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What are Hand Drums?

Matthew F.
Matthew F.

Hand drums are one in a long line of percussive instruments. They are simply drums that are played with the hand instead of a stick or hammer. Hand drums are renowned in many types of music, from congas and bongos, to tablas and tambourines. They provide the backbone of many worldwide musical sounds, most notably African, Indian and Latin music.

Hand drums, like any drums, consist of a drum head or skin stretched over a hollow shell. They are usually cylinders and can be covered with drum heads on one or both sides. Perhaps the most recognizable of hand drums is the tambourine. The tambourine is simply a frame drum with jingling noise makers attached to the sides. The frame drum family which the tambourine follows is a drum that has a face wider than the shell is deep.

Latin music often uses bongo drums.
Latin music often uses bongo drums.

Hand drums can be played in different styles, at different paces and in different tunes. They can be played sitting or standing, by one person or by many. A hand drum set may consist of as many as a dozen drums and resemble a regular standing drum set of rock and roll music fame. Many hand drum instruments, indeed, come in sets of different sizes and timbres, such as the congas and tamblas.

Hand drums can be played lightly with the fingers, quickly with a “thumb roll,” loudly with a clap of the palm or fist, or in many ways with a combination of the fingers, palms, knuckles and wrists. The opportunity for beats, like a normal drum set, relies on the size and timbre of the drum, the drummer, and the way the drum heads are stroked. Hand drums, like performing drums, are an instrument very rhythmic in nature.

Like the simple frame drum, many hand drums are made of wood. The most common drum heads in history were made from stretched animal skins, and can still be seen in authentic hand drums. More recently drum heads have transitioned to forms of polyester and plastic. The drum shell is often made of durable woods such as oak or ash.

Hand drums, the world’s most ancient instruments, originated in the cradle of civilization: in the Middle East. They flourished in India in ancient times, and made their way to the Roman Empire and became an important sound in many Islamic cultures. The Tar, the daf, the tonbak, and the Doumbek are among the most important of Middle Eastern hand drums from early times. In the 21st century, tablas remain central in Indian music and much of the most popular Latin dance music — salsa, meringue and Latin jazz — owe their success to hand drums.

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    • Latin music often uses bongo drums.
      Latin music often uses bongo drums.