Talking drums in contemporary Ghana: The Atumpan in focus

The sight and sound of a talking drum being beaten at a Senior Secondary to signal break time overwhelmed visitors, sending them down memory lane constructed by folklore and cultural ceremonies, now few and far in between.

For most Ghanaians, growing up, they have only seen and heard the use of bells to signal change of lessons or break time in schools. In some SHSs, one could hear a specific song playing through the Public Address System hanging in front of the school’s administration to signal for various activities within the day.

Many Ghanaian media outlets of today have created jingles infused with talking drums and other traditional instruments, for their news intro—a practice that only the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) was popularly known for back in the early 1990s but who really takes notice of it?

What is the Talking Drum?

The talking drum is known to be one of the oldest instruments in West Africa, originating from the Ghana Empire between the 7th and 13th centuries. Yet, this instrument is still in use.

The Talking Drum is unique and different from other drums because they are constructed and played in such a way that it mimics the tonal qualities of speech. This special quality made talking drums a very important communication tool for West African cultures throughout history.

Mr David Essilfie Acheampong, Assistant Lecturer, Department of Dance Studies, University of Ghana, says that the origin of the talking drum has different narratives and significance according to every ethnic group.

He said the Dagombas for instance called it the Hour Drum and used it to tell stories and give appellations to honourable persons.

These medium sized drums have a distinctive hourglass shape with a drumhead at each end, often made of goatskin. What gives the talking drum its voice (so to speak) are the many leather cords, or ropes, that run along the body from one drumhead to the other.

To play, the drummer tucks the drum under his arm and taps the head with his hand and a hook shaped drumstick. To mimic the stresses and intonations of speech, the drummer simply squeezes the drum between his arm and body, causing the leather cords,or ropes, to change shape.

The talking drum is made of animal skin, leather cords, and wood, which is used to support the drum. Mostly, the skin of the goat is used to make the drumheads’ skin. In African culture, the talking drum is known by various names such as “Dondo”, “Odondo”, “Bozo”, “Dyula” and “Lunna.”

In different cultures of Africa, the talking drum is also recognized to pass on the messages of individuals from one place to another over long distances. It was in use during European rule in the 18th century and was later recognised by the rest of the world. The written text messages were less quick in comparison to the talking drum messages.

Some drummers use small talking drums, while others use larger versions of the drum. The smallest talking drum is found to be 2.75 in (7 cm), while the drumheads are measured to be around 5 in (13 cm) in diameter.

Talking drums can be used for a variety of purposes, including weddings, private functions, entertainment, and burial ceremonies. In ancient times, it was also used to pass on a message from one place to another or give an alert that danger was around. The inter-village communication system was thus made simpler with the use of talking drums by drummers. The tone patterns of the drums would vary and be easily recognized by the local people.

The Atumpan

The Atumpan is the main talking drum of the Akan people. It is the most favoured instrument to play the bass part to accompany dancing. The Atumpan is an open goblet drum on a base played in pairs, usually by a master drummer using two angular sticks. The membrane is stretched across the head of the drum inside a metal ring, which is anchored to seven to eight conical pegs around the outside of the drum.

The Atumpan drum measures approximately one metre in height and has a diameter of 45 centimetres at the top. Due to its weight, it is placed in a wooden stand at an angle during play, alternatively, two long wooden sticks are inserted in two holes where the conical pegs usually go.

Mr David Essilfie Acheampong, Assistant Lecturer, Department of Dance Studies, University of Ghana, explained, that the Atumpan originated from the Ashanti people and was played to praise their heroes and warriors when they returned from wars.

The drum, he said, is classified into two: a male and female. It is played in pairs as they provide the bass part in Adowa dance ensembles.

He said the relationship between the Atumpan and the adowa dance came about because the skin of an Antelope (Adowa in Akan language), is used in making the drum.
Mr Acheampong said history has it that, the Adowa dance originated from the movement of antelope. He said on the sick bed of a Queen Mother by name Abrewa Tutuwa, the gods directed the people to slaughter an antelope and use its blood as pacification for the restoration of the health of the Queen Mother.

Some men were therefore sent to the forest in search of the animal but upon the return of the warlords from the forest with the live antelope, people around saw to their surprise, the antelope jumping about in strange movements.
The people then attempted to imitate the movements of the animal in a dance which they used to rejoice at the restoration of the Queen Mother’s health. According to this account, the Asafo warriors’ group was the first to have started the adowa dance.

Traditionally, the drums are adorned with decorative elements derived from adinkra symbolism, such as “Gye Nyame,” “Afenan,” “Adwo,” “Wawa aba” and “Sankofa.” Some drums are covered with a fabric with geometric figures (diamonds and rectangles) and others are painted with blue or grey paint. In some the natural colour of the wood has been preserved.

Sources have it that the Atumpan drum is made from the hard durable wood of the Tweneboa tree and before cutting it, sacrifices are made to the tree, usually with an egg accompanied with prayers. Thus, the drum is identified with the spirit of the tree.

Mr Tahiru Mohammed, a professional dancer for 21 years with the National Dance Company, said the Atumpan was in the olden days called the “akasanoma” meaning talking bird in English and due to the absence of mobile phones, the drum was placed on top of the mountain, deep in the forest and played to announce the arrival of visitors into the village.

“The female atumpan does most of the gossiping,” he jokingly added.

Mr Mohammed said in the olden days, the atumpan was designed with some human features: the female had breasts and the male had legs but in recent times, those features have been taken off not to project an amorous view to children.

Mrs Caroline Nyemedo, a professional dancer of 35 years said to her, the atumpan represented and fostered unity, togetherness, and a sense of concern for each other.

She said with the advent of mobile phones, people communicate without seeing each other physically and prevented people from ascertaining the physical wellbeing of the person on the other side of the mobile phone.

“The Atumpan, when sounded, brought together everyone so we could see how each person was faring. It also helped to know those absent so that we follow up on them. But with the mobile phone, you cannot tell if the person you are talking to has a cut or is in any bad physical state. You ask about how they are doing and because they do not want to seem like a bother to you, they will just respond by saying, ‘all is well’,” she said.

Is the talking drum still relevant today?

Mr Acheampong said the use of digitalised talking drums and other traditional musical pieces by news outlets and corporate institutions as a montage before reading the news and for marketing of products, were instances to show that traditional music and dance had not lost its relevance.

“The sound of the talking drum is all around us through the radio, music, and even companies use it to create montages to market their products. All these beats carry a unique message, but our problem is that we do not pay attention to them. If we did, we would realise that the talking drum continues to show up in our daily lives and we would appreciate it better,” he said.

Mrs Nyemedo adds that traditional music and dance is one of the main avenues through which Ghana’s cultural identity has been preserved and urged citizens not to look down on performers of traditional music and dance.

The dancer bemoaned the neglect of traditional music and dance on the part of the youth and the promotion of foreign culture.

“We have left our culture to promote that of others. We are now going about searching for knowledge about our own selves. If we don’t solve this now, a time would come, we won’t get people to tell us about our culture,” she said.

She called for the infusion of traditional music and dance into the school curriculum so that pupils would learn and appreciate them from childhood.

Mr Godwin Efu, a professional drummer of almost 20 years, urged the Government and policy makers to financially invest in traditional music to make it more attractive.

He said traditional music and dance should also be performed at every state function and institutions should be encouraged to do same at their public gatherings.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You might also like