Drum Language of the Congo
- using vocabulary in the context of phrases -

Welcome to my page on Drum Language of the Congo. You will learn about: 1) how drum language works; 2) how the drums are made; 3) how to drum words and phrases; 4) fun facts about drum language, 5) multimedia activities with drum language, and 6) a video lesson with Phil - make a homemade drum and play drum language! 

How Drum Language Works

In the Congo, the Lokele 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.<A href="http://www.philtulga.com/Lokele%20Intro-web.mp3">Lokele%20Intro-web.mp3</A>


How The Drums Are Made

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. Let's listen to it. Start the video file on the left. 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.

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 3rd or minor 3rd. This one was tuned to a major 3rd, with the pitches D (low) and F# (high).


How To Drum Words and Phrases

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. Play the videos below to hear these phrases.

Lokele English
word: likɔndɔ (L L L)    bananas
phrase: likɔndɔ libotumbela
(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
Lokele English
word: likolo (L L L)    up or above
phrase: likolo ko nda use
(L L L L H H H)
up above there in the sky








Fun Facts

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 villages 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 groups.  These bilingual drummers are usually children of parents from two different villages. They learn both languages and become proficient in drumming.


Multimedia Activities

Play drum language phrases from the Congo  they're integrated into Phil's free multimedia activities.

Unifix Cube Drum Machine

Counting Music

Learn about Drum Language in Ghanaian Schools


Play Drum Language on a Homemade Drum with Phil











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.


Copyright 2005-2023 Phil Tulga

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