The History of the Drum – Early History

Drums – Early History

Modern drums have evolved from rudimentary instruments that were played by beating with the hands and/or sticks. Early man probably beat out rhythms on rocks or fallen trees. The earliest recognized drum dates back some 8,000 years to Mesopotamia – specifically the Babylonian and Sumerian empires. Ancient drums consisted of animal skin stretched across some sort of hollow shell. Another form of early drum consisted of hollowed out logs that were beat with sticks.

Drums in The Middle East

In the Middle East, the drum was revered as an instrument by which to call the Love and Fertility Goddess Innana, among others. The sound of the drum was considered ennobling or sacred. Large barrel drums were controlled by the high priest and protected by a drumguard. The “balaq” was shaped as if two horns were affixed to each other, and both ends were covered in skin. Ancient illustrations show Sumerian drummers carrying their drums using leather belts slung over the shoulder. Besides its use in religious ceremonies, Sumerian drums were used for civilian and military meetings.

As time progressed, the ancients started using particular types of wood for drum bodies. One favorite and expensive wood came from fir trees. Another elaboration was to make drums using copper – “dob” in Sumerian. Interestingly, dob is the modern Hungarian word for drum. The “ada” was the largest drum used by the Sumerians, commonly featuring a four-meter diameter. The ada was hung on poles supported by several men.

West African Talking Drums

Meanwhile, Western Africa was developing various types of “talking” drums that had adjustable pitch and could be used to imitate human speech in terms of tone, rhythm and stress. Talking drums were commonly hourglass-shaped with stretched skin on both ends. The earliest examples date back to the Ghana Empire of the seventh century. Soon, many non-hourglass shapes evolved and were given special names, such as the Dunan, Sangban, Kenkeni, Fontomfrom and Ngoma drums.

African Talking Drums

African drums talk by creating tones that correspond to words. A sophisticate method was developed in which short words were grouped with redundant phrases to clarify the meaning of the sounds. Different drums elicited different playing styles, which varied from region to region. Senegalese drummers used rapid rolls and short sound bursts using a stick and a hand. To the east, the playing style consisted of long and sustained notes, creating a sort of rubbery sound that mimicked local speaking patterns.

Talking drums were also used in ancient India and were called “idakka”. These were stick-beaten drums whose pitch was controlled by squeezing the lace in the middle of the hourglass. Obviously, there are many different examples of ancient drums from Africa and Asia, each having a rich tradition and specific characteristics. Interested readers are urged to “surf the web” to find out more information about the many different ancient drums.