African Yoruba Drumming

There are many things that set Yoruba drumming and Shona mbira music apart from one another. Most plainly of which is the sound that each produces. Typically, Yoruba drumming consists of a section of drummers playing various sizes, shapes and styles of drums, and is usually accompanied by vocalists. The mbira is a pitch and tone producing instrument that is plucked, rather than a percussive instrument that is struck or beat. Therefore, Mbira music is almost never accompanied by anything other than another mbria. However, the dundun drum itself is widely known for it’s ability to produce a wide range of pitches, also known as the “talking drum”. The use of dundun drums in African culture plays an important role, due to its close relationship with the African language of the Yoruba people. Because the African language is tonal, the dundun drum imitates the speech patterns of the language when it is played, hence the nickname “talking drum”.

In the Eegun oje, a Yoruba masquarade, the dance is usually accompanied by bata, an ensemble of conically-shaped, double-headed membrane drums, and one of Yoruba’s most ancient instrumental ensembles. A bata ensemble consists of four drums: the iyaalu (the mother drum), and three supporting drums (the omele abo, the omele ako, and the kudi). The omele ako and the kudi often play very repetitive patterns and rhythms, while the omele abo often engages in dialogue with the iyaalu. The iyaalu is played by a master drummer, whose text-based improvisations are accompanied by the ostinato patterns of the supporting drums (Omojola, 2005, par. 2).

Yoruba drumming is most often performed during rituals, or masquerade dances, in which a number of dancers dance to rhythmic cues given to them by the master drummer, and those not dancing often partake in a call-and-response style of vocal singing. However, vocals are perceived to be more of an accompaniment to the more dominant drumming. The texts of the songs were often sung as self-praise to motivate the dancers into action.

Although many masquerades are used to represent the ancestor spirits of the Yoruba people, the Eegun oje is not. It is used plainly for entertainment. The representation or worship of ancestor spirits in song is one of the few things that Shona mbira music shares as a similarity.

The Shona people have strong beliefs in life after death, in the sense that when death occurs, the spirit of the loved one transitions to another plane of existence. It is important to the Shona people that when this occurs, they stay in close communication with the deceased, in order to guide the spirits away from danger. They believe that the music of the mbira provides the most important means of communication to these spirits.

The mbira consists of three rows of different sized metal strips, attached to a wooden resonator that are plucked to create different pitches. Cowry shells or bottle caps are also attached to the box, causing them to vibrate when a metal strip is plucked.

One of the most important types of mbiras is the mbira davadzimu. It is an instrument closely associated with spirit possession ceremonies, known as the bira. In a bira ceremony, the mbria is played to create an open line of communication between the living and the dead. Although both the Yoruba and the Shona have affiliations with the spirit world, the difference is that the Shona use music to actively communicate with the dead, whereas the Yoruba typically just use music to worship spirits and gods in rituals and masquerades.

Mbiras are typically played by themselves, indoors, but can also be played outdoors with the addition of a deze, a calabash resonator used for amplification. It is also not uncommon for Mbria players to play along with other Mbira players, or with the help of shakers and light percussion sections.

In comparison to the four different drums sections used in the Eegun oje, there are typically two parts in mbria music: a leader (kushaura) and a follower (kutsinhera). Typically these parts are played by two different players, but they can also be played by a single, virtuoso mbira player.


Omojola, B. (2005). Exploring the landscape of african music. OnMusic of the World.
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