Need a quick intro to the history of African drums? The history of African drums centers on communication, community and dance. From the beginning, believed to be as early as 500 AD, drums throughout the African continent were used to communicate from one village to another, create a sense of community among members of a tribe and give everyone something to dance to. Indeed, the drum has come to symbolize Africa itself.
Known as the oldest instrument in the world, the drum is sacred and revered in African culture. For centuries, throughout the African continent, the drum was a primary source of communication. And, despite attempts to silence it, the rhythms of African drumming overcame slavery to emerge as the most influential drumming music in the Americas, by way of Cuba and Puerto Rico. In Africa, the drum was used at ceremonies to pay homage to the Creator and the ancestors, to herald the home-going of a loved one, to spark courtships, to announce marriages and births, to accompany religious rites and initiation rituals, to herald political and social events, the onset of war, the triumph of battle, to announce emergency gatherings and more.
There are countless types of drums within the African continent, ranging from tall drums that make high pitched sounds to wider drums that add the bass tones. The most widely-used drum throughout Africa is a hollow body drum with one or two parchment heads at either end. All the African drums spread throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, but one drum, shaped a little like a woman, has emerged as the queen of the African drums.
Perhaps the most popular African drum is the djembe, seen in drum circles all over the world and on street corners as well. Pronounced "jem bay," the djembe is the drum of choice for so many street drummers and drum circle facilitators because of its superior bass tone, which rivals a much bigger, heavier drum because of the special hourglass shape of the body. In fact, the scientific principle that makes the bass sounds of a djembe so deep is the same one that causes that deep tone when you blow over the open mouth of a beer bottle. It's called "Helmholtz resonance."
The djembe has gained popularity as an accompanying instrument in modern music because of its versatility and powerful sound. The djembe is capable of producing thunderous low tones as well as crackling crisp high tones. It can sound like several different drums in the hands of an experienced djembefola (the person who plays a djembe). In all its shapes and varieties, the African drum is an extraordinary utilitarian instrument that serves as more than just a musical tool. The djembe was well-known in African regions such as Mali, Guinea and Senegal; the "dundun" and "dunno"—known as talking drums—were prevalent in Nigeria and Ghana. The "bata" and "conga" originated in Nigeria and the Republic of Congo.
Sadly, it was slavery that brought African drums to the Caribbean and, ultimately, to America. The forced importation of African peoples to Puerto Rico and Cuba brought with it a fusion of culture, customs and traditions, among them the music and storytelling tradition accompanied by the playing of the drum. Slaveholders recognized the power of the drum to unite the slaves, so many slave traders and plantation owners banned drumming, fearing that slaves might use drums to organize and rebel.
But you can't keep a good drummer down. The slaves kept their African rhythms alive by drumming on their chests, the thighs, knees, and arms and clapping their hands. They created make-shift drums from oil drums, containers, boxes and cans and the African drumming tradition ultimately emerged victorious, adding some blended rhythms picked up along the way. Perhaps because African drums survived the transatlantic slave trade and attempts by slave owners to ban them, African drums are more popular today than ever, worldwide.