patterns, even when supplemented by rhythm, might provide but a slight clue to the actual words of the message. After all, many words in a given language possess the same combination of tones. However, there are various devices in ‘drum language’ to overcome this. There is, of course, the obvious point that there are conventional occasions and types of communication for transmission on the drum, so that the listener already has some idea of the range of meanings that are likely at any given time. More significant are the stereotyped phrases used in drum communications. These are often longer than the straight-forward prose of everyday utterance, but the very extra length of the drum stereotypes or holophrases leads to greater identifiability in rhythmic and tonal patterning.

The principle can be illustrated from the Kele people of the Stanleyville area of the Congo, whose drum language has been extensively studied by Carrington (1944, 1949a, 1949b). In the Kele language the words meaning, for example, ‘manioc’, ‘plantain’, ‘above’, and ‘forest’ all have identical tonal and rhythmic patterns. By the addition of other words, however, a stereotyped drum phrase is made up through which complete tonal and rhythmic differentiation is achieved and the meaning transmitted without ambiguity. Thus ‘manioc’ is always represented on the drums with the tonal pattern of ‘the manioc which remains in the fallow ground’, ‘plantain’ with ‘plantain to be propped up’, and so on. Among the Kele there are a great number of these ‘proverb-like phrases’ to refer to nouns (Carrington 1949a: 38). ‘Money’, for instance, is conventionally drummed as ‘the pieces of metal which arrange palavers’, ‘rain’ as ‘the bad spirit son of spitting cobra and sunshine’, ‘moon’ or ‘month’ as ‘the moon looks down at the earth’, ‘a white man’ as ‘red as copper, spirit from the forest’ or ‘he enslaves the people, he en­slaves the people who remain in the land’, while ‘war’ always appears as ‘war watches for opportunities’. Verbs are similarly represented in long stereotyped phrases. Among the Kele these drum phrases have their own characteristic forms—marked by such attributes as the use of duplication and repetition, derogatory and diminutive terms, specific tonal contrasts, and typical structures1 and it is evident that they not only make for clear differentia­tion of intended meanings but also, in Carrington’s words, are often ‘poetical in nature and constitute an important part of the oral literature of the tribe’ (discussed in detail in Carrington 1949b: 47–54).

The sort of communication that can be sent using these drum phrases can be illustrated from the Kele drum representation of a simple message. It will be noticed how much longer the drum form is, both because of the repetition necessary to make the meaning clear and the use of the lengthy stereotyped phrases. The message to be conveyed is: ‘The missionary is coming up river to our village tomorrow. Bring water and firewood to his house’. The drum version runs:

White man spirit from the forest

of the leaf used for roofs2

comes up-river, comes up-river

when to-morrow has risen

on high in the sky

to the town and the village

of us

come, come, come, come

bring water of lokoila vine

bring sticks of firewood

to the house with shingles high up above3

of the white man spirit from the forest

of the leaf used for roofs.(Carrington 1949b: 54)4

Expression through drums, once thought so mysterious by visitors who failed to grasp its principles, thus turns out to be based directly on actual words and their tones. In a sense drum language fulfils many of the functions of writing, in a form, furthermore, better suited to tonal languages than an alphabetical script (a point made in Jahn 1961: 187ff.). Its usefulness too is undeniable in regions of dense forest where the only possible way of communicating, apart from actually sending messengers, was by sound.5

This type of drum communication is known to occur widely in the Congo, Cameroons, and West Africa (particularly the coastal areas). The same principle—that of representing the tones of actual speech through stereotyped phrases—is also used for ‘spoken’ communication through other instruments such as horns, flutes, or gongs.6 Among some peoples such as the Ashanti or the Yoruba, drum language and literature are very highly developed indeed. In such cases, drumming tends to be a specialized and often hereditary activity, and expert drummers with a mastery of the accepted vocabulary of drum language and literature were often attached to a king’s court. This type of expression is a highly skilled and artistic one and adds to the verbal resources of the language.


The relevance of drum language for oral literature is not confined to utilitarian messages with a marginally literary flavour. As will emerge clearly from some further examples, this type of medium can also be used for specifically literary forms, for pro­verbs, panegyrics, historical poems, dirges, and in some cultures practically any kind of poetry. Something of the range and variety of this literature can be seen in the following examples, beginning with relatively simple messages, more typical of the Congo area and going on to some of the complex poetry found most charac­teristically in the southern areas of West Africa.

Among the Kele in the Congo, drum communication is used for formalized announcements. There are drum messages about, for instance, births, marriages, deaths, and forthcoming hunts or wrestling matches. A death is publicized on the drum by a special alert signal and the words, beaten out in drum language,

You will cry, you will cry, you will cry

Tears in the eyes

Wailing in the mouth.(Carrington 1949b: 58)

followed by the name and village of the dead man (Ibid.: 65). The announcement of an enemy’s approach is also transmitted by a special alert and the drummed tones which represent the words

War which watches for opportunities

has come to the town

belonging to us

oday as it has dawned come,

come, come, come.(Idem: 65)

Another stock communication is the announcement of a dance, again with the drum speaking in standardized and repetitive phrases:

All of you, all of you

come, come, come, come,

let us dance

in the evening

when the sky has gone down river

down to the ground.(Ibid.: 612)3

A final Kele message warns that rain is imminent and advises those in the forest or near the village to take shelter:

Look out, look out, look out, rain,

bad spirit, son of the spitting snake

do not come down, do not come down, do not come down

to the clods, to the earth

for we men of the village

will enter the house

do not come down, do not come down, do not come down.

(Ibid.: 88)

Not all the peoples choose the same topics for these standardized drum announcements. Among the Akan, for instance, births, ordinary deaths, and marriages are not normally publicized on drums (Nketia 1963b: 43). However, the use of drums to announce some emergency and, in particular, to call to arms seems very common indeed. In some cases this takes a very elaborate and poetic form. Compare, for instance, the simple and relatively straightforward call to fight among the Tumba of the Congo—

Make the drum strong;

strengthen your legs,

spear, shaft and head,

and the noise of moving feet;

think not to run away.(Clarke 1934: 39)

—with the literary and emotional quality typical of the specialized military drumming of the Akan of Ghana, exemplified in one of their drum calls:

Bodyguard as strong as iron,

Fire that devours the nations,

Curved stick of iron,

We have leapt across the sea,

How much more the lagoon?

If any river is big, is it bigger than the sea?

Come Bodyguard, come Bodyguard,

Come in thick numbers,

Locusts in myriads,

When we climb a rock it gives way under our feet.

Locusts in myriads,

When we climb a rock it breaks into two.

Come Bodyguard, come Bodyguard,

In thick numbers.(Nketia 1963b: 1112)

Besides messages and announcements, drum language is also used for names. This is one of the most common forms of drum expression and occurs even among people who do not seem to have other more complicated drum poetry. Among the Hausa, for instance, praise names and titles of rulers are poured forth on drums or horns on certain public occasions (Smith 1957: 29), and the Lyele proverb names (surnoms-devises) are commonly performed in the analogous whistle language (Nicolas 1950: 87); in both cases this amounts to special praise and flattery of the individuals named.

Personal drum names are usually long and elaborate. In the Benue-Cross River area of Nigeria, for instance, they are com­pounded of references to a man’s father’s lineage, events in his personal life, and his own personal name (Armstong 1954: 361). Similarly among the Tumba of the Congo, all-important men in the village (and some­times others as well) have drum names: these are usually made up of a motto emphasizing some individual characteristic, then the ordinary spoken name; thus a Belgian government official can be alluded to on the drums as ‘A stinging caterpillar is not good dis­turbed’ (Clarke 1934: 38). Carrington describes the Kele drum names in some detail. Each man has a drum name given him by his father, made up of three parts: first the individual’s own name; then a portion of his father’s name; and finally the name of his mother’s village. Thus the full name of one man runs ‘The spitting cobra whose virulence never abates, son of the bad spirit with the spear, Yangonde’. Other drum names (i.e. the individual’s portion) include such com­ments as ‘The proud man will never listen to advice’, ‘Owner of the town with the sheathed knife’, ‘The moon looks down at the earth / son of the younger member of the family’, and, from the nearby Mba people, ‘You remain in the village, you are ignorant of affairs’ (Carrington 1949a: 41ff.; and 1949b: 87, 107).

These drum names often play a significant part in the societies in which they occur. Their use in the conveying of messages is quite clear—the elaborateness of the names in this context has the directly utilitarian function of differentiating the tonal patterns without the possibility of ambiguity. They are also frequently used in the context of dances, entertainments, and festivals: they call on those present to encourage or to praise them by singling them out. As an Idoma informant told Armstrong, ‘when an African hears his name drummed, he must jump up for joy even from his sick bed’ (Armstrong 1954: 3601). The literary and poetic quality that may be associated with names has been discussed earlier (Ch. 16): in the case of drum names these elements are often especially marked because of the very elaboration, convention, and publicity necessarily in­volved in this particular medium.7

In some areas, particularly much of southern West Africa, drum literature takes a more highly specialized form. There are drum proverbs, panegyric, and other poetry for drums, horns, or flutes, and sometimes state history is transmitted.

First, proverbs. These are commonly performed on drums in West Africa, sometimes as an accompaniment to dancing. In the Niger-Cross River area of Nigeria the drums review the philosophy and history of the group at a big dance: ‘When a dancer or a mask dances to the intoned proverbs and histories, he may be said to express them with his body. He does so quite consciously. Educa­tion in such matters is necessary for membership in the men’s societies’.4 Among the Akan almost every ordinary proverb can be reproduced on drums, and in drum poetry in general there is frequent use of proverbs to provide encouragement and incite­ments But there are also extended proverbs specifically intended for performance on the drums. Thus the common Akan proverb ‘If a river is big, does it surpass the sea?’ can be played just as it is, or appear in the special drum form:

The path has crossed the river,

The river has crossed the path,

Which is the elder?

We made the path and found the river.

The river is from long ago,

From the Ancient Creator of the Universe.(Nketia 1963b: 47)

The Akan have a special cycle of proverbs associated with the Akantam dance and especially constructed for performance on drums. These have a regular metrical form and are marked by repetition of words, phrases, and sentences which create metrical and musical effects. In this Akantam series, each piece contains at least two proverbs. It is preceded by special introductory rhythms, and the proverbs are then beaten out in unison by all the heavy drums while the small drums provide the musical ‘ground’. As the piece proceeds, the proverbs are repeated as a refrain, and the piece is concluded with special rhythms which merge into the introduction of the next piece in the cycle (Nketia 1958c: 49).

This form can be illustrated from a long example published by Nketia. It consists of about twenty stanzas interspersed with refrains drawn from two proverbs. I give only a short extract from the second half:

The great Toucan

I have, bestirred myself,

Let little ones lie low.

But Duiker Adawurampon Kwamena,

Who told the Duiker to get hold of his sword?

The tail of the Duiker is short,

he is able to brush himself with it.

Kurotwamansa, the Leopard, lies in the thicket.

The thicket shakes and trembles in the dark forest.

Duiker Adawurampon Kwamena,

Who told the Duiker to get hold of his sword?

The tail of the Duiker is short,

But he is able to brush himself with it.

The antelope lies in its thicket-lair,

The hunter lures him with his call.

The hunter deserves to die. For he will not answer him.

Duiker Adawurampon Kwamena,

Who told the Duiker to get hold of his sword?

The tail of the Duiker is short,

But he is able to brush himself with it.

Wild Bear, Akuampon,

How did it happen that the water buck got tied up in cords?

It is because he could not hold his tongue.

Duiker Adawurampon Kwamena,

Who told the Duiker to get hold of his sword?

The tail of the Duiker is short,

But he is able to brush himself with it.

The tall forest palm tree is bent low.

The tall forest palm tree is bent low.

Whether it will fall or not,

The jealous one is mighty anxious, over-anxious, over-anxious;

The jealous one is deeply anxious, over-anxious, over-anxious.

(Nketia 1958c: 512)

Panegyric poetry is a genre to which public and ceremonial performance in drum language is particularly suited, whether the actual medium happens to be in fact drums, gongs, or wind instru­ments. Especially in parts of West Africa, praise poetry on drums and other instruments may take a complex and specialized form and is particularly common on public or state occasions. For Southern Nigeria, for instance, Armstrong quotes the following praise; it is taken from a performance in the royal court of the chief of Igumale, and is spoken by a flute. Throughout the poem the chief is praised in the imagery of a leopard:

Akpa killed those who have horses coza loga.8

The leopard in power is no toy!

The mouth of him who goes wrongly and pays a fine is what is guilty!9

Ogo tikpa logwu gokpaawaga!10

When the land is dry (‘strong’) they will wait for the rains!11

When the leopard is on the way, the animals fear.

When the kite calls, it is noon.12

The locusts swarm!13

Big, powerful man cuna zegha.

When there is a lion, there is a leopard!14

The Chief, a full-bodied leopard in the hole!

The horses, here they are!15

When the Chief did this, did that, they said it is not fitting. The Chieftaincy is not a plaything!

When the girls have no husbands, they say they belong to the Chief! The girl from the corner with shame in her head, let her take shame from her head, for dancing is no plaything!16

The leopard and the Chief have claws, have claws; the leopard and the Chief are coming today!

When the good thing is coming into public, what will the singer do today?

He who sits on the (royal) stool, Lion of lions, Chief, it is of him that I worry; the leopard and the Chief are no plaything!

He who is fitted for the kingship, let him be king! It is God who makes the King! (Armstrong 1954: 3623)

Again, one could quote from the elaborate drum praises so freely used among the Yoruba. The rulers of the old kingdom of Ede, for example, are still praised on the talking drum every month and in the course of all important festivals. These eulogies are built up on a series of praise verses. Thus in the drum praise of Adetoyese Laoye, the eleventh ruler, we have the building up of praises (mingled, as so often, with admonition) with the whole poem bound together by both the subject (the king) and the recurrent image of the tree:

Adetoyese Akanji, mighty elephant.

One can worship you, as one worships his head.17

Son of Moware.

You enter the town like a whirlwind. You, son of Odefunke.

Egungun18 blesses quickly when you worship him.

Orisha19 blesses more quickly when you worship him.

My father Akanji is an orisha.

The more devoutly you worship him

The greater blessings you receive from Adetoyese Akanji.

Bless, and bless me continuously;

Akanji, and do not leave me unblessed.

Do not attempt to shake a tree trunk.

One who shakes a tree trunk, shakes himself.

One who tries to undo you, you who are as short as death,

He will only undo himself.

A wine tapper cannot tap wine from a coconut palm.20

An elephant eats up the entire roots of an oro tree.

Do not behead me, I am not among them

I am not among the conspirators.

Conspirators, the hair on whose heads

Is ugly and ruffled.

A serious case may worry one but it will come to an end.

A serious case worries one, as if it will never be settled.

The case will be settled, and the slanderers and gossipers

Will be put to shame.

You met them in front, and you greet and greet them.

You met them behind you, and you greet and greet them

Your being courteous does not please them, like being insolent.

Keep on being insolent to them and their fathers!

It is unusual for one to greet his father’s slave and prostrate.

You Adetoyese Akanji, bend one foot to greet them,

You leave the other unbent!21

You, a notorious confuser! You confused everybody by your appearance!22 Akanji you confused all those

Who tie cloth round their waists, without carrying a child23

I beg you in the name of God the great king, confuse me not!

Do not allow me to starve.

The leaves on a tree, do not allow the tree to feel the scorching sun.

You are a lucky person to wear the crown

A person who is on the throne

When the town prospers,

Is a lucky person to wear the crown.(Laoye I [1965])

In a rather different style are the many Akan panegyrics for drums, used for honouring kings and chiefs both of the past and of the present. They recall their origin, their parentage, and their noble deeds. The following is an extract from one of these praise poems, this time on the drum:

Korobea Yirefi Anwoma Sante Kotoko,

When we are about to mention your name,

We give you a gun and a sword.

You are the valiant man that fights with gun and sword.

If you were to decide, you would decide for war.

You hail from Kotoko, you are truly Kotoko.

Osee Asibe, you are a man,

You are a brave man,

You have always been a man of valour,

The watery shrub that thrives on stony ground,

You are the large odadee tree,

The tree with buttress that stands at Donkoronkwanta,

A man feared by men.(Nketia 1963b: 45)

In another Akan example the chief is saluted and ushered to his seat by the drummer’s praise, while all remain standing until he is seated:

Chief, you are about to sit down,

Sit down, great one.

Sit down, gracious one.

Chief, you have plenty of seating space.

Like the great branch, you have spread all over this place.

Let us crouch before him with swords of state.

Ruler, the mention of whose name causes great stir,

Chief, you are like the moon about to emerge.

Noble ruler to whom we are indebted,

You are like the moon:

Your appearance disperses famine. (Ibid.: 147)

Among the Akan and the Yoruba, drum poetry also appears in invocations to spirits of various kinds. Longer Akan poems some­times open with stanzas calling on the spirits associated with the drum itself—the wood and its various components—or invoke certain deities or ancient and famous drummers. Important rituals are also commonly opened or accompanied by the suitable drum poems. ‘The Awakening’ is one that must be performed before dawn on the day of the Akan Adae festival:

The Heavens are wide, exceedingly wide.

The Earth is wide, very very wide.

We have lifted it and taken it away.

We have lifted it and brought it back,

From time immemorial.

The God of old bids us all

Abide by his injunctions.

Then shall we get whatever we want,

Be it white or red.

It is God, the Creator, the Gracious one.

‘Good morning to you, God, Good morning’

I am learning, let me succeed.(Nketia 1963b: 44)

A final example from the Akan area will illustrate how drums can speak of the history of a community. This is from the drum history of the Mampon division of Ashanti published by Rattray in 1923. This type of poetry is performed on the public occasion of an Adae festival and, as Rattray points out, it has ‘a deeply sacred significance. The names of dead kings are not to be spoken lightly, and with the recounting of such a history comes no small sadness to the listener’ (Rattray 1923: 264). The history consists in all of twenty-nine stanzas, and opens with an invocation to the spirits associated with the drum. The actual historical record starts in the fourth of the stanzas quoted below:

(Spirit of) Earth, sorrow is yours,

(Spirit of) Earth, woe is yours,

Earth with its dust,

(Spirit of) the Sky,

Who stretches to Kwawu,24

Earth, if I am about to die,

It is upon you that I depend.

Earth, while I am yet alive,

It is upon you that I put my trust.

Earth who received my body,

The divine drummer announces that,

Had he gone elsewhere (in sleep),

He has made himself to arise.

(As) the fowl crowed in the early dawn,

(As) the fowl uprose and crowed,

Very early, very early, very early.

We are addressing you,

And you will understand.

We are addressing you,

And you will understand . . .

(Spirit of) the fibre, Ampasakyi,

Where art thou?

The divine drummer announces that,

Had he gone elsewhere (in sleep),

He has made himself to arise,

He has made himself to arise;

(As) the fowl crowed in the early dawn,

(As) the fowl uprose, and crowed,

Very early, very early, very early.

We are addressing you,

And you will understand;

We are addressing you,

And you will understand.

Oh Pegs, (made from) the stump of the Ofema tree,

(Whose title is) Gyaanadu Asare,

Where is it that you are?

The divine drummer25 announces that,

Had he gone elsewhere (in sleep),

He has made himself to arise,

He has made himself to arise.

(As) the fowl crowed in the early dawn,

(As) the fowl uprose and crowed,

Very early, very early, very early.

We are addressing you,

And you will understand;

We are addressing you,

And you will understand . . .

(Spirit of) Asiama Toku Asare,26

Opontenten Asi Akatabaa27

Asiama (who came from) the God of the Sky,

Asiama of the Supreme Being,

The divine drummer declares that,

Had he gone elsewhere (in sleep),

He has made himself to arise,

He has made himself to arise.

(As) the fowl crowed in the early dawn.

(As) the fowl uprose and crowed,

Very early,

Very early,

Very early,

We are addressing you,

And you will understand.

[Oh] Boafo Anwoma Kwakyie, Kwakyi, the tall one,

Kwakyi Adu Asare,

Whence camest thou?

Thou camest from Mampon-Kontonkyi, the place where the rock wears down the axe.

Mampon Kontonkyi Aniampam Boafo Anwoma Kwakyi,


Who destroys towns, Firampon,



Alas! . . .

[Oh] Adu Boahen,

Boahen Kojo,

Whence was it that thou camest?

Thou camest from Mampon Akurofonso,

The place where the Creator made things.

Adu Gyamfi with an eye like flint, (whose title is) Ampafrako.

The Shadows were falling cool,

They fell cool for me at Sekyire28

The day dawned, It dawned for me at Sekyire, Who is Chief of Sekyire? The Chief of Sekyire is Kwaitu, Kwaaye knows Afrane Akwa, Boatimpon Akuamoa,

Akuamoa,29 whom we even grow weary of thanking, for his gifts,

Akuamoa, you were of the royal blood since long, long ago,

Thou earnest from Mampon Kontonkyi, where the rock wears away the axe.


Akuamoa Firampon,




Drum language, it is clear, is a medium that can be put to a wide range of uses. Its appearance in messages, in names, in poetry, and in the performance of proverbs has been illustrated. It can also be employed to comment on or add to some current activity. Armstrong, for example, describes the actions of a chief drummer at a dance in the Benue-Cross River area, in words that could be applied elsewhere too: he

maintains a running commentary on the dance, controls the line dancers with great precision, calls particular persons by name to dance solo, tells them what dance to do, corrects them as they do it, and sends them back into line with comment on the performance. He does this by making his drum talk, even above the sound of four or five other drums in the ‘orchestra’. (Armstrong 1954: 360)

In this example, the ‘speaking’ and comment of the drum form a linguistic complement, as it were, to the musical and balletic aspects of the artistic event as a whole. Among the Kele, the talking drum accompanies wrestling matches, saluting contestants as they enter the ring, uttering comment and encouragement throughout the fight, and ending up with praise for the victor (Carrington 1949a: 634). Similar literary contributions are made by the drums among the Akan even to the otherwise mundane duty of carrying the chief. It is raised to a state ceremonial by the conventions surrounding it and by the drum poetry that accompanies and comments on it: the drums say ‘I carry father: I carry father, he is too heavy for me’, to which the bass drum replies, in conventional form, ‘Can’t cut bits off him to make him lighter’ (Nketia 1963b: 135). In funerals too, Akan drums play their part, echoing the themes of dirges and heralding the occasion with messages of condolence and farewell (Ibid.: 64). Such comment by drums can take so elaborate a form as to be classed as full drum poetry in its own right. In this case it covers the sorts of drum proverbs, panegyrics, and histories already quoted, form­ing a specialized type of poetry apparently most characteristic of certain traditional states of West Africa.

Expression by drums or other instruments can also be an alternative medium to the human voice through which ordinary poetry can be represented. Thus among the Yoruba each of their many types of poetry can be recited on the drum as well as spoken, and the oriki (praise) poems are as frequently drummed as sung (Lasebikan in Osadebay 1949: 154; Gbadamosi and Beier 1959: 9). With the Akan some poems can be drummed or sung, others are designed specifically for voice, drums, or horns respectively (Nketia in Osadebay 1949: 156).

Many different kinds of communications, then, can be conveyed through the medium of drum language—messages, public an­nouncements, comment, and many types of poetry—and the same sorts of functions can be fulfilled as by the corresponding speech forms, with the additional attributes of the greater publicity and impressiveness of the drum performance. In spite of its wide range of uses, however, drum communication is in certain respects a somewhat limited medium. There are limitations, that is, on the types of communications that can be transmitted; the stereotyped phrases for use in drum languages do not cover every sphere of life, but only the content conventionally expected to be com­municated through drums.31 Furthermore, in certain societies at least (for example, the Yoruba and the Akan), drumming is a highly specialized activity, with a period of apprenticeship and exclusive membership, so that to a greater extent than in most forms of spoken art, drum literature is a relatively esoteric and specialized form of expression, understood by many (at least in its simpler forms) but probably only fully mastered and appreciated by the few.32 In the case of some peoples the response to such limitations has been the creation of a highly elaborate and conventional mode of artistic expression through drums—with the apparent corollary that in this very specialized and difficult medium the scope for individual variation and improvization seems to be correspondingly limited and the stress laid on technical mastery rather than on verbal originality.33

In conclusion it must be stressed again that what is transmitted in drum language is a direct representation of the words themselves. This is worth repeating, because for someone unacquainted with this medium it is not easy to grasp that the drums actually speak words, that from the point of view both of the analyst and of the people involved, the basis is a directly linguistic one. From this it follows that the content and style of drum communication can often be assessed as literature, and not primarily as music, signal codes, or incidental accompaniment to dancing or ceremonies. Some of the items of drum language that have been mentioned—the ‘proverb-like’ phrases of Kele drum language, for instance, or the whistled names in the Upper Volta—are only marginally literary. Other forms, however, in particular the drum poems of southern Ghana, Nigeria, and Dahomey, unmistakably fall into the category of highly developed oral literature. But whatever the assessment of individual examples it is clear that it is both correct and illuminating to analyse drum language in terms of its literary significance. Among the people who practise it, drum literature is clearly a part, albeit through a highly specialized and unusual medium, of their whole oral literature.34

1 The description in this chapter is mainly based on Rattray 1923; Carrington 1944, 1949a, 1949b; and Nketia 1963b. Nketia’s book forms the first part (all as yet available) of his detailed analysis of various aspects of Akan drumming; the second volume is to discuss drum poetry in more detail.

2 Generic drum name for Europeans. The reference is to the very large leaves used for roof tiles, compared to the Bible.

3 Common drum phrase for house.

4 There are sometimes additional complications in practice: e.g. in Kalabari, a language with three tones, these are abstracted into a two-tone basis for drumming (Horton 1963: 98 n.); in Yoruba tonal glides are sometimes represented, sometimes not (Beier 195: 2930); in the Congo it is the essential word tones that are transmitted and not the modifications of these as they would actually be pronounced in a spoken sentence (Carrington 1949b: 59). But the basic principle of representation of the tones of words seems to apply throughout.

5 Drum messages can be heard at a distance of between three to seven miles, according to Carrington 1949b: 25.

6 Strictly the term ‘gong’ should be used to refer to the hollow wooden ideophones or ‘slit-gongs’ typical of the Congo area; whereas ‘drum’, which I have used in a wide sense here, should be confined to membranophones such as the Ashanti ‘talking drums’, a pair of hide-covered drums, one sounding a high, the other a low tone. Other media mentioned for this type of communication include horns, bells, yodelling of various types, sticks, a blacksmith’s hammer and anvil, stringed instruments, and whistling.

7 Among the Kele the idea that drum names are part of their oral literature also comes out in their terminology, if Carrington is right in deriving bombila (drum name) from the same root as that for ‘story’ or ‘parable’ (Carrington 1944: 83).

8 Title of a person present.

9 i.e. keep quiet everyone.

10 Meaning unknown; a title?

11 i.e. ‘A patient person’; title of someone present.

12 i.e. ‘A precise man’; title of someone present.

13 i.e. ‘the people have all come together’.

14 i.e. ‘Here is a chief; chiefly praise.

15 i.e. ‘The royal people have assembled’.

16 i. e. ‘Come on, girls, get out and dance’.

17 ‘Head’ here stands for the Yoruba ‘ori’ which means: head, good fortune or luck. People sacrifice to their head as thanksgiving for success, etc.

18 Yoruba spirits.

19 Yoruba spirits.

20 They are trying to do the impossible.

21 Trying to conciliate your opponents, show respect—but not too much because you are the oba (king).

22 During the chieftaincy dispute all the contestants were confused by the sudden appearance of Adetoyese Laoye.

23 Policemen. The reference is to the cummerbund on the Native Authority Police uniform. During the contest police had to be transferred from Ede because they were alleged to favour one of the contestants.

24 A locality on the Gold Coast.

25 The drummer of the talking drums, a powerful figure, is commonly referred to as the ‘divine drummer’ or ‘Creator’s drummer’ (Nketia 1963b: 54).

26 The first Queen Mother of the Beretuo clan, said to have descended from the sky. She was head of the clan before they migrated to Mampon.

27 Strong names (titles).

28 The name of the wider region that includes Mampon.

29 The sixth ruler of the Beretuo clan.

30 Rattray 1923: 37882, stanzas II, IV, V, VIII, IX, XII, XIII. He reproduces the poem in drum language, in ordinary Ashanti, and in English translation.

31 Or so it seems. With the exception of some remarks in Rattray (1923: 2567), the sources do not discuss this point directly.

32 Not much has been written about the distribution of this skill among the population generally and further study of this question is desirable. Its prevalence in the contemporary scene also demands research; clearly it is at times highly relevant as, for instance, in the use of drum language over the radio during the Nigerian civil war to convey a message to certain listeners, and conceal it from others.

33 Again, further evidence on this point would be welcome. Of the Akan Nketia makes the point that all drum texts are ‘traditional’ (apart from the nonsense syllables sometimes included in them which may be invented) and that many are known in the same form to drummers in widely separate areas (1963b: 48).

34 There is a huge (and very variable) literature on drum language that it is impossible to begin to cover here. Useful bibliographies are to be found in Carrington 1949b, and T. Stern 1957. Cf. also, among many other accounts: Witte 1910 (Ewe); Jacobs 1959; Schneider 1952 (Duala); Van Avermaet 1945; Armstrong 1955; Hulstaert 1935; Labouret 1923; Herzog (reprinted in Hymes 1964).