Yoruba talking drum

Have you been to a party lately in Lagos, where there were a bunch of men beating drums and producing rhythms that sounded like words and made you twitch at least in your shoes? Believe me, when I say is a sound like no other, so ladies and gentleman welcome to one of the most ingenious ways of making music, world ever; the Yoruba talking drum; an hourglass-shaped drum, whose pitch can be regulated to mimic the tone and prosody of human speech. Its body is covered by two skins which are connected by leather strings, which allow the player to tweak its pitch by pressing the drum between his arm and body.

The talking drums have strong presence in all aspects of African life but especially for and with the Yoruba of South Western Nigeria. It is closely tied to the Yoruba language and is one cultural instrument that has endured and survived many generations and still thrives to this day. The defining feature of the instrument is the ability to closely imitate the rhythms and intonations of the spoken language, as a skilled player is able to play whole melodies and phrases.

Types and make up

The drum heads at either end of the drum’s wooden body are made from hide, goat –skin (soft goat skin) or other membranes which are wrapped around a wooden hoop. Leather cords or thongs (esán) made from the deer skin run the length of the drum’s body and are wrapped around both hoops. The drum’s wooden body is made from the

tree called Imo. It can be found at the northern part of Oyo state in South Western Nigeria and in such areas as, Saki, Ago- are and Sepeteri.

The drums vary in size and name but tend to be fairly small. Among the Yoruba, the smallest type of talking drum is called Gangan and the longest is calledDundun.

These drums when used as an ensemble can be categorized into two:
Iyailu (the mother drums/ lead drums) Omele (the followers /backups or/accompaniments

The Iya Ilu – The Mother Drum / Leader.
This leads the whole ensemble, as it talks, dictates the pace, determines the song and gives cues and prompts with its deep audible sound. It is easily distinguishable with “Saworo” (brass rings) at both ends of the two faces of a drum forming a semi-circle and jingling while the iya-ilu is being played. The Saworo adds percussioning effects to the tune of iyailu. The iyailu is typically and skillfully played by a master talking drummer who is highly experienced and very seasoned. The master talking drummer must be versatile in other accompaniments to be able to skillfully lead a talking drum ensemble.

Omele (Followers / Accompaniment )

The Omele sub-group comprises of:

1. Ìsaájú 2. Àteelé

Isaaju has a high fixed pitch, whilst Atele has a low fixed pitch. The pitch levels are achieved by tying the tension strings.


omele is a little kettle drum that combines the rhythms of both isaju and atele. It brings a melodious harmony to the ensemble. A skillful omele player can substitute for both atele and isaju players.

How it “talks”

Talking drums mimics rhythms and intonations of the spoken word.The playing style of the talking drum is centered on producing long and sustained notes by hitting the drum head with the stick-holding hand and the accompanying free hand used to dampen and change tones immediately after being hit.

Practically, the talking drum is held under the left or right arm when been played and the sound produced by hitting the drum with a bent stick in addition to squeezing the leather cords. This process makes the drum’s head to tighten and emit a high pitch. The act of squeezing the drum changes the pitch and generates various notes. The harder the drum is squeezed the higher the note will be.

Yoruba is a tonal language and tones form the basis of speech and names in Yoruba land, these are the same tones produced when the drum ‘speaks’


Talking drums play a fundamental role in the cultural life of the Yoruba and has done so since the years of yore.
In ancient times, the talking drum was used for a variety of purposes; from being a musical instrument during celebrations to a sort of telegram for relaying messages even during war, announcing the arrival of visitors etc. Presently, it is used to praise gods, human beings;Obas (kings), chiefs, to mention but a few. In African traditional religion, it is used to invoke the spirit of ancestors and deities.

Drums are used during festivals, installation of Obas or chiefs, naming ceremonies, marriage or burial ceremonies, rites of passage, healing, storytelling, warrior rites and initiation

Drum languages are also used for specifically literary forms, for proverbs, panegyrics, historical poems, dirges, and practically any kind of poetry. The beat it produces sometimes serves as a type of oral literature and also is sometimes used in correcting the errors of

the society through the conversational proverbs that it generates.

It is interesting to note that the use of talking drum was banned by the early slave merchants during the slave trade era because of the perceived potential of the talking drum to speak in a tongue unknown to the slave merchants but perfectly understandable by the local populace and thus able to incite rebellion amongst the people against them.

Playing Patterns and Rhythms.

Talking drums can be played in various patterns and rhythms for different cultural activities i.e. for spiritual ceremonies, rituals and praise chanting (oriki) for Yoruba traditional gods such asÒgún, Sàngó, Osun etc. There are different rhythms played for these Yoruba deities. There are equally different patterns and rhythms played in other occasions where the drums are used.

Who can play?

In the days gone by, drumming was known to be hereditary in the sense that most of the drummers learnt the act from their fathers or grandfathers and also passed it to their own children, asexpert drummers with a mastery of the accepted vocabulary of drum language and literature were often attached to a king’s court, as such, there was a sense of pride in being a drummer.

That sense of pride still pervades, even as drumming has moved from the select few to as many as might be interested in learning it, including vie the internet. Who knows, you might be interested at taking a go at it. Don’t hold back, go for it, there just might be a drum major lurking around undiscovered.

Still in the hands of a skilled drummer, there is an involuntary movement that takes over your body; whenever one hears the drums begin to talk.

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