African Drums in the United States

January 16, 2021

A Brief History

Part 4: Into the 20th Century

Late 19th century artwork

There are also indications of the continuation of African drums and drum techniques in unlikely places. In the book The Drummer’s Path, Sule Greg Wilson provides one of those examples. In his book he presents a photo of the cover of 1900 sheet music for the song Camptown Races. This song, written by Stephen Foster, was published in 1850 and became a staple of minstrel performances. Minstrel shows were created to both mimic and mock Black people; they were performed by white men with faces blackened by burnt cork or black shoe polish. Black-faced minstrelsy was built on misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Black people and Black culture. 

Foster who built a career writing minstrel songs wrote the lyrics in an exaggerated stereotype of Black language. So, in the cultural landscape of white America this song was connected to Black people and would be marketed as such for various commercial purposes. One of those, at the turn of the last century, was sheet music. It is no surprise that the sheet music would be presented with a stereotyped illustration of Black people. In this case the exaggerated images are placed at a racetrack. In addition to the horses and the people engaged with them are a group of women. They are nicely dressed, wearing hats, and carrying parasols which indicates that this is a social event. 

A vintage photo of a group of people posing for the camera

Description automatically generated
Sheet music cover for “Camptown Races,” c. 1900.

While this illustration provides clearly stereotyped images of Black people, if you look through all of the activity in the foreground you will find at the top center of the illustration two musicians performing for the crowds. Even though they have less detail these background figures do not reflect the stereotypes typically used to represent Black people during this era. It is possible that these figures are more representative of what the artist may have actually observed at some event.

The two performers represent a continuing African sensibility about drums and drum techniques. The musician on the right is playing a banjo, an instrument with African roots that was most closely associated with Black people during the 19th century; an instrument that was also being disconnected from its African roots as it was adapted by whites at the end of the 19th century. Left of the banjo player is a drummer. He is playing a large drum, which he has turned on its side and is playing it with a stick in his right hand while using his left had to muffle the skin to modify the sound. This technique is common in African drumming, such as with the dundun family of drums used by the Malinke people of West Africa. Additionally, the two performers have conical shaped hats that are similar to hats worn by drummers and musicians in West Africa. (see detail)

Detail from Camptown Races

This single illustration, appearing at the start of the 20th century, demonstrating African drum technique, points to a possible line of continuity for African drumming in the U.S. One additional set of examples will add to this. 

Drums and Shadows (1930s, Georgia Sea Islands)

This book, Drums and Shadows, is a collection of interviews with formerly enslaved Black Americans conducted by the Federal Writer’s Project on the sea islands off the coast of Georgia during the 1930s. First published in 1940 these interviews are peppered with commentary about drums and drum traditions. Some of these remembrances are from what parents and elders have told them; some memories are from their own lived experiences over the previous seventy or so years. A few examples from that book follow. The interviewers reportedly felt it was important “to try to represent the pronunciation” so they took care to “faithfully transcribe” the dialect of their informants. This is seen in the quoted passages that follow. (Drums and Shadows, xxxix) 

There are few, if any, extant drums used by African descendants in the United States. This does not mean that the drums did not exist. Drums are made from organic materials – wood and animal skins – which are in abundance in an agricultural society. But more significantly drums are born of the minds and hands of the drummer or drum maker. As Bernice Johnson Reagon has said, “the only way to eliminate the drum is to eliminate the drummer.” As long as people have knowledge about how to make or play drums, the tradition continues to exist. 

Knowledge of how to make drums is one of the topics that is addressed in these 1930s interviews. Several people, such as Wallace Quarterman in the Darien community, spoke about how drums were made. 

“We makes drums out uh sheep hide but we gottuh dry um an stretch duh skin obuh. Some makes it out uh holluh lawgs wid skin obuh duh en an some ub um is as long as tree feet.” (150)

This describes a drum body, often a hollow log, with a sheep skin stretched over one end. At three feet in length, it is a good size drum. This style of drum was corroborated by F.J. Jackson of Grimball’s Point who also provided more detail about the drum’s construction.

“we made duh drum frum hollah beehive lawg. I tell yuh how we done it. Yuh cut duh lawg an tak a deah hide an stretch obuh duh hole. Den yuh cut a hoop ban dat could lock roun duh lawg. Den yuh cut strips uh deah hide an make bans tuh hole duh head cuvvuh tight.” (101)

The use of a log is the same but instead of a sheep skin, a deer hide is used. Mr. Jackson also provided information about the construction of the drum using a hoop and deer hide lacing to hold the drumhead in place. We get a sense of the drums from the descriptions of how they are made. The use of hollow logs is significant. It takes time to carve out a newly felled tree and time was not something available to the enslaved. A hollow log only had to be fitted with a head from one of several animals. Such a drum could also be deconstructed and easily made unseen. Shadwick Rudolph on St. Mary’s provided another description of drum construction that provided a possibly significant detail. He said, 

“I seed em make home-made drums theah too. They stretch a sheep-hide ovah a roun bucket.” (194)

A sheep skin is used, but in this instance, it is stretched over a bucket. On most farms and plantations, a bucket would be a common article. To use it to make a drum which, after use, becomes a common household article again is ingenious. A drum hidden in plain sight. 

The testimonies of the people interviewed by the Federal Writer’s Project demonstrates that knowledge about drums continued into the twentieth century. Describing the meeting they had with Brownville resident James Collier the interviewers said:

“In Brownville we found a man who knew how to make the old time drums. He made one for us out of a hollow log across the end of which he tightly stretched a goat skin. He fastened the skin to the log by means of a number of wooden pegs. Unlike modern drums, this one was taller than it was wide, measuring about eighteen inches in length and ten inches in diameter.” (62)

Again, the body of the drum is a hollow log, but unlike the other drums mentioned this drum uses a goat skin. This is significant because a goat skin is thinner than either a sheep skin or a deer-hide, so it gives the drum a brighter sound. The size of the drum – eighteen inches in length by ten inches in diameter – seems to be of a higher pitched drum than those previously mentioned. Additionally, the skin is attached to the drum by pegs, a distinct method of mounting and tuning drums and different from the previous methods described.  Clearly there were a variety of drums being made and used, at least in the Georgia Sea Islands.

Further information about making drums comes from a conversation with Uncle Jack and Uncle Robert, two residents of Wilmington Island.

“Duh ole drums wut duh Africans make wuz make out ub a skin uh some kine uh animal stretch obuh a holluh lawg. Dey didn eben take duh haiah off duh skin. Jis put it on datta way.” Here Uncle Jack spoke up, “Ain so long sence dey stop makin drums. Wen I wuz a young man, we use tuh make um. Dey was fo-cawnuhed sometime and wuz cubbuh wid a skin. Dey wuz bout fo feet high. At duh fewnal wen we beat duh drum we mahch round duh grabe in a ring.” (107)

The drums again had a body of a hollow log with an animal skin stretched over one end. That they did not take the hair off of the skin seems to indicate that the drums were played with sticks or beaters of some kind; hair is usually removed from drums that are played with the hands. The “fo-cawnuhed” drum Uncle Jack speaks of sounds like the gumbe drums played in various American African maroon communities. They are called “four-cornered” because the bodies of these drums are made with a square wooden frame, which makes them distinct from the usually round shape of drums. These square drums have made their way to Africa where they have been adopted in several countries. He also mentions that drums were played at funerals which the people marched or moved to. In the 1930s Uncle Jack says, “Ain so long sence dey stop makin drums.” It is not clear how long ago this was, but it is possible that he meant in the twentieth century. 

Lawrence Baker from the Harris Neck community provides more details about how the drums were made and played. 

““Dey use tuh alluz beat duh drum an blow duh hawn wen somebody die. Dey beat two licks on duh drum, den dey stop, den dey beat tree licks. Wen yuh beat dat, yuh know somebody don die. Lots of duh drums wuz home-made. Dey wuz made out uh goat skin aw coon skin wut stretch out obuh hoops. Deah wuz two sizes uh drums. Deah wuz duh big barrel drum. It wuz highuhn it wuz cross. Den deah wuz a lill drum frum twelve tuh fifteen inches wide an bout eighteen inches high. Duh udduh drum wuz duh medium size, kine uh un between du udduh two. Duh big drum wuz duh one dey beat at duuh wake. Dey use drums at dances an meetins, too.”  (155)

The drums described here are made with goat skin or coon skin and used hoops to stretch it over the drum body. And although the informant says there were two sizes of drums – a big barrel drum and a little drum – he also describe a medium size drum that was between the other two. Since he provided the dimension of the smaller drum (twelve to fifteen inches wide and about eighteen inches high) we can visualize the possible sizes of the other two drums. 

As with the previously quoted testimony, Mr. Baker mentions that drums were played at funerals. He provides some details about the rhythms played (two licks followed by a pause followed by three licks) to announce a death and the use of the big drum being played at the wake. He also mentions the use of horns which, like drums, were part of the 1740 ban.

Uncle Jack of Wilmington Island also described the drum rhythm played at funerals. He said, We call it duh dead mahch. Jis a long slow beat. Boom-boom-boom. Beat duh drum. Den stop. Den beat it agen.” (197) Playing drums to let the community know about one’s passing from this life and playing drums to mark ones passing to the afterlife are significant uses of the instrument. But drums were not only used for death notices, wakes, and funerals. Ben Sullivan of St. Simons Island gives us a sense of the use of the drums for other purposes. He said, “I membuhs we use tuh hab drums fuh music an we beat duh drum fuh dances.” (180) The use of drums for dances is clear. The connection between drums and movement or dance is a central element of West African performing arts traditions. The comment about the use of drums “fuh music” raises questions. When was drum music played? And where was it played? 

The use of drums for both the celebration of life and the celebration of death is corroborated by Isaac Basden of Harris Neck. 

“I recall wen dey beat duh drum tuh call duh people on Harris Neck tuhgedduh fuh a dance aw fewnul. Cose, dey hab a diffunt beat wen dey call um tuh a settin-up aw fewnul frum duh one dey use tuh call um tuh a dance.” (122)

In addition to the uses of the drum, Isaac Basden explains that the rhythms, or drum calls, are specific to the event they are announcing. One of the most interesting comments that both reflects the communicative power of the drum and connects to the main reason for the 1740 drum ban, came from Rosa Sallins of the Harris Neck community. She said:

“Yes’m I membuh bout how some time back dey use tuh beat out messages on duh drum. Dat wuz tuh let us know wen deah wuz tuh be a dance aw a frolic. Wen de hab a dance obuh on St. Catherines, dey beat duh drum tuh tell us about it. Duh soun would carry obuh duh watuh an we would heah it plain as anything. Den duh folks heah beat duh drum tuh let em know bout it in udduh settlements.”  (130)

Using the drums for sending messages over a wide territory was at the heart of the fears that led to the enacting of laws against the use of drums. This twentieth century informant speaks of how “dey use tuh beat out messages on duh drum.”While the example given is the announcement of dances or frolics, the informant mentions the sound carrying across the water that separated the islands and how they “would hear it plain as anything,” and then pass the message on to other communities. This is the power of the drum that challenged slaveholders and slaveholding communities. This is the power that forced the drum into hiding. But this is also the power that allowed the drum to continue to live. 

At Sandfly, Ophelia Baker, also known as Madam Truth, related that “her father had been one of those who beat thuh drum and thumped out a regular message on it, a message that could be heard for miles and was clearly understood by all those who had heard it.” (91)

As mentioned earlier, the interviews that brought these memories forward were conducted in the 1930s. This is almost two centuries since the 1740 laws in South Carolina were passed. The Sea Islands of Georgia are part of the region that today is designated as the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Corridor. This corridor also encompasses the area where the Stono Rebellion occurred, less than 200 miles north of St. Simons Island.

This raises a number of questions, such as did the practice of banning drums extend into Georgia? Did Georgia create laws banning drums? How long was the 1740 law enforced? How effective was the law if there were still memories of drums and drum traditions two centuries after the law was passed? 

We must keep in mind also that these interviews took place at a time of rebirth or renaissance for African drum and dance traditions in the United States. People were being exposed to African drumming and dancing through performances by Asadata Dafora or by taking classes with Ismay Andrews in Harlem, New York or Charles Holston Williams at Hampton Institute. Dancer/anthropologists like Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham were researching, teaching and presenting dance and drum forms from Africa and the Caribbean. And African rooted rhythms like those from Cuba were being danced to and played to in the U.S.

Hopefully this essay has demonstrated that African drums and drum traditions did not cease to exist in the United States. First of all, the 1740 law in South Carolina was not strong enough to impact the American colonies that stretched up and down the eastern seaboard. The possibility that the 1740 law, or other similar laws, were not strictly enforced must also be considered. And in places where such laws were enforced drumming and dancing only disappeared from view but not from existence. And through the grafting of African musical sensibilities onto military drum traditions, African drum skills were brought out into the open. African drumming not only continued after 1740, but left its mark across the American musical landscape. 


Sule Greg Wilson, The Drummers Path, Moving the Spirit with Ritual and Traditional Drumming, Destiny Books, 1992.

Georgia Writers Project, Drums and Shadows, Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, University of Georgia Press, 1940

Early African musicians in Europe

The Black Perspective in Music

Vol. 1, No. 2 (Autumn, 1973), pp. 166-168 (3 pages)

Published by: Professor J. Southern (Managing Editor-Publisher)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: