Talking drums are very important to African culture. In Mali, talking drums have historically been used for four main purposes. First, they are used by jellis or griots charged with orally recording, preserving, and sharing their community's histories and culture. The jellis used the drums as memory devices to help them remember important people and events. Second, (as mentioned before) drums are used to communicate messages across distances and villages. A king or other political authority may send a drummer throughout his land as a messenger. The drummer plays his drum, and because the villagers know the "language of the drum," they understand if the king is issuing a warning, a celebratory invitation, or some other news. Talking drums are also used during religious rituals. Often, jellis and griots ran these ceremonies and used the drums not only for celebration, but also for sacred rites and stories. Finally, talking drums are used to bring people together and to help settle disputes among members of a village.
Construction of the Talking Drum
Talking drums have a distinctive hourglass shape with a drum head at each end made from animal hide. The drum’s body is made of wood, with leather cords running the full length of the drum to connect the two drum heads.
Talking drums vary in size and name between different cultures, but tend to be fairly small. For instance, among the Yoruba, the smallest type of talking drum is called a ‘gangan’ and the largest is called the ‘dundun’. The dundun typically has a length of 38 cm and a drum head diameter of 18 cm. The ‘tama’ talking drum commonly played in Senegal usually has a length of 13 cm with a drum head diameter of 7 cm.