The Instrument that Speaks

Words from the West African Talking Drum

History of a Dynamic Beat

Talking drums can be traced back to the Ghana empire as one of West Africa's oldest instruments. The Hausa people developed a sophisticated music for griots based on this unique drum. Griots were central to the African oral tradition; they passed on legends and ancestral knowledge to their people through the use of instruments and speech. These drums were also used to communicate messages across villages; a drummer would be sent by the chief to send a warning, celebratory invitation or other message through the language of the drum.

A Singular Sound

Cultural Significance

Even though modern technology has replaced the talking drum for many means of communication, this remarkable instrument still remains an instrumental part of West African culture. Drums are still used for celebration and entertainment, and they serve as a hallmark of past tradition kept alive through the recognizable sounds of the talking drum. Slight variations in talking drums also help to distinguish among ethnic groups. Jellis continue to use the drums as memory devices to remember people and folklore. The drum is a voice into the past that continues to play a part in the future.


Talking drums are a type of membranophone. Unlike many drums used in America, talking drums have a drum head on both sides. Animal skin is most commonly used and stretched taught across both barrels. The drum takes the shape of an hourglass and has strings that connect the two drum heads, brought together in the middle by braided string. As shown in the picture, talking drums vary in size and have different dimensions distinguishing tribes and ethnic groups. A drum beater is also used to play it and carved into curved, smooth piece of wood.

Acquire Your Own Speaking Beat

Talking drums are an excellent decorative addition to any home, but also a unique instrument to learn to play! They can surprisingly be used in conjunction with many other instruments and are useful for performances both on their own or with others. A traditional Meinl talking drum only costs $50. By learning to appreciate its singular sound, you will bring the ancient notes of the past into your life. The intricate things one may discover are up to you!

The Beat of a Nation

The Chorus of West Africa

This region of the continent is known for its dynamic musical sounds. Both the talking drum and other instruments were used primarily as a participatory means, where the entire community partook of an event involving instruments rather than acting as an audience. Music often accompanied movement. Both the talking drum and mbira, senza, and musical bows were used to tell legends, myths, folklore, historical accounts, epics and praise poems. However, the talking drum was the only instrument that could be used to send messages long distances - and much faster than any messenger on horseback!

Griots and Jellis

Talking drums were used by these community leaders to share a people's history, tradition and culture. The jellis used them as memory devices, so certain rhythms would help them remember people and events. Griots used the drums as part of sacred religious rituals and ceremonies as well as in celebrations and stories. These important leaders of the West African peoples also used talking drums to settle disputes both within their own tribes and with their neighbors.
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The Drum and Contemporary Communication

Much like technology that we have become accustomed to in the 21st century, the talking drum was the preferred method of communication in ancient West Africa. It was notable for its singular, easily distinguishable sounds. Today, we are able to send text that is interpreted visually through emails and texts, rather than heard. Electronic communication is now our fastest means, much like the talking drum was the fastest manner preferred over messengers such as those on horseback or messenger pigeons. These slower means are the equivalent of our traditional mail system. The talking drum nonetheless remains as a fascinating aspect of West African culture that can still be appreciated and heard today.