This will be the first of several posts exploring the interplay between music, language and sound, particularly as it relates to African drumming. We’ll start by addressing the notion of “drum language.” In my view, drum language can be placed into two basic categories: 1) drum imitates sound of voice; 2) voice imitates sound of drum.
The first approach — drum imitating voice — can be found in the music of the Dagomba people of Northern Ghana. Through a variety of techniques — most notably varying the tension of the drum head to alter the pitch — the Dagomba are able to render literally on the drum their native language of Dagbani, hence the term “talking drum.” Want to let the world know that a certain chief is an excellent hunter whose daughters are beautiful beyond compare? Say it on a drum!
We find the second approach — voice imitating drum — in the musical system of the Ewe people of Ghana, Togo and Benin. Using “drum vocables” — a system of spoken syllables that have no literal translation — the Ewe imitate with the voice the lexicon of basic sounds produced on a drum. This kind of onomatopoeia, commonly referred to as “drum language,” is in fact a form of notation — verbal notation. In this system, drum vocables act as a vocalized way of notating pitch, timbre, melody, rhythm, dynamics, and the sequence of notes in a given drum phrase, as well as indicate when to use strong hand versus weak hand. This vocal representation of music means repertoire can be passed on aurally, mitigating not only the need for written music, but at times even instruments.
These two approaches are by no means mutually exclusive. Like Dagbani, Ewe is a tonal language, meaning it too can be “spoken” on a drum (e.g., the totodzi and kroboto drum parts in the Ewe war piece Agbekor). These approaches can also be in dialogue with one another. Consider the tradition of scat singing in jazz, in which you have scat syllables that imitate horn articulations — articulations which, ironically, were originally developed to imitate the human voice.