Baga Drum
Baga Drum (a-ndef)

Baga peoples, Guinea
Early 20th century
Wood, pigment, rawhide
113 cm H (44 1/2 in.)

Purchased with funds provided by the Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program and gift of the Annie Laurie Aitken Charitable Trust, the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation, David C. Driskell, Evelyn A. J. Hall Charitable Trust, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Nooter, Barry and Beverly Pierce, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Silver, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Sonnenreich, 91–1–1

Although form and iconography are usually the focus of a work of art within the context of an art museum, function is often another important consideration. A drum’s primary function, for example, is as a musical instrument to be played by a musician in performances. It is difficult to separate the experience of African ceremonies—both religious and secular—from music. African ritual and social life is permeated with music created by musicians on an astonishing variety of instruments. Most pervasive are drums, technically referred to as membranophones. Musicians have provided inventive rhythms for festivals, processions, dances, welcoming ceremonies, masquerades and even as communication.

This drum originates with the Baga peoples, who occupy a narrow stretch of marshy lowland along the Atlantic coast of the Republic of Guinea, West Africa. The Baga, one of the smallest ethnic groups in Guinea, have lived relatively isolated from their inland neighbors and foreign visitors due to the vast swamps that surround them. Yet the Baga have created a significant artistic legacy that includes magnificent headdresses, figurative sculptures, masks, and functional objects as well as musical instruments. The Baga are known for their dynamic performances and ceremonies, both religious and secular, in which music and art play an integral role.

Owned and played by members of the Baga women’s association known as A-Tekan (ah-te-khan), this drum, called a-ndef (ah-endeaf), demonstrated female power. The initiation into such institutions of female solidarity and cohesion was generally restricted to women who had bore children. The drum was played at annual week-long initiation ceremonies for new members, as well as at the funerals of members and the marriages of members’ daughters. While A-Tekan officers played the drum, its members danced to its beat, accompanied by other instruments. The drum is distinguished from other drums used in A-Tekan rituals by its large size, which requires its player to stand.

While such drums were carved by men, only women would have designed, commissioned and played them. This drum was carved from a single piece of wood and would have originally been painted, although little pigment remains from the time of its creation in the early 20th century.


The form of this drum, a female figure supporting a globe-shaped drum on her head, was likely inspired by real practices of Baga women. Baga women and children often carry great clay water vessels and large rice-filled baskets on their heads. In traditional wedding ceremonies practiced before the mid-20th century, a bride was expected to perform a dance in which she carried on her head a basket, into which onlookers would throw gifts of money and rice grains.

The kneeling female figure, like an actual bride dancer, wears a chain of metal bells at her waist, hung by cords crisscrossing her chest and back. She also wears necklaces, armlets, an earring, multiple strands of flat beads around her waist, and a band of seed rattles around her ankles. Her kneeling posture and the bowl in her hands signify an act of devotion. The serpentlike form around the drum barrel symbolizes her fertility through an association with the python spirit of the Baga people’s life cycle.

Classroom Activities

Elementary School

Objective: Recognizing representational and design elements

Have students identify the visual elements and characteristics of the Baga drum—the kneeling female figure holding the bowl; jewelry, including waist bands, chest cords, necklace with amulet, earrings, armbands and bracelets; the serpentlike form; the drum barrel; and carved details, such as the female figure’s hairstyle and the geometric motifs on snake.

Objective: Designing a musical instrument

This drum incorporates a female figure. Many African drums as well as other instruments incorporate figurative elements such as male figures, mother and child figures, and even animals. Ask students to design and draw a musical instrument that incorporates a human figure or an animal.

Middle School

Objective: Creative writing

Works of art are freuqently exchanged, sold or even removed from their originating culture. Have students write an imaginary tale of how this instrument came to the National Museum of African Art. Objective: Understanding symbolism
The snake has symbolic significance in many cultures. Among the Baga, the snake is a symbol of fertility. Have students investigate snake symbolism in other cultures, such as in European, Asian and Native American art.

Objective: Learning about a West African country

The Baga peoples live in a country called the Republic of Guinea in West Africa. Using library resources, current newspapers and the Internet, have students collect current and historical information about Guinea. They may use poster boards to display images and texts about Guinea, including information about the climate, geography, people, religions, economy, government and cultural life.

High School

Objective: Document the different types of African drums

Many different types of drums are played in Africa. Have students find images of different African drums and display them on a bulletin board. Each image should be accompanied by a written text that explains the differences among them.

Objective: Documenting urban street music

In many American cities, young boys entertain passersby with inventive, complex rhythms they play on makeshift percussion instruments. Have students prepare a presentation that includes sample recordings of this kind of music, as well as interviews and photographs of the musicians. Students should work in small groups to collect audio recordings of performing street musicians. Encourage students to interview the musicians about their instruments and the inspiration of their music. Photographs can document their performance. Be sure that students gain permission from the musicians to do this research.

For further reading

Courlander, Harold. The King’s Drum and Other African Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962.

Drums: The Heartbeat of Africa, edited by Esther A. Dagan. Montreal: Galerie Amrad African Art Publications, 1993.

Hart, Mickey and Frederic Lieberman. Planet Drum. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

Lamp, Fred. Art of the Baga: A Drama of Cultural Reinvention. New York: Museum for African Art; Munich: Prestel, 1996.

Rockwell, Anne. When the Drum Sang, an African Folktale. New York: Parents’ Magazine Press, 1970.

Selected Works from the Collections of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1999.

Sounding Forms. African Musical Instruments, edited by Marie-Therese Brincard. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1989.

Turn up the Volume: A Celebration of African Music, edited by Jacqueline C. Djedje. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1999.

Williams, Raymond. The African Drum. Michigan: Highland Park Press, 1973.