drum (West Africa)

Contextual Associations

This tall, single-headed, roughly-cylindrical membranophone originates from the Guinea Coast region of West Africa, possibly from an ethnic group living in either Liberia or Cote d’Ivoire. It was acquired by the late anthropologist Ronald Kurtz, who carried out field research in Liberia in the late 1960s but left no detailed information about the drum’s cultural association and context of usage. Its shell is richly decorated with images of a menagerie of fauna including a crocodile, horse, antelope, cow, pelican, guinea fowl, snake, and other unidentified mammals and reptiles (see detail images #1-4). These are all creatures that are found in the wet tropical rainforests of the Guinea Coast, but the symbolic meaning of their presence on this drum is unfortunately not known.


The drum shell is carved from a 3.5-foot-long log of dense hardwood. Even though the exterior of the shell varies in its diameter along its length, the interior resonating space is roughly cylindrical in shape with the open end of the shell (detail #5) only slightly smaller in diameter than the covered opening at the other end of the shell (detail #6). Mammal skin is used for the drumhead, first stretched around a stiff hoop made of an unknown material, and then secured over the open end of the shell with a long rawhide lace that is looped alternately around the hoop and six wooden pegs (detail #7) wedged into holes drilled in the wall of the shell about six inches beneath the rim (detail #6).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Given the height and weight of this drum it almost certainly would be sounded by a standing and stationary performer, probably using the palms of both hands to strike the membrane head to produce a small range of open and muted timbres.


Membranophones with shells on which wildlife and human subjects are depicted in relief carving are found distributed widely throughout Bantu-speaking areas for West and Central Africa, from Guinea to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Other examples of such drums found in this collection include the Akan drum (Ghana) and the Lele drums #1, #2, and #3 (from the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Bibliographic Citations

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


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: West Africa

Nation: Liberia or Cote d'Ivoire

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.211.1 membranophone--individual single-skin cylindrical drum

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - cylindrical

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


41.6 in. height 7.7 in. diameter of head 7.5 in. diameter of base

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
lacing - rawhide

Entry Author

Roger Vetter