drum (Lele)

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Contextual Associations

This single-head membranophone is attributed to the Lele tribe, a subgroup of the Kuba people of southern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Available sources do not provide insight into the symbolic meaning associated with the face carved in high relief on this drum, other than to say that Lele drums often feature carved human and animal figures (the first detail photo shows a snake carved on the reverse side of this drum). Some surface areas are incised with simple geometric designs, as are many drums from this part of the DRC. The neighboring Kuba tribe has very similar drums to this one, both in form and iconography. Both men and women can play drums in Kuba and Lele cultures, and their music was, at least in the past, used during life-cycle rituals and in ceremonies of the nobility.


The shell of this drum is carved from a solid block of wood. The internal shape of its resonating chamber mirrors the cylindrical shape of its exterior profile, but just above the base of the drum it narrows down to a small opening about two inches in diameter. The upper opening of the shell is covered with a membrane. The method of attaching the drumhead to the shell is, in large part, similar to other drums in the collection from southwest Democratic Republic of the Congo. A band or collar of leather a few inches wide and with its ends sewn together runs around the circumference of the shell a few inches below the rim of the drum’s upper opening. The bottom edge of this belt is securely attached to the shell with numerous wooden pins that are pounded into holes drilled in the shell. Small holes are punched around the belt and the edge of the circular membrane at about one-inch intervals. A thread of vine or strong plant fiber is used to lace the head to the belt in a ‘Y’ pattern, alternately passing through a hole in the edge of the membrane and in the belt (see second detail photo). It is at this stage of manufacture that the tension is most likely introduced to the drumhead. At some point in the drum’s existence a circle of natural rubber was applied to the center of the drumhead adding to its mass and probably enhancing the instrument’s bass range.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Most tall Lele and Kuba drums from this part of the DRC are played while standing with drum shell pinched between the player’s knees or thighs and leaning forward (see photo 66.1 in Dagan, p. 134). The player uses the palms of both hands to strike the drumhead.


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 1880s when the earliest contact between Europeans and the peoples of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo took place.

Bibliographic Citations

Boone, Olga. 1951. Les Tambours du Congo Belge et du Ruanda-Urundi. Tervuren, Belgium: Musee du Congo Belge.

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

Kreamer, Christine Mullen, and Marie-Therese Brincade. 1989. “40: Drum. Zaire, Lele.” 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: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Formation: Lele

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.28 membranophone--vase-shaped drum: the body is waisted and rests on an open foot that may be flared; the upper section is conical, and the lower section, which is rectilinear or curvilinear in profile, tapers towards the foot; these drums have a single membrane

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - pedestal

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

Membrane design: framed by a flexible belt

Membrane attachment: unframed membrane laced to belt-like counterhoop encircling and 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: none


44.1 in. height

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
lacing - plant fiber
rubber - natural

Entry Author

Roger Vetter