Drumming to Communicate

Drumming as a Language (Willis Bocock)

Title: Drumming as a Language

General Information about Item:

  • Cultural Lore, tradition
  • Language: N/A
  • Continent of Origin: Africa
  • Informant: John Harvey
  • Date Collected: 2-26-18

Informant Data:

  • John (Jack) Harvey is a 22-year old male who attends Dartmouth and plans to graduate in 2018.  Jack was born and raised in New York.  At Dartmouth, Jack plays on the Men’s Varsity Squash team and is the president of his fraternity.  After graduation, Jack plans on moving back to the New York City area.

Contextual Data:

  • Cultural Context: Jack is a former member of Professor Habiz Shabazz’s course titled “Oral Tradition Musicianship,” where he learned about African drumming technique, culture, and the drums themselves. Jack is proficient in the use of Ableton and other percussion software programs.
  • Social Context: This tradition came up in conversation when I asked Jack about potential stories about the origins of African drumming. He mentioned that the drums had originally been used for a social, communicative purpose, and that the entertainment purpose that people typically imagine when thinking of drumming is inaccurate.


  • African drums were originally built as a language form, and it is said that the “talking drums” were originally used to communicate and signal between villages. The original role of the drums to communicate between villages eventually morphed into a story-telling role, and the drummers began using the drums to entertain villages with traditional tales. The talking drummers, or “griots,” held a sacred role in their societies and guarded the stories they told through the drums very carefully.


  • “I remember hearing about how drums started off as a way to tell other villages certain messages, before they were actually used to play music or tell stories. There were certain people, I think called griots, that were the main drummers for each of their villages, and they were originally the ones who would do the communicating, but their role gradually changed and turned into more of a storyteller/entertainer role as the culture of the societies developed and they had more time for entertainment.”

Informant’s Comments:

  • There are a myriad of different purposes that the drums have played in African cultures, but this sequence of inter-village communication to storytelling to entertainment seems to be the most salient out of all the themes he has seen.

Collector’s Comments:

  • I found this explanation to be very surprising, as I had never considered drums to be a form of communication, but it seems that it communication was actually their primary purpose to begin with.

Collector’s Name: Willis Bocock


  • Tradition
  • Drumming communication
  • origin of drumming