Recent adventures in drumming

16 Nov

One of my biggest personal goals in coming to Nigeria, especially as a percussionist, is to immerse myself in traditional music and drumming.

My teacher Musibau and his wife at their home in Yemetu

Thankfully, I’m off to a pretty good start. Since the first month I’ve arrived, I’ve been learning the talking drum from my friend Emmanuel. Recently, I’ve also begun learning bata drums from a teacher I met at the Oyo State Cultural Center named Taiwo Musiaubata. Musibata (his shortened name) has travelled all over the world (Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, Spain, England, France, and India) to teach bata drumming. His father and grandfather were both bata drummers. Traditionally, in Yoruba culture, children inherit work from their parents and start an apprenticeship with them when they are in their early teen years.

After taking drum lessons for close to ten years in America, the differences in the music, learning, and teaching styles have been really intriguing to me.

Plaing Iyalu for the king of old Oyo empire

Days when culture shock is getting the better of me and I’m feeling down, practicing my drum makes me feel completely rejuvenated. The fact that music is truly a universal language that the entire world understands (some more so and in different ways than others) has been extremely powerful and uplifting since my arrival.

I’ll quickly explain the two main families of Yoruba drums: the talking drums and bata drums. Each family is comprised of a set of three drums. My goal is to have a good understanding of all six before I leave, and be able to play somewhat competently. Talking drums are made out of a special type of tree (I only know the Yoruba word, sorry). The skin is made from cow or horse skin.

me playing an "iyalu" talking drum outside the King of Oyo's palace

Cow skin is also used to make the strings that run up and down the side. The drum is played with a stick/beater called an “òpá” and the pitch of the drum is constantly changed by squeezing the strings on the side of the drum, thus tightening the tension of the head. The talking drum and Yoruba language are inseparable. Due to the fact that Yoruba is a tonal language, the drum is literally used to speak. Prayers and proverbs are so well-known that whenever I play for a Yoruba person, they repeat the sentence I’m using the drum to say using words, even though the drum uses tones instead of words. The talking drum is a whole other medium of communication. It is impossible to learn the talking drum without an extensive background in Yoruba language The talking drum is made up of three distinct drums: the omele, the gángan, ati the ìyálù (translation-mother drum), in order from smallest to largest.

the various talking drums

The omele drum usually plays a repetitive pattern to keep time (similar to a cascara pattern in Cuban Rumba music). The gángan and ìyálu drums are used to literally speak over the omele pattern in a traditional ensemble. The gángan is played by squeezing your entire arm around the drum. The ìyálu, which is very large, is only played with your hands. One hand beats the drum and the other grabs usually four strings to change the tension. Ìyálu drums also traditionally have sets of bells on the front and back. The bata family resembles the talking drum family in the sense that there are three drums: omele bàtá, omelet LOOK UP, and the ìyálu (sometimes called bàbálu, or father drum), in order from smallest to largest. Omele bata drums (the smallest, group of three) are usually beat with flimsy sticks made of dried cow skin. The larger drums are beat with one stick on the small head and beat with a hand on the larger head. The video below explains in more details.

So far I’ve had the opportunity to buy an omelet bata drum and a gangan drum.

Jiroma, who made my talking drum

Both drums were custom-made by hand.They sound great and I’m really happy with them so far. I also have been fortunate enough to have two great teachers. Hopefully within due time I’ll become a true “àyàn” (drummer). I taped my first bata lesson and made a video (see below). Hope you enjoy!


9 Responses to “Recent adventures in drumming”

  1. Lisa Durocher November 16, 2010 at 8:14 PM #

    Very interesting about the drums. Liked watching you play. Love all the kids in the video and you talking to them.


  2. vJ November 16, 2010 at 8:28 PM #

    The kids can’t get enough of you! nice vid kev.

  3. ben schapiro November 16, 2010 at 9:16 PM #


  4. Donald Volk November 17, 2010 at 3:18 AM #

    Good to hear from you again Kev.
    Cant wait to hear you play all the drums when you return home.
    How are you making out? Need anything?
    Miss you alot.

  5. Donald Volk November 17, 2010 at 3:53 AM #

    Hey Kev,
    Just got the video up and it was fantastic.

  6. Karen Born November 20, 2010 at 10:33 PM #

    “White boy plays bata drums in Nigeria”…..EXTREMELY WELL!! That was so much fun to see, and listen to Kevin! I love seeing how those children respond to you, and I continue to be incredibly impressed with your fluency in their native tongue! This was very interesting, and so pleased that you shared this with us…learned alot!

  7. Bola November 24, 2010 at 1:18 AM #

    Kevin, ku ise o, mo ko fe je ki o mo wipe o le ja amala ni America, orisiri ile oje to ta amalo ni o wa ni america. Ti ko ba si ni Winscousin, bo ya ki olo si Chicago, wa ri orisirisi oje yoruba je ni be. Wa kere oko de le o.

    emi ni toto
    Bola (Toronto, Canada)

  8. Tomi November 30, 2010 at 10:27 AM #

    Great job!
    You make me want to learn more about my culture.
    Ironu mi wipe wa gbadun irinajo re! Wa de di omo yooba patapata:) Wishing you a great cultural experience!

  9. Baba Adetobi Ajibilu April 7, 2013 at 5:19 AM #

    enjoyed it very much I play Afro Cuban Bata,I have a set from Oyo,omele meta Omele Abo,and Iya,I am grateful to you for posting your lesson Modupe pupo

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