Also:       mukupiela      

Contextual Associations

The mukupela is an hourglass-shaped membranophone of the Chokwe people whose homeland is on both sides of the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. In the past this variety of drum was elaborately incised with symbols of great chiefs and used to announce such events as war. Today, it is found in ensembles used for Chokwe rituals (such as the male mukanda initiation rite) and dances. In addition to background patterns of incised lines found on this and most mukupela, stylized faces often appear in the middle of the decoration found on the two bulging sections of the shell (see first detail image). The meaning of this mask-like image is explained by Cameron and Ross (DjeDje 1999, p. 332): “the face on the side of this drum represents Mwana wa Pwo, a masquerade character representing a young woman who appears in the communities during men’s initiations to dance or ‘play’ with the women.”


The tubular, hourglass-shaped body of this mukupela is carved from a solid block of cikamba wood. Four handles around the waist of the drum are carved in high relief, although on this particular mukupela two of these handles have broken off. A membrane of antelope, goat or sheep rawhide is used to cover both of the open ends of the shell. Holes cut just inside the edge of the circular membranes are stretched over wooden pegs that are imbedded in the shell just below the rims of the two shell openings to hold the membranes in tension (see second detail image). A black patch of a compound made with natural rubber is placed at the center of each head. Inserted into the hole in the middle of the drum shell (the hole can be seen in the photo) is a chihondo, a small cone-shaped gourd with a thin membrane made from a spider's egg sack stretched over its smaller end (the gourd insert for this mukupela has been lost). 

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A seated drummer places the mukupela horizontally in his lap and strikes both heads with the palms of his hands. If the drum heads are not at the desired pitch, they will be held close to a fire prior to use in order to temporarily increase their tension and raise their pitch. Different pitches are produced on the two heads depending on whether or not the circle of rubber to the center of each membrane is struck. The energy given off by striking the heads sympathetically sounds the chihondo membrane, adding a distinctive buzzing quality to the sound of this drum. A typical Chokwe ensemble for accompanying dances will include two mukupela, a few tall single-head cylindrical drums, and a few large slit drums (idiophones).


The published literature on the musical instruments of this area of Africa does not reveal much in regard to the history and evolution of musical instruments in general. Drums have been reported and collected for museums since the late 19th century when the earliest contact between Europeans and the Chokwe took place. Chokwe carving, be it of musical instruments, masks, or utilitarian objects, has become a staple of ethnographic and private art collections of African material culture.

Bibliographic Citations

Bastin, Marie-Louise. 1992. “Musical Instruments, Songs and Dances of the Chokwe (Dundo Region, Lunda District, Angola).” African Music 7/2: 23-44.

Cameron, Elizabeth, and Doran H. Ross. 1999. “Part Three: Catalog.” In Turn Up the Volume!: A Celegration of African Music. ed. DjeDje, Jacqueline Cogdell. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, p. 332.

Dagan, Esther A. 1993. Drums: The Heartbeat of Africa. Montreal: Galerie Amrad African Art Publications.

Kreamer, Christine Mullen. 1989. “41: Drum. Zaire, Chokwe.” Sounding Forms: African Musical Instruments. ed. Marie-Therese Brincade. New York: American Federation of Arts, p. 110.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: Central Africa

Nation: Angola

Formation: Chokwe

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.242.12 membranophone--individual double-skin hourglass shaped drum, both heads played

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - hourglass

Number and function of membranes: two, both for sounding

Membrane design: unframed

Membrane attachment: unframed membrane nailed to shell

Membrane tension control: none, tension set at time of manufacture

Sounding for membranophone: striking directly with both hands

Sound modifiers for membranophone: membrane-covered hole in shell, sounded sympathetically


20.5 in. height

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
rubber - natural

Entry Author

Roger Vetter