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Drums play an integral role in most African cultures, and there is a diversity of African drums that is truly staggering. Many types of African drums have been around for hundreds or thousands of years, and have made their way through large portions of the continent, and even to other continents and islands.
One famous group of African drums is the batá drums of the Yorùbá people of Nigeria. The batá drums consist of a set of three or five drums of different sizes, which can be played either with a stick or one’s hands. The drums have two heads, with one large head, and then a tapered neck that comes down to a much smaller head. The batá drums are sacred, like many types of African drums, and they are considered to contain within them the deity Añá. As a result, prayers and offerings may be made to the batá drums. Although batá are African drums, they also play an important role in Cuba. The drums were first introduced when African slaves were brought to Cuba, as part of their religious practice, and over time were used for more secular purposes. In the modern world, batá drums can be found in many genres of Cuban music, including Cuban jazz and timba.
The bougarabou is another of the African drums. The bougarabou originated in western Africa, and is still found predominantly in those countries. Classically the bougarabou was played as a single drum, with one hand or stick, but in more modern times some players have begun playing different bougarabou of differing sizes. The bougarabou has one head, usually covered with cow hide, and the overall shape is roughly an hourglass. Often the player of the bougarabou will wear jangling bracelets, to add another percussive layer to their music.
Ashiko drums are African drums which are found throughout southern Africa, and have made their way to the Americas as well. They are fairly large, conic-shaped drums, covered in cow hide. They are almost always played with the hands, and can be played in an upright position, or more commonly, laid on their side with the player straddling them. The drums are quite popular not only in Africa, but in the West as well, and many Westerners find them to be a good introductory hand drum.
Perhaps the most well-known of the African drums are the drums known as talking drums. Although this term may be used to refer to any drum which can have its pitch modulated to sound like words in the local language — such as the batá — it more commonly is used to refer to a set of African drums found in West Africa. These drums come in many shapes, but most commonly are in a straight hourglass shape, with two leather-covered heads. The strings that hold the heads down are able to be pressed or released by the player, to modulate the pitch of the sound which comes from them. They are usually played with a stick, and the sound they make can be quite loud, carrying great distances. Talking drums work very well for many African languages, because the shifting sounds can in some cases approximate quite accurately the language itself.