African Drums: Types, Beats & Facts

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we'll look at some of the more common types of African drums and learn a little about their shape and sound. Additionally, you'll learn how to play one of the most well-known drum types for yourself.

African Drums

You may have seen African drumming either in drum circles, street performers, or on television. If you thought that looked like something you'd like to try, then this is the lesson for you! Drumming is one of the oldest forms of music, allowing you to make a drum out of any surface you can strike with your hand or with another object- even your own chest. Let's look at some of the most commonly known drums from Africa, then learn a little about how to use them. Don't worry- you won't need to own a drum just yet. You can use a tabletop, your desk, or even a cardboard box to get started.

Types of African Drums

While there are a wide variety of drums used in Africa (remember it's a whole continent with thousands of different ethnic groups with their own customs), there are a few drums that are extremely common and easy to purchase outside of Africa. The majority of African drums are hand drums, which are drums that you play with your hands instead of a stick or other striking instrument.

A) Djembe, B) Dundun, C) Bougarabou
African Drums


The djembe is the most well-known African drum around the world. It has a narrow base that opens up into a rounded bowl near the top, kind of like a wine glass. The top of the bowl is covered by a goatskin though synthetic materials are also used today. To play the djembe, you only need to strike it with your hand. We'll discuss the different ways to hand-strike it a little later one.

Dundun (Talking Drum)

The dundun's body is shaped like an hourglass and has a number of ropes or strings stretched from top to bottom. It requires a curved beater, so it is not a hand drum. Drummers hold it under one arm, usually supported by a strap over their shoulder, and squeeze the ropes against their bodies to change the pitch. It earns the nickname of a talking drum because of this modulation which allows it to mimic human vocal sounds.


The bata is actually a three-drum set that can be struck by hand or with a stick. The Yoruba people consider the bata a sacred musical instrument belonging to the goddess of love, Oshun. The bata plays an important role in Cuban music, and it was brought to the island with Africa slaves.

Bata Drums


The bougarabou is a cylindrical drum with the ends narrower than the middle though some variations are narrower at one end than at the other. Sometimes, drummers wear bangle bracelets to make a tambourine-like sound while they strike the drum with their hands.

The Beat Goes On

Now that you know a little about the four most commonly known African drums, it's time you learned a little about how to play them. We're going to focus on how to play the djembe because you are far more likely to find one to purchase and you can practice the hand drumming on any surface until you buy a drum of your own.

First, let's take a look at the notes. With hand drumming, you get three types. These are base, tone, and slap. Bass is that deep, resounding beat that makes your heart pound along with it. You strike the drum hard and let the vibration go a little bit. Next, we have tone, which is a solid but short strike of the drum. It's the sound you hear when you knock on a piece of wood or on a door. Finally, we have the slap, which is just what it sounds like. This is a quick, open-handed strike in which you allow your hand to linger so the sound does not vibrate for very long.

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