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How to Make African Talking Drums

Two-headed drums
drummers image by michele goglio from Fotolia.com

Talking drums are small hourglass-shaped drums that originated in West Africa. The drummer places the talking drum under one of his armpits and secures it with a short strap that goes over the shoulder. Different tones are made as the drummer squeezes the strings that connect to the two skin-covered heads of the drum, while striking it with his hands and a small stick. Experienced players can imitate the tones of speech, making an intelligible pattern that can be used to communicate messages. Although it was traditionally played only by men in West Africa, some African women performers now play the talking drum. With a few specific materials, you can build your own talking drum.

Two-headed drums
drummers image by michele goglio from Fotolia.com

Things You'll Need:

  • Scissors
  • A Heavy Duty Needle
  • Cotton String Of Varying Thicknesses
  • Goat Or Other Animal Skin, Shaved
  • Talking Drum Shell
  • 1/4 Inch Nylon Rope

Making a Talking Drum

Buy a shell from an African instrument supply store, or carve one if you are able. The drum shell is made of hardwood, about 12 inches long and hourglass-shaped with a diameter ranging from three to seven inches, though some talking drums are larger than this. The wood shell should be hollowed out to about 1/2 inch thickness.

Get a goat skin that is large enough to yield two round pieces that are two inches greater in diameter than the drum heads. Soak the shaved goat skin in water for 4 or 5 hours. You can order goat skins from a drum supply store. Cut out the two rounds from the soaked goat skin using scissors.

Make two rings from thin nylon rope (about 1/3 inch diameter) that fit snuggly around the wood near each opening or head. Fuse the ends of the rope together using a lighter or a flame. Place the ring about 1/2 inch down the wood from each opening. Place one of the rounds of skin over one of the openings and secure it just above the thick nylon rope ring with a piece of thick white cotton string (the thickness of twine). Pull the skin up so that it covers the cotton string and secure temporarily (you will cut off excess skin later).

Secure the skin to the nylon rope by threading a large needle with cotton thread just slightly thinner than the thread you used to hold the skin to the drum. Starting at any point around the head on the underside of the skin, sew the thread through two layers of skin and just above the cotton thread that is holding the skin to the head (above meaning toward the opening of the drum) so that the string tying the head on is enclosed by the skin. Moving the needle to the right, sew the thread under and around the thicker nylon rope again piercing he skin so that the thin cotton string is encased by the skin. This time, bring the needle to the left of the thread and pull it, creating a loop. Basically you are creating a series of loops on the thick nylon rope and at the same time, sewing the skin to the thick rope. The length of cotton thread inside the skin helps take some stress off of the skin so it won't tear. Be sure to draw the thread to the left side of the string, if you are sewing toward the right, to create a knot. Repeat this on both sides of the drum.

Once you have sewn the skins onto the nylon rope, lace cotton string up and down through each loop so that you have a series of strings running the length of the drum. Pull them tight as you go. Secure the string ends with square knots.

Cut off excess skin, so that the edge sits just below the head. Fashion a short shoulder strap (the drum should fit just under your underarm) with braided string or a piece of cloth. Play the head with a stick and your hand and squeeze the ropes to make different tones.

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