Drum Language of the Congo
- using vocabulary in the context of phrases -
Welcome to my page on Drum Language of the Congo. It includes: 1) an explanation on how drum language works; 2) an online virtual log drum you can play right now on your computer; 3) fun facts about drum language, and 4) multimedia activities that integrate drum language with other areas of the curriculum! So, take a couple of minutes to read more about this amazing form of communication, learn how to play a couple of phrases on a virtual log drum, and explore some surprisingly fun connections we can make with drum language.
How Drum Language Works
The Lokele people of the Congo use two-tone log drums to communicate phrases in their language. They can accomplish this because their language is tonal. That is, each syllable in a word has a high or low tone. The tonal patterns that result in their speech are the same tonal patterns that they drum. By communicating in this way, they create drum language in which their vocabulary is always understood in the context of phrases. Listen to Phil explain how this works by pressing the Play button below.
Virtual Log Drum
The Lokele use a two-tone percussion instrument they call a boungu or bongungu. It is made from a solid log of reddish-brown wood with the scientific name Pterocarpus Soyauxii. Given it's design, it is actually a wooden slit-gong rather than a traditional drum.
They begin by chiseling out a long narrow slit along the length of the log. Once the slit is deepened to the halfway point, they hollow the two sides until two lips are formed — the thin side or low lip produces the low tone, and the thick side or high lip produces the high tone. The two tones are typically tuned to either a major or minor 3rd. Our virtual boungu is tuned to a major 3rd.
Let's listen to it. Start by clicking your mouse on each side of the slit. Notice how one side produces a lower tone, while the other side produces a higher tone. The sounds you hear were recorded from an actual Lokele boungu, located in the forest on the edge of the great Congo River.
Now let's learn some Lokele words, and the phrases they drum for context. Notice that their word for "bananas" has the same tonal pattern (three low tones) as their word for "up" or "above." However, when you drum these words in the context of a phrase, the difference between them is quite clear. In this drum language, vocabulary is always understood and defined in the context of well known phrases.
|word: likolo (L L L)||up or above|
likolo ko nda use
(L L L L H H H)
|up above there in the sky|
|word: likɔndɔ (L L L)||bananas|
(L L L H L H L L)
|bananas which must be propped up when ripe*|
* because ripe bunches of bananas tend to fall over on their own weight
|word: boungu (H L)||log drum|
Bɔkɔkɔ wa olondo
(L L L H L L H)
|log from the Bolondo tree|
1) Question: What is the best time to send a drum language message? Answer: The Lokele prefer to send messages in the early morning or late evening, when the air is cool. As air cools, it becomes more dense and carries the sound waves a greater distance.
2) Question: How far can one drum be heard? Answer: The sound of a single log drum usually travels the distance of 4-5 miles during the heat of the day, and 6-7 miles during the cool mornings or late evenings.
3) Question: How do the Lokele communicate with distant tribes that speak different languages? Answer: Drummers in boundary villages are often bilingual — they can communicate in Lokele drum language, and the drum language of neighboring tribes. These bilingual drummers are usually children of parents from two different villages. They learn both languages and become proficient in drumming.
Learn how to make a homemade drum and sing Lokele phrases.
|"Talking Tuboungus" lesson plan and group activity|
Play drum language phrases from the Congo — they're integrated into Phil's free multimedia activities.
|Unifix Cube Drum Machine|
|Musical Fraction Bars|
|Morse Code Music|
|Pattern Block Rock|
Book: The Talking Drums of Africa by John F. Carrington. The Carey Kingsgate Press; 1949.
CD: Forest Music - northern Belgian Congo by Hugh Tracey. Sharp Wood Productions and International Library of African Music; 1952.