Drums from Sub-Saharan Africa

The Royal Museum for Central Africa has a rich collection of over 8,000 musical instruments, 85% of which originates from Congo. Together with the thumb piano, the membrane drum is probably the most characteristic musical instrument south of the Sahara. The membrane drum is essential to combined play in the musical accompaniment of rituals and ceremonies, as well as of dance performances that are more geared towards relaxation. This instrument is therefore indispensable in the music and dance culture of sub-Saharan Africa.

In organology, the science of musical instruments, membrane drums are divided into various categories on the basis of their shape. A drum can be open or closed, single or double skinned. Drums can be cylindrical, cup-shaped, barrel-shaped, hourglass-shaped and conic. The most common drum shape in sub-Saharan Africa is the cylindrical one.

The RMCA’s collection of membrane drums is the most extensive in the world with regard to Central Africa, which is why it is a major reference for research. Recently, the collection was taken as a starting point for a critical evaluation of the classification of musical instruments. This was done in the context of the project European Musical Instrument Museums Online (MIMO), which aims to provide access to the collections of 11 museums.

Two new types of cylindrical drums were added to the international classification of the Von Hornbostel & Sachs system. From now on, the vase-shaped yolo drum of the Kuba people of Congo and the cylindrical-conic entenga drum from Burundi are clearly marked on the world map of musical instruments. The story behind RMCA’s collection of musical instruments is therefore not a finished one, as new scientific discoveries are still being made.

Dominik Phyfferoen
Boone, O. 1951. Les Tambours du Congo belge et du Ruanda-Urundi. Annalen van het Museum van Belgisch Congo Tervuren. Reeks in-4: Wetenschappen van de mens. Ethnographie 1.

Gansemans, J. 2008. Collectie van het KMMA : Muziekinstrumenten. Tervuren: Koninklijk museum voor Midden-Afrika.

Moore, K. 1993. ‘A Checklist of Sub - Saharan Drums in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’, Drums The Heartbeat of Africa, Montreal, pp. 186-191.