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 drums 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 ceremoniesboth religious and
secularfrom 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 womens 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 peoples
Objective: Recognizing representational and design elements
Have students identify the visual elements and characteristics of the
Baga drumthe 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 figures hairstyle and the geometric motifs on
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.
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
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.
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
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 Kings 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,
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