Ntan Drum
Ntan Drum
ca. 1935

Osei Bonsu (1900-1977)
Asante peoples, Ghana
Wood, hide, paint, metal
H x W x D: 102.9 x 38.1 x 48.9 cm (40 1/2 x 15 x 19 1/4 in.)
National Museum of African Art, gift of Dr. Robert Portman, 81-20-1


Ntan (en-tan) bands were popular among the Asante peoples of Ghana between 1920s and 1950s. They performed on occasions such as naming ceremonies, weddings, funerals and traditional festivals—any event where entertainment was needed. This is in contrast to other musical instruments and performances that were reserved for the court. The term ntan (meaning “bluff” in Twi) does not refer to the drum itself, but rather to the entire event that featured music and the display of carved figurative sculptures representing the chief, queen mother and members of the court. Reflecting the colonial presence of the times on the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana), the sculptural entourage also included figures of colonial officers.


Although the primary function of a drum is to make music, one can focus on its form as well. Looking at this drum, it is difficult to ignore the elaborately carved imagery or iconography. The relief images represent aspects of Akan culture and environment. This particular drum features an elephant -- a symbol of power among the Asante — as its support. All drums of the ntan bands are characterized by breasts, which are typically found in the center of the drum and objectify the idea of the drum as “the mother of the group.” Most ntan drums also depict a heart between or above the breasts, which recalls the phrase “be patient” (nya akoma) because all Ntan members should have a motherly heart.

Just below the breasts and the red heart is the crescent moon and star, which relates to a folktale that summons the proverb “although the moon is brightest, the star is more constant.” Below the moon and star is the bowl and grinding spoon embodying the proverb, “if the grinding spoon is as good as it brags, then it should grind the palm nut and not the cocoyam leaves.” This means that if one says he is good at something, he should not demonstrate it in the easiest way. Perhaps this refers to the performance, where musicians should not play only easy pieces. A rooster and a hen flank the bowl and grinding stone. They refer to the proverb, “although the hen knows when it is dawn, she leaves it for the rooster to announce.” In other words, although knowledge is not gender specific, men are the decision-makers. The next motif represents the elephant with a palm tree. It is a common image of power that states “only the elephant can uproot the palm tree.” It was also an emblem of colonial Gold Coast.

Additional images on the drum that are not visible in the poster include:

Snake biting the frog: “Every part of the frog belongs to the cobra.” Everything the frog does eventually benefits the cobra that eats him. If applied to the performances it could mean that every musician works for the music association.

Akan stool: The Asante believe the stool is the seat or the soul of the Asante peoples.

Snake biting the hornbill: “By waiting patiently at one spot on the ground, the puff adder was able to catch the hornbill for lunch.” With ingenuity and patience, one can do the impossible.

Long-horned antelope: “Had I known is always last,” which refers to the futility of hindsight.

Cocoa tree: Indicates that many Ntan members are farmers; it is also symbol of wealth.Osei Bonsu, the ArtistOsei Bonsu was a famous and prolific sculptor who carved nearly all ntan drums and sculptures used throughout the Asante region. Bonsu was born in Kumase on October 22, 1900. His father was a drummer and a carver, and Bonsu was introduced to both at a young age. When he was in his teens, several chiefs from many parts of the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) commissioned works from him. These works were highly mature for so young a sculptor. Beginning in 1920, Bonsu, his older brother and his father were hired by the British anthropologist Captain R. S. Rattray as his interpreters for Akan cultural matters and traveled with him throughout many parts of Asante land. In 1924, when Bonsu’s father and brother journeyed to England for the British Empire Exhibition, Bonsu remained home and continued to receive many important commissions from chiefs throughout the region. He taught carving at several colonial schools between 1933 and 1956, continuing to carve for the court during that time.

During his lifetime, Bonsu was the chief carver to three asantehene. However, for reasons still unclear, Bonsu fell from favor during the Nkrumah administration and was imprisoned from 1960 until the February 1966 coup. During his confinement he did not sculpt. Six months after his release, he began teaching at the University of Science and Technology in Kumase where he worked until the spring of 1976. In 1975, he traveled to the United States for the Festival of American Folklife at the Smithsonian Institution. The next summer, he visited the United States again and spent the summer traveling across the country, sharing his art with dignitaries in Denver, Los Angeles and Honolulu. He returned to Kumase in September 1976 where he spent the last months of his life. Bonsu remained a prolific carver until his death in March 1977.

Classroom Activities

Elementary School

1. Objective: Recognizing representational and design elements
Skills: Observation
Have students identify the relief elements on the drum.

2. Objective: Designing a musical instrument
Skills: Drawing
This drum incorporates an elephant. Many African drums as well as other instruments incorporate figurative elements such male figures or mother- and-child figures. Ask students to design and draw a musical instrument that incorporates a human figure or an animal.

Middle School

1. Objective: Creative writing
Skills: Ability to develop an imaginative story based
Works of art are frequently 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. Share your stories with us; send to jenkev@nmafa.si.edu or fax to 202-357-4879.

2. Objective: Understanding symbolism
Skills: Cross-cultural comparisons
The elephant is very significant in many cultures. Among the Asante peoples the elephant is a symbol of fertility and power. Have students investigate elephant symbolism in European, Asian and other African cultures.

3. Objective: Learning about Ghana
Skills: Research
The Asante peoples live in a country called Ghana; its colonial name was Gold Coast. Using library resources, current newspapers and the Internet have students collect current and historical information about Ghana. They may use poster boards to display images and texts about Ghana that include information about the climate, geography, peoples, religions, economy, government and cultural life. For example, the current Secretary-General of the United Nations is a Ghanaian by the name of Kofi Annan.

High School

1. Objective: Document different types of African drums
Skills: Research
There are many different types of drums that are played in Africa. Have students find images of a variety of African drums and display them on a bulletin board. Each image should be accompanied by a written text that explains the drums’ differences.

2. Objective: Documenting urban street music
Skills: Research, writing
In many American cities, young boys entertain passersby with inventive complex rhythms they play on makeshift percussion instruments. Have students prepare a presentation, which includes sample recordings of music, interviews and photographs of the musicians. Have students work in small groups to collect audio recordings of street musicians performing. Encourage them to interview the musicians about their instruments and the inspiration of their music. Photograph the musicians’ performance. Be sure that students gain permission from the musicians to do this research.

For further reading

DjeDje, Jacqueline C., Ed., 1999. Turn up the Volume! A Celebration of African Music. Los Angeles, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

Ross, Doran, 1984. “The Art of Osei Bonsu,” in African Arts, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 28, 40, 90.

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