Also:       tamale      dzema      square drum      

Title: Anomabu—Kolomashi Group. Label: Vetter field recording 30 March 1993. Format: Hi8. Catalog#: VC-6.

Contextual Associations

The tamalin is a single-head membranophone of the Ga and Akan peoples of southern Ghana. This rectangular frame-drum is found in several recreational and neo-traditional bands such as the Ga kolomashie and kpanlongo and the Akan akosua tuntum ensembles and is called, variously: tamalin (which it will be referred to in this article), tamali, dzema, and ‘square drum.’


This drum has a unique frame-within-a-frame design that allows for tension adjustment of its single rectangular membrane. Unlike the shells of almost every other drum from this area, this one does not start out as a block of wood that is then hollowed out. The outer frame of the tamalin is constructed from four slats of wood joined into a rectangle and strengthened by cross supports that fit into mortises on all four sides (see first detail photo). Fitting loosely within this outer frame and on top of the cross-supports is a second, smaller frame only about half as deep as the outer one and with no cross-supports. The upward rims of both frames are flush with one another, and a rectangular rawhide head is stretched over them but attached with numerous tacks to the side of only the outer frame. A long metal bolt is threaded from the bottom side of the drum through each of the cross-supports very close to where they are joined to the inside wall of the outer frame (see second detail photo). The points at which these four bolts come into contact with the bottom side of the inner frame is made impenetrable by strips of sheet metal nailed to the inner frame. By tightening and loosen these four bolts, which raises or lowers the inner frame against the bottom side of the membrane, the drummer can set the head tension prior to performance.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

These drums are struck near their rim with the player's open palm while his other hand holds the cross-supports at the back of the drum. Each drum produces but one tone and is struck vigorously. Ensembles often have two or three tamalin of slightly varying sizes tuned to as many different pitches. In such settings, the three drummers play in hocket to produce one rhythmic line. One variant of this drum, the dzema, played in an Akan community further inland is struck with a short wood beater rather than the open palm.


Rectangular frame drums are found elsewhere on the west coast of Africa, most notably among the Yoruba of Nigeria. Waterman explains that the origin of the Yoruba samba or ‘four corners’ frame drum is situated with repatriated African slaves from Brazil, who possessed the necessary training in carpentry to design and construct this drum. It is most likely this Yoruba drum that travelled up and down the West African coast in the hands of sailors and fishermen, eventually to be picked up by other coastal peoples such as the Ga of Ghana.

Bibliographic Citations

Nketia, J. H. 1963. Drumming in Akan Communities of Ghana. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons LTD.

Vetter, Roger. 1996. Rhythms of Life, Songs of Wisdom: Akan Music from Ghana, West Africa. CD and booklet. Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 40463.

________. Anomabu, Ghana—Musicking in a Fante Community, accessed November 1, 2016, http://vetter.sites.grinnell.edu/ghana/

Waterman, Christopher. 1990. Juju: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Younge, Paschal Yao. 1992. Musical Traditions of Ghana, v.1. 2nd ed. Legon, Ghana: University of Ghana.

________, and Maria Billings. 2000. Ghana: Rhythms of the People. CD and liner notes. Multicultural Media MCM3018.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: West Africa

Nation: Ghana

Formation: Ga

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.311 membranophone--single-skin frame drum (the depth of the body does not exceed the radius of the membrane)

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - frame

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

Membrane design: unframed

Membrane attachment: unframed membrane nailed to shell

Membrane tension control: adjusting position of sliding frame within shell against attached membrane

Sounding for membranophone: striking directly with one hand

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


15.8 in height of outer frame 13.8 in. width of outer frame 2.5 in depth of outer frame

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
metal - sheet

Entry Author

Roger Vetter