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Lecture | This Time for Africa! Series

Speech Surrogacy on the African Talking Drums: exploring the Yoruba Drum Language

Friday 14 October 2022
This Time for Africa! series
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden


In different world cultures, there is a practice of using musical instruments to imitate spoken words as concrete linguistic expressions, resulting in musical surrogate languages. In such cultures, there is a close affinity between musical and language expressions. Instruments commonly used for speech surrogacy include wind instruments, xylophones, and drums, with the latter more prominent in Africa. African drums have attracted much musical allure and scholarly attention globally, due to the drums’ fascinating linguistic and musical communication proficiencies, hence referred to as ‘talking drums’. This drum language practice is ubiquitous in most of the West African regions.

Amongst the Yoruba people, in South-west Nigeria, the dùndún and bàtá are the foremost talking drums, due to their inherent physiological features with utmost tonal-inflection capabilities, a significant attribute of the Yoruba tonal language. Although musical and language expressions are displayed as distinct features on these drums, nonetheless linguistic expressions often form the bases of the talking drum music in Yoruba culture. Hence, the comprehensibility of the drum language is as a result of the simultaneous blend of the drum music with its verbal meaning.

I will be speaking on a traditional style of musical expression of language, practiced as a form of speech surrogacy on the Yoruba talking drums, and how the Yoruba indigenes interprets the drum’s language-based music. I will also demonstrate how the organology of the various Yoruba talking drums influences their phonological and surrogate systems, as well as the Yoruba drum language system. Traditionally, the drummers employ oral genres (proverbs, poetry, praise-chants, and idiomatic phrases) in the drum-modes, as creative process and sources of the drum’s surrogate language, in conjunction with socio-cultural contexts in the drum lexicon formation and communication, through the drum language tradition. These drums, thus, serve as linguistic and cultural conveyers, or ‘mediality’, through which the surrogate language is propagated and preserved in time and space. Conversely, the drum language – an indigenous knowledge system – retains its speech surrogacy functionality within its cultural domain, where its linguistic attributes are understood, useful, and relevant to the natives. Its musical features and superficial cultural symbolism are more common in the diaspora, where it is often not an essential language mode and culturally sacrosanct. I will, therefore, make reference to how globalization and migration provide insights into human history, culture, and cognitive information. Consequently, the systematic research of non-Western musical and language traditions will contribute immensely towards the diversity of global music, language, cultures, and societies.

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