As in many African traditions, the African drum served as a source of communication throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. The djembe (pronounced jim-bay) was well known in regions such as Mali, Guinea, Senegal and surrounding areas; the dundun and dunno--known as talking drums--were prevalent Nigeria, Ghana and surrounding regions. The bata and conga originated in such areas as Nigeria and central regions such as Republic of Congo. These percussion instruments were carried over to Puerto Rican and Cuban shores. Despite differing physical attributes and name variations based on their place of origin, each of these utilitarian instruments was used to relay messages of hope, warning, emergency, war, and celebration--even on Puerto Rican and Cuban shores.
Slaveholders recognized the drum's use and powerful symbolism. Many slave traders and "hacendados" (plantation owners) banned the use of these rhythmic tools among transported blacks, fearing that those shackled by slavery's tenacious grasp would one day internalize the message and rebel. The rhythms, however, remained in the soul and spirit of those enslaved. Where drum use was minimized, body percussions such as the slapping of the chest, the tapping of ones thighs, knees, and arms, or the clapping of hands were often used as rhythmic accompaniments. Communication continued! Where the use of drums was suppressed, make-shift instruments were developed. In time, the use of the drum reemerged. As diverse groups of people transformed into new Caribbean cultures, new blended rhythms emerged.
African and Latino Drums: An Up-Close Look
Note: Audio-visual resources serve as a wonderful complement to this section. See "Soundbites" and make use of the wealth of information contained therein. Pictures of various drums in the African and Latino tradition can be downloaded and enlarged for classroom informational and/or word-wall display
Audio-visual displays at
http://www.bongocentral.com/drums.htm, http://www.songtrellis.com/rhythmPage and http://www.smithsonianglobalsound.org/archives_03.aspx
are highly recommended for music and dance demonstrations.
Drums of Passion, Top Drums: Djembe
by Dioum African Arts
serve as outstanding auditory accompaniments.
African drums--particularly from West Africa and the Congo regions--and their enticing, communicative rhythms survived the transatlantic slave trade. Used as an important part of everyday life and ceremony in African culture, the drum with its many purposes continued to be similarly embraced on Puerto Rican and Cuban shores.
World renowned master drummer Babatunde Olatunji concurs, explaining that African drumming and music overall has impacted the world both past and present. That impact has had far reaching affects, encompassing even the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico:
As you move from North America to South America, the retention of African tradition even becomes more powerful… the continents were not really separated… so if you go to Trinidad, you can listen to people who are chanting the same songs to the God of Thunder as they do in Nigeria. If you go to the oriental province of Cuba, where Mongo Santamaria came from, they have the same way of life and the same way of talking [that] is practically the same as the Guinea tribe… It's all over. That's how the contribution of African culture, development of world culture, has been very tremendous. (Babatunde Olatunji)
Although African drums have taken on new names depending on the places of origin and use, they continue to be used as communication tools in their "distant homelands". Below is a listing of African drums that have influenced Cuban and Puerto Rican culture and today are used widely throughout Africa and the world.
Referred to as the "tumbadora" in Cuba, the conga drum is played throughout central and western Africa (primarily in the Congo region). It is a single headed drum usually made from hollowed logs. Its head is covered with stretched and tightened goat skin. In the African tradition, the conga was used as a principal instrument in religious ceremonies. It is played while the drummer is in a seated position. In Puerto Rican and Cuban culture, this drum comes in three sizes: quinta, conga, and tumbadora. They range in drum head size from small to large.
The varied sizes contribute to their distinct tones. "Congeros" (conga players) use five basic strokes to create energized percussion rhythms: the open tone (producing a resonating, distinct pitch tone), muffled tone (a muffled version of the open tone), base tone (producing a deep, low, and muted sound), slap (producing a popping sound), and touch (similar to a drumroll). Use of the conga drum is popular throughout the world today. In Cuba, it is used as an accompaniment to sensual rumba dancing. It too is used to accompany Santeria, orisha worship services embraced in many Caribbean and South American cultures, including Cuba and Puerto Rico.
The djembe (pronounced jim-bay), said to have originated in Mali, is a goblet-shaped musical instrument whose crafting is said to have been inspired by the shape of the mortar and pestle. Its name was derived from the Djem, the Malian tree from which the drum's base is made. Used throughout West Africa in such countries as Guinea, Senegal, and surrounding areas, it produces a wide range of tones based on the slapping hand movements of its "djembefola" (djembe drum player). In West African culture, its drumhead is usually made of goatskin, although the hide of zebras, antelope, deer, and calves has also been used. The skin is stretched on top of the drum base secured by a rope-tightening process. The djembe is usually harnessed to the djembefola and is played in a standing position. Legs are used to balance and control the instrument while playing. Long, long ago, the djembe was used as a source of communication to send messages long distances from one West African community to another. Today, this instrument is played throughout the African continent and abroad.
Long ago, djembe drums were traditionally played at ceremonious occasions, e.g., weddings, baptisms, and birth celebrations. The playing of the djembe is always accompanied by dance. Today, in West African and Puerto Rican cultures, and various cultures throughout the world, djembe rhythms are used as an entertaining dance accompaniment at festive occasions.
Dun Dun and Dunno
The dun dun and dunno, commonly referred to as talking drums, are rooted in Nigerian and Ghanaian culture. These drums produce three primary tones--bass, tone, and slap--produced by the positioning of the fingers on the animal skin drum surface. Striking the rim near its outer edge produces a high, sharp tone. Positioning the fingers in that vicinity using a relaxed motion produces a slap. Positioning one's fingers near the drum's center produces a powerful bass tone. Together, the syncopated rhythms are enticing, making it impossible not to sway with the beat. The dun dun and dunno are played during religious ceremonies and is also used during festive occasions in both previously-noted countries, and can be traced to Cuban and Puerto Rican shores.
These hand drums come in three sizes ranging from small to large. Played as an accompaniment to Plena music in Puerto Rico, panderos look like tambourines without the cymbals. They are comprised of a wooden frame covered with animal skin--primarily goatskin. Differing pitches result depending upon how the skin has been stretched across the top of the instrument's base. Except for their wooden base, they are similar in appearance to the Nigerian
atele, omele, sakara
--a set of four hand drums that too vary in size from tiny to extra large. These size variations also contribute to differing tones.
The major difference between the panderos and their Nigerian counterparts is that the base of the Nigerian version is made of clay covered with goatskin, tightened with protruding wood spokes. Additionally, panderos are usually played solely by hand; the atele, omelet, sakara, and iya alu are played both by hand and with slender wooden sticks. Panderos are used as an accompaniment to Plena.
Boleador and Subidor
In Puerto Rico, these types of drums were traditionally made from transported rum, lard, or nail barrels. Today, these two drums are used as an accompaniment to Bomba dancing. Their upper rims, covered with goat skins, were attached by stretching and heating the hide on top of the drum. The drum tunes are adjusted by a tightening of screws or ropes around the drumhead, producing a full, rich sound. The subidor, a smaller version of the boleador, is created in the same fashion. It produces a high pitch sound and is used for improvisational purposes, accompanying the dancer's movements.
Bomba music is rooted in West African rhythms, particularly from Ghana, West Africa. This type of drumming can be heard today in the northeastern portion of Puerto Rico, particularly in the townships of Fajardo and Loiza.
Also referred to as "talking drums," bata drums are said to have originated in Nigeria. They are cylindrical and tapered in form and are used in both Cuba and Puerto Rico. In Nigerian and other West African cultures, the tonal qualities of this percussion instrument literally talk, for their melodic rhythms are reflective of Yoruba, a tonal language widely spoken in Nigeria and surrounding areas. Today, bata rhythms continue to talk, serving as an underlying percussion sound in jazz and R&B.
The use of bata drums has been carried over into Puerto Rican and Cuban culture. In addition to being used for festive occasions, the bata has also conventionally been used to recite traditional prayers, religious poetry, greetings, announcements, praises for leaders, and even jokes and teasing. In Yoruba cultures, speakers use three basic tones or pitches to pronounce words. These tones resonate through the bata in both Puerto Rican and Cuban culture.
Long, long ago, in Nigerian culture, bata drums were used primarily for religious events and ceremonies. Today, bata drums come in three sizes and are identified as the "iya" or mother drum (the larger of the three), the "itotele" (the medium-sized drum) and the "okonkolo" (the baby of the trio). Their varying sizes produce varying tones and pitches.
In Cuba and Puerto Rico, some use bata drums in their religious practice of Santeria. (This religion is a spinoff of Christianity and deity worship practiced in Nigerian and other West African countries.) Bata drums are deemed sacred drums used during Santeria ceremonies.