Old drums beat a path from history to Erykah Badu

With a curved stick in one hand, a five-year-old Nigerian pre-schooler staggers as she tries to steady what's been slung from her shoulder: a drum and many generations of history.

"The children need to carry on our culture, our tradition, and you need to catch them young," Aralola Olamuyiwa, popularly known as Ara, said after giving an hour-long lesson at a Lagos nursery and primary school on the talking drum.

The West African talking drum, an hour-glass-shaped instrument usually made of wood and animal hide, is deeply embedded in the region's culture, having served as a means of communication long before phones, not to mention email and text messages.

But while it has lost its practical purpose, the talking drum is a long way from dying, having now been incorporated into not only traditional music, but also African hip-hop and the songs of global stars such as Erykah Badu.

Nigerian-born Sikiru Adepoju has gained acclaim for his talking drum expertise, in large part thanks to his collaborations with Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart.

Ara is one of Nigeria's rare female talking drummers and has performed with Stevie Wonder and for the Queen of England.

She visits schools teaching children to play, calling it "a way of preserving our heritage through our children who are going to be our tomorrow, our future."

Earnest goals, indeed, but don't forget that it can be fun as well. The instrument and its varying tones are infectious and can make people move -- a key reason why contemporary musicians have used them to accent their tunes.

Nigerian-British female rapper Weird MC, also known as the Rappatainer, used a talking drummer when she released her single "Ijo-ya" (Let's Dance) in 2006.

Born Adesola Idowu, she said she wanted to mix contemporary sounds with the traditional drum to create something that sounded new, "which at the time was a very unique thing to do."

"So we ended up getting the club feel and the African feel as well," she said. "It sounded so different, so unique. It was really heavy and edgy at the same time."

The talking drum had in the past been used as a way to communicate between villages, with a complex set of sounds roughly mimicking the words of local languages.

Also used for African oral poetry, "it operated like today's telephone or intercom," said Tunde Babawale of the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation in Nigeria's culture and tourism ministry.

From the way the drum is beaten, those familiar with it can tell if it is announcing a birth, death, marriage or declaration of war.

"You can follow intelligently what the drum is saying. What it does is not just ordinary speech, it is poetic," said Mobolanle Satunsa, a language lecturer at Nigeria's Babcock University and author of a book on talking drum poetry.

During a recent talking drum festival in the southwestern city of Ibadan, a traditional Yoruba leader at his palace demonstrated this by having his aides beat a talking drum to alert him of visitors.

Its versatility has allowed it to transition from a tool of communication to one of celebration, keeping many a dance floor occupied.

"There's no music that can't use the talking drum," said Nigerian percussionist Wura Samba.

"It can play more than one tonality ... like what the guitar does on a major scale."

Samba said he wants to see it become as widely available throughout the world as the djembe drum, another West African traditional instrument that has made its way into the music of the present.

But despite its use in contemporary music, preservationists warn that it must continue to be promoted and taught to ensure it does not one day fall out of favour and become extinct.

For Weird MC and others, the beat must go on. Anything else would be tragic.

"It's an instrument, in my opinion, which is very sacred," the rapper said. "It is indeed the drum that speaks."


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