Talking drums are part of a family of hourglass-shaped pressure drums. The drum heads at either end of the drum's wooden body are made from hide, fish-skin or other membranes which are wrapped around a wooden hoop. Leather cords or thongs run the length of the drum's body and are wrapped around both hoops; when these cords are squeezed under the drummers arm, the drum heads tighten, changing the instrument's pitch. While this type of instrument can be modulated quite closely, its range is limited to a gathering or market-place, and it is primarily used in ceremonial settings. Ceremonial functions could include dance, rituals, story-telling and communication of points of order.
Some of the groups of variations of the talking drum among West African ethnic groups:
These drums were made out of hollowed logs. The bigger the log, the louder sound would be made and thus the farther it could be heard. A long slit would be cut in one side of the tree trunk. Next, the log would be hollowed out through the slit, leaving lips (wooden ledges) on each side of the opening. A drum could be tuned to produce a lower note and a higher note. For that it would need to be hollowed out more under one lip than under the other. The drum's lips are hit with sticks, beating out rhythms of high and low notes. Many message drums are kept in a shed so that they don't get rained on.
Under ideal conditions, the sound can be understood at 8 km (5 miles), but interesting messages usually get relayed on by the next village. "The talking drums" or "jungle drums" is also a euphemism for gossip - similar to "the grapevine".
Both pressure and slit drums were commonly used by the Indian tribes of the Americas to communicate. During the American Revolutionary War each of the camps had different drummers. The snare drummers would play various solos to let other camps know how they are doing.
While talking drums are generally considered an African phenomenon, in Euskalerria, the Basque Country (part of Spain), the Txalaparta was used a communication medium. The Txalaparta (the "tx" is pronounced "ch") is a percussion instrument, made with a set of wooden planks, leaning over logs. The txalaparta is then hit with 50-cm sticks called "makilak". Like a xylophone, according to where it is hit, a different tone is sounded. Due to the advancing of telephones and other media, txalaparta is no longer in use as a communication medium, but is still used as a musical instrument.
Among the famous communication drums are the drums of West Africa (see talking drum). From regions known today as Nigeria and Ghana they spread across West Africa and to America and the Caribbean during the slave trade. There they were banned because they were being used by the slaves to communicate over long distances in a code unknown to their enslavers.
Talking drums were also used in East Africa and are described by Andreus Bauer in the 'Street of Caravans' while acting as security guard in the Wissmann Truppe for the caravan of Charles Stokes.
Drum communication methods are not languages in their own right; they are based on actual natural languages. The sounds produced are conventionalized or idiomatic signals based on speech patterns. The messages are normally very stereotyped and context-dependent. They lack the ability to form new combinations and expressions.
In central and east Africa, drum patterns represent the stresses, syllable lengths and tone of the particular African language. In tone languages, where syllables are associated with a certain tone, some words are only distinguished only by their suprasegmental profile. Therefore, syllable drum languages can often communicate a message using the tonal phonemes alone.
In certain languages, the pitch of each syllable is uniquely determined in relation to each adjacent syllable. In these cases, messages can be transmitted as rapid beats at the same speed as speech as the rhythm and melody both match the equivalent spoken utterance.
Misinterpretations can occur due to the highly ambiguous nature of the communication. This is reduced by context effects and the use of stock phrases. For example, in Jabo, most stems are monosyllabic. By using a proverb or honorary title to create expanded versions of an animal, person's name or object, the corresponding single beat can be replaced with a rhythmic and melodic motif representing the subject. In practice not all listeners understand all of the stock phrases; the drum language is understood only to the level of their immediate concern.
Some peoples such as the Melanesians extend this idea further by freely inventing signs to make up their drum signals. This is in sharp contrast to the Efik tribe of Nigeria who use notes which exactly correspond to the tones of their morphemes. Different still is the Ewe language found in Togo, where only full sentences and their combinations are translated into the drum language. No smaller units are used; a sound picture represents a whole thought. This is similar to the Tangu tribe of New Guinea, where signals represent phrases, the mnemonics of which are parts of song melodies, quasi-poetic rhythms or purely personal rhythms.
When a drum is used in speech mode, it is culturally defined and depends on the linguistic/cultural boundaries. Therefore, communication suffers from translation problems as in vocal communication. There is no international drum language.
Today, when most people of African decent talk about drums, that often are talking about Djembe. Djembe's traditional home is in West African countries including Guinea, Mali, Burkina, Faso, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Gambia -- in fact the djemeb is now a common form of telecommunications around the world and used more often than any other African hand drum. In all socities known to man, rhythm has played a very significant part in telecommunication, magical and healing qualities. Djembe's telecommunication include a deep bass and distinct slaps and tones reach deep down in one's inner being. Whether you believe it's the drum spirit or body endorphins that cause the inner peace and holistic well-being, it is a fact that drum rhythms affect all people physically.