Why handcrafting Cameroonian drums is a dying art

·4-min read

Although locally produced drums are an integral part of music across various tribes in Cameroon, this traditionally handmade instrument is falling out of use due to the increased use of modern instruments. Drums are typically played at traditional cultural events, but some modern recording artists have shown an appreciation for their ancestors, too.

“Our forefathers understood the need for these musical languages even before the white man came with guitars and the other instruments," says Mola Mongombe Na Liomo Ngaka, a musician who plays modern Njoku jazz.

"We, the musicians, need those instruments to be able to speak that particular language.”

He sings in the Bakweri language, using traditional drums in his music.

“These instruments have a language that they speak, we don’t just play them because they’re around,” says Mola Mongombe, his stage name.

Vital custom

Using drums as part of a musical performance or for dance are vital to the Bakweri culture, a community living in the Fako division of southwestern Cameroon.

The Elephant Dance, known as Maley in Mokpe local language uses three different types of drums, including the litembe, ezunga gombo, and ezemba. It is performed annually in Buea, the capital in Cameroon’s South West region.

“The combination of these three drums gives us a melody that is irresistible, that makes you want to dance,” says Mola Mongombe.

“That’s why so many people got into Maley, because those instruments have a way of pulling you into the performance,” he says.

In Cameroon, the masquerades, or special dances, are believed to clean the land from all evil spirits, says musicologist Erick Nwenty.

“We have a four set of drums, or base drums. It is used like the engine of the instruments, just like a car has an engine,” he says.

“We also have the side drums, which are called the ‘solace’. These accompany the master base drum. Then we have another one called mombale in our local Sawa language,” he says.

The musician playing the long mombale base drum must be able to sing and play the drum at the same time, he says.

The power of traditional drums

Craftsmen such as George Tifungton, aka Pa Drummer, have worked with clients for years—he’s been in the business for nearly three decades. Nothing beats a handmade drum, he says.

“I fabricate all types, such as the Bamelike drums, Bayangi drums, Younde drums, and Bamenda drums. You don’t depend only on one type of drum,” he says, speaking to Africa Calling from his workshop in Montengene, in the South West region.

“You have to know what kind of drum people like and you have to make it according to their own taste,” he says, while putting last-minute finishing touches on a base drum.

Pa Drummer trains his sons in the craft, passing on his important drum-making skills. Testing the drums is also very important, as he says they ‘speak’ in different tones according to their size.

“This one is the big one, then we have the three quarter, then there is the small one. You have different sounds,” he says while his son Stanley Tita, hits each drum to demonstrate the differences in tone.

Tita, also known as Pikin Drummer, works alongside his father. He grew up amidst drums, watching his dad throughout the drum-making process.

He says he's an unusual case, though – many youths don’t want to put in the hard work and effort, he says while working.

“What I’m doing now is trying to clean the drum with a machete, so it is stressful,” says Tita, adding that his generation doesn’t want to sweat and get dirty while working.

“If it’s a machine doing this, they won’t hesitate to learn," he says.

The lack of qualified drum craftsmen is worrisome, especially for people like Mola Mongombe who uses a traditionally made drum in his song “Moname”.

He says that modern technology does not give the same satisfaction when it comes to making music.

“Unfortunately with the advent of computers, people don’t make use of drums like they used to, but the sound you made with a computer is not the same as what is produced with our local instruments,” says Mola Mongombe.

This story was originally heard on RFI's Africa Calling podcast.

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