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History and origin of the wooden Tongue Drum

The origins of the wooden Tongue Drum go back a long way. The relatively modern instrument we know today has a rich musical tradition. This journey through time and space allows us to discover the evolution of the Tongue Drum, from its modest origins to today’s sophisticated forms.

Where does the Tongue Drum come from?

The concept of the Tongue Drum has its origins in the idiophone percussion instruments used in various cultures around the world. The earliest ancestors of the Tongue Drum were probably slit drums made from bamboo, wood or hollowed-out tree trunks.

These instruments were commonly used in rituals, religious ceremonies and as a means of communication in many indigenous societies, notably in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands.

The Tongue Drum, in its primitive forms, has its roots in the rich musical traditions of Africa, long before it captured the imagination of modern musicians with its reincarnations in wood and metal.

The instrument’s direct ancestors, often in the form of slit drums or wooden xylophones, played a crucial role in the social, spiritual and cultural life of communities across the African continent.

Photo of an African Log Drum
Photo of an African Log Drum

African origins

Instruments resembling the modern Tongue Drum can be traced back to ancestral African societies, where they were made from locally available natural materials. For example:

West Africa

In Ghana, instruments similar to the Tongue Drum, known as Gyil, were used by the Lobi, Dagara and Sisala peoples. The Gyil is a type of balafon (an African wooden xylophone) considered sacred in some of these cultures. Dates of use of these instruments go back several centuries, although their exact origin is difficult to determine, and is often estimated to be before the 12th century.

Central Africa

Instruments related to the Tongue Drum, such as likembe or sanza (lamellophones), have been widely used in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. These instruments feature vibrating blades that can be considered conceptual predecessors of the modern Tongue Drum’s tongues.

East Africa

In Uganda, instruments such as the Amadinda, a log wooden xylophone, date back to the 14th century. This instrument is played using a complex passage technique, illustrating the musical sophistication achieved in these regions.

What were the functions of these Tongue Drums?

These instruments were not simply means of making music; they were also used to communicate messages within communities, to accompany rites and ceremonies, and to tell the oral history of peoples. Their design reflected a deep understanding of the acoustic properties of the materials used, testifying to remarkable ingenuity and innovation.

Contribution to World Music

The migration of African peoples, whether voluntary or forced, has enabled these traditional instruments to take root in new cultures around the world, where they have evolved and taken on new forms.

The modern Tongue Drum, whether made of wood or metal, embodies this heritage of diversity and adaptability.

Although its African ancestors were conceived from very different materials and in very different contexts, the essence of musical creation remains the same: to transform raw material into expressions of beauty, community and spirit.

The Tongue Drum story is therefore a fascinating tale of travel, innovation and cultural cross-fertilization, with its roots firmly planted in the fertile soil of Africa and its branches spreading across the globe, touching the hearts and souls of musicians and listeners of all origins.

Who invented the Tongue Drum?

The modern version of the wooden Tongue Drum, as we know it, has not been attributed to a single inventor. Rather, it is the result of continuous innovation and adaptation by various craftsmen and musicians around the world.

Early models were hollowed out of a log and called slit drums or log drums.

However, the steel Tongue Drum, a close cousin of the wooden model, was created in the 2000s by Dennis Havlena, who was inspired by the Hang Drum to make an accessible instrument using recycled gas cylinders.

This innovation inspired other manufacturers to explore alternative materials, such as wood, to create unique variants of the Tongue Drum.

Why do we call this instrument Tongue Drum?

The name “Tongue Drum” derives from the characteristic shape of the tongues cut into the surface of the instrument, whether wood or metal. When struck, these tongues vibrate and produce sound.

The shape and size of each tongue determines the specific note produced, and it’s this unique design that gives the Tongue Drum its distinctive name. The word “language” comes from English and is also used in other languages.

What are the Tongue Drum’s other names?

The Tongue Drum is known by many names, reflecting its growing popularity and variations in different cultures. Alternative names include two types of construction: natural wood and steel.

For wooden models :

  • Slit Drum: Mostly used to describe the more traditional, primitive versions, made by cutting slots in tree trunks or wooden blocks.
  • Log Drum: For models specifically made of wood, emphasizing the material used in their design.

For steel models:

  • Tank Drum: In reference to its origins where gas cylinders (tanks) were used to make the first steel models.
  • Hank Drum: A contraction of “Hang” and “tank”, evoking its inspiration from the Hang Drum and its initial construction material.

Each name reflects a facet of the history, construction or inspiration behind the Tongue Drum, testifying to the richness and diversity of this captivating instrument. Whether called Tongue Drum, Tank Drum, or any other name, this instrument continues to fascinate and inspire musicians and listeners alike with its melodious sounds and ease of use.