I had my brain seriously stretched by a recent podcast of Afropop Worldwide. It was a superb program about “drum speech”–a fascinating subject that has interested ethnomusicologists for a long time. Ned Sublette writes about it in his masterful study, Cuba and its Music: From the First Drum to the Mambo. He’s part the Afropop Worldwide team. I wanted to share just a few things that I learned from this terrific program on how drums can serve as a surrogate for speech in Africa and Cuba.
Traditionally there was no written language in West African countries. In Nigeria in particular, batá drums served as method of communication as a surrogate for yoruba, the language of Nigeria. It was a coded speech–based on yoruba–between drummers that not all people could understand. So for example, since drum sound carried for relatively long distances, the batá was used historically to communicate war strategies in code. But yoruba, like Chinese, is a tonal language with an inherent melody, and the pitch-flexible dundun (or talking drums) could better imitate it so that every yoruba speaker can understand what the drums are “saying.” Today, the dominance of the talking drum as well as texting on cell phones in Nigeria and Benin are threatening to make batá drum language obsolete. Drums like the batá are now used more for music than for communication, though for 500 years they were the primary linguistic communicators in Nigerian and Dahomeyan villages.
As an aside, I remember a story about King Sunny Adé and his talking drummers (the talking drum, or dundun is the most expressive and has the biggest vocabulary). After King Sunny’s drummers told the lighting people how to light the hall with their drums, they started talking a little trash about some of the cute women that were in the front section of the hall. King Sunny fired them all after the tour.
The batá drum also travelled to Cuba from Africa. There are three types: the big or “mother” drum, the medium-sized or “father” drum, and the small “child” drum (pictured at left). They work together in traditional rumba and various santeria rituals and ceremonies to “speak” rhythmically about the sacred gods. But in Cuba, the batá doesn’t function as a direct language surrogate since Cubans speak Spanish, which is not a tonal language. The Cuban batá drums can intone the Afro-Cuban lucumi language, but that, like Spanish, is not an exact match because lucumi is also not tonal. In addition, the drum heads on batá drums cannot be manipulated like they are by the ropes on the sides of talking drums (see image above right). And so they cannot directly express the Spanish spoken in Cuba.
If you want to find out more about speech surrogacy and spend an hour getting your mind stretched like I did, watch the video below and listen to the full podcast. This is a little primer on the batá and talking drum from some Nigerian drummers (note the cool clothing, dancing, and the ceremonial scarification). When I first lived in Paris, I didn’t know why Africans had these big scars on their faces. I thought maybe it was from a violent knife fight, but couldn’t figure out why the cuts were patterned so symmetrically.