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What are Some Examples of Ancient Drums?

Ancient drums, like the Mesopotamian goblet-shaped doumbek and the frame drums of Egypt, have echoed through time, pulsating the rhythm of history. The Japanese taiko, with its thunderous beat, and the Native American powwow drums, central to ceremonial life, also tell tales of bygone eras. Curious about their enduring legacies? Let's delve deeper into the world of ancient percussion.
Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

A drum is one of the most simple instruments possible. Percussion instruments are without a doubt the most basic and fundamental instruments — with the possible exception of the human voice. A drum takes the concept of percussion, and moves it beyond the simple banging together of rocks or pieces of wood. It instead adds some sort of a membrane, which is stretched tight, and makes sound when struck. Because of the simplicity of the drum, there are countless examples of ancient drums spanning continents and millennia.

One group of ancient drums originated in West Africa, probably around the 9th century in the Mali Empire. This family of ancient drums is generally referred to as the dunun, and includes the doundounba, the sangban, and the kenkeni. The doundounba is the largest of the three, and as such plays deep, resounding notes, usually spaced widely apart when played in conjunction with other drums. The sangban is the middle drum, and usually takes on the rhythmic role in a dunun ensemble. The kenkeni is the smallest of these ancient drums, and is usually played rather quickly in a simple pattern. The dunun drums are played with a stick, usually with all three being played by one person, and often with a bell as part of the set.

One group of ancient drums originated in West Africa.
One group of ancient drums originated in West Africa.

The bodhran is another familiar drum, popular in Irish music. Although it is debatable whether bodhrans are in fact ancient drums, or more recent in origin, it is possible that they are at least a few centuries old. The name is thought to have originated sometime in the 17th century, and it is thought that the drum itself may have made its way to Ireland from Spain around that time or a bit earlier. The bodhran is a very simple drum, traditionally made of a basic hoop with a goatskin stretched across it. The bodhran is usually played by a seated musician, who holds the drum on its side. One hand is used to play the drum, striking it either with the hand or a small beater. The other hand sits on the inside of the drum head, and is used to apply pressure to the skin to change the timbre and pitch of the sound.

The daf is very popular in Iran.
The daf is very popular in Iran.

The daf is another of the ancient drums of the world, this time originating in Iran. The daf is thousands of years old, and is one of the drums which helped inspire similar European instruments as Islam made its way to Spain. The daf is a relatively large, circular-framed drum, not unlike the bodhran — which it ultimately may have inspired. Unlike the bodhran, the daf has a number of metal discs around the outside rim, which may be struck by the player to create a different sound. This may be compared to the tambourine, although the metal rings of the daf tend to be substantially larger.

There are many ancient drums found in Asia as well. Perhaps the most well known are the taiko drums of Japan. Taiko drums are relatively large compared to most other ancient drums, with diameters of the head ranging from one foot to three feet (30-100cm) or even larger. Taiko drums are played with drumsticks, with the size and weight varying depending on the music played. Unlike some other ancient drums, Taiko drums are stretched very tight, making for a fairly high pitch, given their large size.

Of course there are hundreds of other types of ancient drums which we did not touch on — to do so would easily be a book in itself — but these are some of the most recognizable types of ancient drums representing a survey from different parts of the world. Ancient drums can also be found in North and South America, other parts of Africa, India, Polynesia, and essentially anywhere else on Earth where humans have lived. The desire to create music seems to be a universal one, and the use of animal hides to make tools to carry or sort grain seems to be equally universal. It seems to be only a matter of time in a culture before the two are put together, and a new instrument is born.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some of the oldest known drums in history?

Among the oldest known drums are the alligator drums, found in Neolithic China, dating back to 5500–2350 BCE. These drums were made from alligator skins stretched over wooden frames. Another ancient drum is the Mesopotamian drum, which dates back to 3000 BCE and was discovered in the region that is now modern-day Iraq. These drums played a significant role in both music and religious ceremonies of the time.

How were ancient drums typically used in societies?

Ancient drums were used for a variety of purposes, including communication, religious rituals, and entertainment. In many cultures, drums were believed to hold spiritual significance and were integral to worship and sacred ceremonies. They were also used in warfare to signal commands or boost the morale of soldiers. Additionally, drums served as a means of long-distance communication, sending messages through rhythmic patterns that could be heard over great distances.

What materials were ancient drums made from?

Ancient drums were commonly made from natural materials available to the people of the time. The drum skins were typically animal hides, such as goat, sheep, or alligator, while the drum bodies were made from carved wood, clay, or metal. The choice of materials often depended on the drum's intended use and the culture that created it. For example, the African djembe is traditionally carved from a single piece of wood and fitted with a goat skin head.

Can you give an example of an ancient drum that is still in use today?

The djembe, originating from West Africa, is an excellent example of an ancient drum that is still widely used today. Its origins can be traced back to the Mali Empire of the 12th century. The djembe is known for its goblet shape and distinct sound, which can produce a wide range of tones. It continues to be a popular instrument in traditional African music, as well as in contemporary music genres worldwide.

What role did ancient drums play in cultural events or festivals?

Ancient drums were central to cultural events and festivals, serving as the heartbeat of celebrations. They were used to accompany dances, mark the change of seasons, and celebrate harvests or other significant community milestones. In many cultures, the rhythms played on drums were deeply intertwined with the identity of the people, often telling stories or conveying important historical events through the language of rhythm and dance.

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Discussion Comments

amypollick

@anon336313: If I had to guess, I'd say they started out when people knocked rocks or sticks together, and then started hitting rocks with sticks, and it just went from there. That's only a theory, but it makes as much sense as anything else.

anon336313

I am doing a music project on drums. I want to know what drums started out as.

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    • One group of ancient drums originated in West Africa.
      By: Ruslan Olinchuk
      One group of ancient drums originated in West Africa.
    • The daf is very popular in Iran.
      By: juan35mm
      The daf is very popular in Iran.