drum (Akan)

Contextual Associations

This single-headed membranophone with a composite barrel-conical shell profile is of the Akan speaking peoples of southern Ghana, Africa. It was most likely the master drum of an Asante or Fante town or village popular, or recreational, band. There is no generic name for “drum” in Akan languages, and what the specific name of this drum would be is dependent on its precise location of origin and the genre of popular band in which it was used (these particulars are not known for this specimen). Women do not, in general, perform on membranophones in Akan cultures, so the performer of this sort of drum is invariably a male musician. Akan cultures have rich oral traditions of proverbs, which can be rendered as concrete representations on a variety of objects, including drums, used in daily and ceremonial settings. The lower two-thirds of the shell exterior of the drum pictured here is decorated with such proverbial images. Three images are of human figures, one shooting a rifle (detail #1, this proverbial image may or may not include the coiled snake at his feet), a second apparently revealing his heart (detail #2), and the third a woman carrying an object (possibly a drum) on her head (detail #3). We do not know the proverbs to which these relate, but a fourth figure (detail #4) of crossed crocodiles is frequently encountered in Akan art. The proverb this figure represents comes in multiple versions, one of which translates as “Bellies mixed, crocodiles mixed say ‘let a bit wash down your throat, let a bit wash down my throat, and all will meet in one stomach’” (Appiah, p. 66). This proverb refers to the nature of Akan family tradition and the strong links between its members. The family is one unit, and anything that comes to any of its members (each of the crocodile throats) benefits the entire family (the stomach). 


The tubular shell is carved from a single hollowed-out block of wood, possibly from the tweneboatree, the favored variety for Akan drum manufacture due to its natural resistance to bugs. The shell shape is a common one amongst the Akan peoples, generally barrel-like but with its top third more cone-like with slightly inward-curving sides. It is at the base of this conical section that five holes are drilled through the shell to receive as many tuning pegs. The mammal-skin drumhead, framed with a rattan flesh hoop, is attached to the shell with five loops of leather lacing. Each lacing loop passes through a pair of holes punched in the membrane just inside the head’s flesh hoop, and then around the ball-shaped end of a wooden tuning peg (see detail #5). The pegholes are drilled at an angle so that, when inserted, the pegs point slightly outward from the shell. Made from softer wood, the pegs slide with resistance in their sockets, and the deeper a peg is pounded into its socket the greater the tension exerted on the framed membrane.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player of this type of drum generally performs from a seated position with the base of the drum a foot or two in front of him, often resting on a flat rock. The drum is tipped back toward the player and rests against the inside of his knees, positioning the head in front of his abdomen so that both hands can be used to strike the head. This tilted position opens the lower opening of the drum, which adds to the drum’s resonance. The player primarily uses the palms of his hands to strike the head, and depending on where contact is made and whether the hands bounce off the head or momentarily rest against it, different timbres are produced. Depending on the type of music being performed by a popular band, this master drum will be accompanied by several other instruments, including other traditional and neo-traditional membranophones as well as a few time-line-keeping idiophones (clappers or bells). Together, the rhythms produced on these instruments create a complex poly-metric musical whole to which non-performers dance when so inspired.


Drums are so central to the music making of the core spiritual, political, and military institutions of traditional Akan life that they most likely have been a part of that culture for centuries. However, Cole and Ross (p. 170) speculate that Akan popular band master drums that incorporate anthropomorphic shapes and proverbial images may be of considerably more recent origin. Based on their informants, on drums found in museum collections around the world, and lack of mention of them in early colonial accounts, it seems most likely that such artistic decoration of drums originated amongst the Fante people perhaps no earlier than the early twentieth century and later elsewhere in the Akan cultural region.

Bibliographic Citations

Appiah, Peggy. 1979. “Akan Symbolism,” African Arts13/1:64-67.

Cole, Herbert M., and Doran H. Ross. 1977. The Arts of Ghana. Los Angeles: UCLA Museum of Cultural Anthropology.

Dagan, Esther A. 1993. “Ghana,” In Esther A. Dagan, ed., Drums: The Heartbeat of Africa. Montréal: Galerie Amrad African Art Publications, pp. 98-102.

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

Ross, Doran H. 1989. “Master Drums from Akan Popular Bands,” In Brincard, Marie-Thérèse, ed., Sounding Forms: African Musical Instruments. New York: The American Federation of Arts, pp. 78-80.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: West Africa

Nation: Ghana

Formation: Akan

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.221.1 membranophone--individual single-skin barrel drum

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - barrel-conical

Number and function of membranes: one, for sounding

Membrane design: framed with rigid flesh hoop

Membrane attachment: framed membrane hoop connected, by lacing, to pegs protruding from shell

Membrane tension control: adjusting depth of pegs in shell

Sounding for membranophone: striking directly with both hands

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


34 in. height 9 in. diameter (top rim of shell) 10.5 in. diameter (bottom rim of shell) 15 in. diameter (at widest point of shell)

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
cord - leather

Entry Author

Roger Vetter