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Ancient African Tribes had “Drum Talk” long before Cell Phones

Ancient African Tribes had Ancient African Tribes had "Drum Talk" long before Cell Phones -

Reprinted from Natural History magazine, September 1942

Drum Talk Is the African’s “Wireless”

Africans were able to send out their messages of joy or
sorrow over jungle and valley long before the invention of the radio.

Drum Talk Is the African’s “Wireless”

Africans were able to send out their messages of joy or 
sorrow over jungle and valley long before the invention of the radio.

By A. I. Good

, who has lived in West Africa for many years as a missionary 
in a region pioneered by his father. His observations on the native 
“drum-talk” in the sections where he has traveled enable him 
to write the first popular article on the subject ever 
published in an American magazine.


LISTEN to that drum beating in a town a mile away. “Tap-tap-tap-tapping, tap-tapping-tapping-tap!” How clearly the beats sound out over the forest. How exactly the call is repeated, its tempo the same every time, every pause in precisely the same place. But wait, it changes, and now goes “Tap-tap-tap, tapping! Tap-tap-tap, tapping! Tap-tapping, tap-tapping!”
You ask your native companion, “What is that drum saying?”
He looks sheepish, but answers, “Man call chief come quick, say white man come.” It is all a mystery to you; but 20 minutes later, when you arrive in the town, the chief is there waiting with a present of two eggs for the white man. You decide there is something to this drum business.

Could you hear and interpret those beats of the drum as can your black companion, you would know that the first series was the individual drum-name of the chief, rendered as follows in the Bulu language of South Cameroun: “Kup te mfañ étom, be limeti kupe tyiñ.” This was repeated several times to get his attention. Then followed the phrase, also repeated, “A wôé bôt élañ,” the general drum-name for a white man, and not very complimentary. Then the words “Za’ avô, za’avô,” meaning “come quickly, come quickly.” The chief, off in his garden, understood that he was being called because a white man was coming. So he returned at once and played safe by getting ready a small present.

A characteristic village in the Cameroun. On the left is a drying-rack for cocoa, the chief product of the country. Beyond it are oil palms and a sheep wandering across the street. Behind the houses begins the forest.

Long before white men came to Africa—how long ago no one knows—the black man had developed his own peculiar system of wireless communication.
He needed it, for in the heart of the tropics the country is one vast unbroken forest. Roads were non-existent, only footpaths traversed the jungle. Men went far into the forest to hunt. Women traveled long distances to their garden-clearings. If something happened in town, how could they be informed? An important man died, his funeral was a major event in the primitive community; how was word to be spread? A man’s wife ran away; how could he tell the people along her path to catch and hold her?
Sickness, death, war, hunting, fishing, all are of prime importance to the savage. The practical answer to all these needs is the drum. In many parts of West Africa these wooden drums are also known as “gongs,” Messages beaten on the drum could call individuals miles away in the forest or broadcast news to distant villages. By relaying it from town to town a large area could soon be apprised of news vital to all. Though the white man has in recent years perfected his wireless to cover thousands of miles, remember that the primitive African savage invented his “wireless” long before a European ever thought of it.

How far?
An ordinary drum can he heard easily in the daytime at three or four miles. In the dead of night the best drums carry ten or even fifteen miles out over the forest. I knew of one exceptional drum that has been heard 25 miles, though its message could no longer be understood. Three factors, in the main, determine the range: the size of the drum, its individual quality, and the type of country.

The log is expertly hollowed out until the curved sides are only about half an inch think and give different tones.
Medium-sized drums carry farther than the very small or the exceptionally large. Individual instruments differ widely in resonance, because of the kind of wood used, or even more as a result of construction. A good drum-maker becomes widely known. In certain sections the topography is of importance, long valleys or river courses aiding transmission in their direction. The range of any given drum therefore varies greatly.

The Bulu, together with the Yaoundé, Bene, Ntum, Okak, and some other peoples, are all part of the great Fang tribe which extends clear to the Ogowé River in French Gabun. While each of the lesser groups has developed dialectic differences, the whole Fang language is basically one. Any one of the dialects would be understood wherever Fang is spoken. Fang belongs in turn to that great language family known as Bantu, which extends all across equatorial Africa, and south nearly to the Cape.
It is true that the drums vary in form over the vast expanse of Africa in which they are used to send messages. Certainly also the drum-calls differ between distinct languages, for phrases from the language in use are beaten on the drum. We venture to assert, however, that the basis of message transmission by drum is the same wherever the system is used. In this article we shall confine ourselves to the drums and drum-calls of the Bulu people, with which we are familiar.
The call-drum is a hollowed log of wood. Some three kinds of hardwood trees are used by the Bulu for making it. The mbel tree, or barwood (Pterocarpus osun, of the family Leguminosae), is often employed, as is also the ebae (probably Pentaclethra macrophyllaof the family Mimosaceae). The latter is acacia-like, bearing large pods. Another hardwood tree with thorny bark, the olom orololom, is equally good.

A small drum will require perhaps a two-foot section of log, while a large one may reach a length of three and a half or four feet, The log is hollowed out roughly through a longitudinal slit while still lying in the forest. The slit is three or four inches across, and runs nearly the whole length of the log. After its weight has thus been reduced the log is slung on a pole, brought into the village and the finishing touches are then added. The sides are carefully hollowed to the required thinness and smoothed off, by the use of a chisel-like tool inserted always through the same slit. The curved walls of the finished drum will be but a half-inch or less in thickness, the ends being left two or three inches thick. This makes a hollow cylinder with closed ends, highly resonant when dry, the only opening being the slit along the top.

When the slit is first made, a small section of wood is left connecting its opposite edges, a little to the left of the exact middle. This is known in the Bulu tongue as the otat, or crier. Later the small section is separated into two blocks of different size, each adhering to its side of the slit, separated from the other by a crack one-quarter inch wide. One, known as the “man,” is nearly twice as broad as its mate, called the “woman.”

When I inquired why these blocks are situated to the left of the middle, the answers, though indefinite, were to the effect that if they were right in the center the tones would be somewhat jumbled, or muffled. If slightly off-center, the tones of the drum would be clear. Possibly it is a matter of overtones, not understood but learned by experience.
There are two drumsticks about a foot long, one for each hand. The best are sections of the midrib of the frond of a palm, Raphia vinifera,the flatter lower side being struck against the drum. Rounded sticks may also be made from the soft, light wood of the common umbrella tree, Musanga Smithii, called by the Bulu aseng. They may be of equally soft white wood from the avom vine or tree, a member of the family Anonaceae, probably Cleistopholis Staudtii. Harder woods wear away the lip of the drum too quickly. It is beaten on the edges of the slit, just on each side of the “man” and “woman” blocks, the drummer standing on the “woman” side.

To secure the best resonance and carrying power, the drum should be supported on ropes roughly woven from the outer fibers of plantain or banana plants, or from the dried fronds of the same plants, upheld by a frame of forked sticks driven into the ground. A small thatched roof may be built over it for protection from sun and rain, and a piece of bark laid over the slit. The drumsticks are usually kept in the cavity of the drum. At the close of a drum-call the thump of the sticks as they are dropped in is characteristic. For a small drum the special support is not worth while. It is kept in the palaver house of the chief, to he carried out and laid on the ground as needed.
The basis of message transmission is tone. Many of the Bantu languages are “tonal” in character. To be properly spoken, they require that each word be pronounced in its correct tone. There are five different tones in the Bulu language, but most words are either in the two lowest tones of the register, which are not far apart, or in the two highest ones, likewise close to each other. The middle tone is used with relatively few words, and so is practically negligible. Roughly speaking nearly all words can be classed as high or low; this two-tone division is the basis of the drum-language.

This poor old drum has lost its resonance and will no longer carry any distance. But the two tones can still be differentiated, which explains why it was tused so long.
The two sides of the drum, chiefly because of the difference in thickness and also because of the two blocks of wood unlike in size—the “man” and “woman”—produce two distinct tones, one considerably higher than the other. These high and low drum tones can be made to correspond to the high or low tones of the language, by striking on the appropriate side of the slit. Thus the tones of the message are beaten on the drum, and the hearer reads them back into the original words. The meaning becomes clear.
It would seem that the two blocks within the slit are not essential. When the drum becomes worn, and the blocks break off, the tones continue to be separable, even though less clear. Recently I have seen a large drum where the “man” and “woman” blocks were on the wrong sides with reference to the tones. Evidently the maker had made a mistake but had compensated for it in the thickness of the drum-walls. The tones were still clearly separate, though in this case the “woman” block was on the low-tone side, the “man” on the high-tone. The thickness of the walls is most important, and I have known a man, as he was making final adjustments, to chisel off a little wood from one inner side, and then to tap it to get the tone. He was tuning his drum as the piano tuner makes the adjustment of a string.

This use of the tone of words for the words themselves explains the ability of natives to understand one another when calling at great distances. They are not hearing actual words, but rather a series of tones. In fact the Bulu sometimes employ a language, if so it may be called, of pure tone without words, to which they give the name kili. Individuals too far apart to hear actual words call back and forth using only the syllables “ki-ki” in the tones of the words they would employ in ordinary conversation. Short sentences are transmitted and understood. This I have watched many times, and the principle is the same as that of the drum-language.
Drum-calls are in a sort of code. In sending messages on the drum the operator does not choose any sentence at random. There are a large number of fixed expressions, either drum-names of persons or drum-sentences conveying certain ideas. The sentences have a literal meaning, but this may not be their true significance for the message. We sometimes cable a ten-letter code word of jumbled letters, or else a ten-letter word that means something; either will work, the message is to be found in the code. Accordingly, “a hill is a great thing” is a logical statement, but its real message is that a man otherwise known as Ndongo is being called. “Only folds folds hands [on] breast” may convey an idea, but it really means, “He is dead.” However many ways there are of saying this in ordinary speech, on the drum there is only one, a code sentence intelligible to drummer and hearers.
These fixed code sentences are beaten on the drum, and the listeners, from the tones alone or perhaps with the aid also of the rhythm of the sentence, can decode the message again so as to seize its true meaning. The rhythm of the code sentence is the same as it would be if spoken rapidly with heavier stress on one word than on another, or on some syllable of a word. But I could detect no rhythm peculiar to the drum; and the tones, I believe, are the most important element in the recognition of the sentence.
We can understand why many young natives, these days, can neither beat the drum properly nor interpret its voice, for they have not learned the fixed sentences. Likewise the white man can scarcely become proficient in understanding them, because he must have perfect command of the language and its tonal qualities. But the native ear can, with proper training, translate the tones of the drum into the words that correspond. It takes considerable practice for a white man to recognize his own drum-name, if he has been given one.

Four villagers. Their names: “You are overcome with greediness, just as they were about to hand it [food] to you,” “Tied up, tied up tight! Tied up, tied up, loosened,” “Don’t go where the lucky fellows are taking women along lest you get in trouble,” and “You’ll die of witchcraft at midnight”

Every man and most women used to have an individual drum-name, a fixed code sentence. Sometimes it seemed to have no particular meaning. In other cases it seemed to refer to one’s character or some other circumstances. My father, Dr. A. C. Good, the first white man in South Cameroun, was continually traveling hither and yon in preliminary explorations. He was given this very significant drum-name by the Bulu: “Going, going, going, what are you going to look for?” The writer’s drum-name was given by some old men, probably because he is an only child: “You walk alone, where are your brothers?” Women might have names referring to them as superlatively beautiful, or occasionally the opposite. Sometimes the names were handed down to younger members of a family as their elders died off. A man when asked recently his wife’s drum-name replied: “No. I tried to give her one, but she wouldn’t accept it, and her own family never gave her one.” She must have felt that her own family should have provided it. If you were named for a certain person, you might take the same drum-name.

Code sentences serving as names are usually short, very idiomatic, and difficult of exact translation. They employ a negative form which seems ancient and is employed only in proverbs and drum-messages. With the advent of European civilization and education many old native customs are disappearing, and with them the drum-calls. The younger generation neglects the drum and consequently does not possess drum-names. As the older generation passes, first-class drummers become scarce, and it is mostly the elders who can still interpret the calls, Eventually the art may disappear.

A few examples of drum-names, translated into English, are these:

“The giant wood rat has no child, the house rat has no child.”
     “A witch does not eat fruit, but any man eats [it].”
     “A rich man puts on airs in his own village.”
     “Take care of the ground, that it is which will bury you.”
     “Oyono must not join the fighting, I don’t want Oyono to die.”
     “The chameleon does not shoot a gun, does not shoot a bow, what is he creeping up on?”
The stealthy gait of a chameleon as it prepares to shoot an insect with its tongue is well known. Other names refer to the francolin scratching in the forest, or the parrot raiding palms for their fruit.
Some drum-names can belong only to women:
     “Even if you dress up finely, love is the only thing.”
     “She is better than the daughter of other tribes, she who stands there.”
     “If beauty were for the asking, she would have begged it from her friends.”
     “Fine walking without the sound of a footfall.”
     “The village of the rich man [or polygamist] is not without its treasure.”
     “She stands as Tolo stands.”
Tolo is a five-star constellation, admired by the Bulu. As it stands above other stars, so she surpasses other women. The terse tonality and idiomatic brevity are lost when such names are rendered in English.

Other messages sent on the drum
Aside from drum-names, the actual messages beaten on the drum are surprisingly few—in the Bulu country at least—and limited to certain essential information. Food is very important. Suppose a man returns unexpectedly from a journey or from hunting, only to find his wife absent in her garden off in the forest. He is hungry and may call her in this manner: first, her drum-name; second, his drum-name; third, the message as follows:

      Za’a w’awulu avô, avô, m’awô’ô zaé te ngelé.
     “Come walk quickly, quickly. I feel hunger not small.”
If a man is very sick, after his name comes:
      A nto ane jomolo, jomolo.
     “He is as weakening, weakening.”
If he has died:
      Ve ba’a ba’a mo tôé.
     “Only folds folds hands [on] breast.”
To call people to go hunting in the forest with nets into which the game is driven:
      Okpweñ ô nto ngatata’a ne doé’, doé, doé.
     “Little antelope is tied up tight, tight, tight.”
If a woman runs away from her husband into the forest, the drum may warn others to watch and catch her:
      Fé kpwabak! kpwabak!
     “[Into the] bush, crash! crash!”
When a white official is coming, the drum says:
      A wôé bót élañ.
     “He kills people [with] malice.”

This general drum-name for a government official comes down from earlier days, when this part of Africa had to be ruled with a stern hand.
In order to warn people to kill a leopard that someone had sighted, the drum would signal:
      Môt a nkele nda, ve atan, atan.
     “Person he not go [in] house, but outside, outside.”

A man far off in the forest might be called home as follows:
      Beyeñ be nto wo jal nne, za’a wulu avô.
     “Guests they are you village here, come walk quickly.”
In the old days a wrestling match was a tribal contest of great excitement, but the custom died out because of governmental disapproval. The matches often led to blows or.. even bloodshed. The invitation used to go out over the forest:
      Bulu Bulu ngam, Fañ Fañ ngam.
     “Bulu Bulu on one side, Fang Fang on one side.”
During the match there was always plenty of drumming, for no African assembly is truly happy without a maximum of noise. There were dance-drums made of a hollow log four feet long and covered with antelope skin. These were beaten with the hands only. The call-drums were then used mainly to accompany the dance-drums, not issuing any message. But in the hands of a skillful operator, the call-drum could be used to encourage one of the wrestlers, to warn him of a coming hold, or to advise him to take advantage of an opening. Coaching from the side lines is far older than American baseball.
At dances the call-drum is commonly employed for the same purpose as other types of drums, to beat the time. But it can also advise a special dancer, if need be, to stand up, sit down, come out, turn his back so, or stoop forward.
The actual messages that are usually transmitted by drum in the Bulu country by code sentences scarcely exceed a round dozen. The use of other than such fixed sentences would throw the listener into the mass of tones of general speech and result only in confusion. Remember that the hearer of a distant drum-call has nothing to work with but the two tones and their rhythm.
We might illustrate how the tone pattern of a drum-call is beaten as follows, using the upper level to show the syllables beaten on the “woman” side of the drum, and the lower level to show those on the “man” side:

     Kupbe li-me-ti kup tyiñ.
     te mfañ é-tom,

     “The chicken has no real guilt, yet they wring its neck.”
     W’a-wul’ é-bo-nyoñné?

     “You walk alone, where are your brothers?”

The advice commonly given to drummers is as follows: Don’t lean over the drum, but straighten up, or its sound will be muffled. Look in the direction you wish the sound to go. Don’t hold your arms against your body, spread them out, and the sound will carry farther. A good drummer must not eat chicken wings, give them to someone else. The flapping of a chicken’s wings does not sound far, they won’t help.

In or out of the palaver house, the drum is a convenient seat. Though the grand masters are growing scarce, it is to be hoped that the new generation will preserve the unique art of drum talk.

In olden days the drum was of great service, especially to call the people together to “talk palavers,” or discuss topics of general importance and cases at law. Most of these had to do with property rights in women. A woman was sold in marriage by her father or brother. She might die without having been fully paid for; and she bore children whose ownership could be questioned. Thus she was a chief topic of conversation and even dispute. “Palavers” about women lasted for hours.
In the quiet of evening or just before daybreak, when sound carried best, the local drummer exhibited his skill by calling the drum-names of all persons of importance in the vicinity, one after another, scores and scores. Each man listened for his own name, and felt injured if omitted from the roll call.
Nowadays the drum serves instead as a bell for the various missions, Protestant and Catholic. Every village chapel has its drum; and the drummer calls the roll of drum-names as an invitation to the services, thus helping to preserve the art as its older uses dwindle.

Before a recent Sunday service, I took down a list of 52 drum-names, with the help of three or four men who knew drum-calls, We sat in a house, out of sight of the excellent drummer; and the men gave me each sentence before the next started, sometimes even before it was quite complete. Without their knowing what might come next, they amazed me by identifying every call within five to ten seconds. They probably knew 200 and more such names.

It was hard for me to write down enough of each name-sentence to be able to complete it later. At the end of 20 minutes I stopped the drummer, who could have continued. Later in the day a near-by chief asked who beat the drum that morning. He had noticed the difference between an expert and the indifferent drummer who usually performed.
It works

A year or so ago I stopped in a Bulu village where a man lived whom I wished to see. But the man had been off in the forest for hours, at work in his garden. It would have taken an hour for someone to walk there and bring him back, so I asked if he could be called with the drum. A little drum was brought out from the palaver house, and the tap-tap-tap went out on the air. I waited. In a half-hour, almost to the minute, in he came. “I heard you called me,” he said. “what is it you want?” The drum certainly can talk.


Want to play along? check out this Virtual Log Drum


[Editor’s Note (2007): Readers may be surprised that in an article that expresses admiration for a native practice, the author uses the terms “savage” and “primitive.” Even if taken in their most benign sense, of “wild” or “uncivilized,” these words express a biased cultural view. “Savage” nowadays appears particularly old-fashioned and jarring. “Primitive,” however, was an anthropological term commonly used long after this article was written. It was usually intended mean “at an early stage of development or cultural evolution.” As this article demonstrates, a primitive cultural trait was not necessarily taken to be simple or rudimentary.]

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