Bata Drums

Image: David Cathell

Image: David Cathell

Tun ke ke tun ke! Sound familiar? Maybe not when spelt out, but several Nigerians recognise the sound of a double membrane talking drum when heard.

Yoruba people have made great contributions to art, culture, and even spirituality, not just in Africa but also across the globe. People of Yoruba heritage are known for holding various traditions and practices, and one of them is their use of the double membrane talking drum, known as the Bata drum. The lively and engaging beats of Bata drums prompt listeners to move according to the rhythm. The sounds are exciting, stimulating, and just extraordinary!

Bata drums are associated with Sango - the god of thunder - and they are usually played during celebrations held in honour and praise of him. The drums have different uses and functions in Yoruba society; some of these functions include enriching and vitalising certain traditional practices and ceremonies such as Egungun fesitvals

Egungun Festivals

Image: Getty Images

Image: Getty Images

While it can be difficult to miss the sight of the colourful masquerades during Egungun festivals, it can also be difficult to miss the sounds and rhythms of Bata drums, which the masquerades dance to. It is important to note that there are different types of Egungun masquerades: onidan, idomole, and alubata. Onidan can be said to mean “owner of miracles.” The masquerades within this category exist mainly for entertainment purposes. They usually depict a wide variety of characters including priests, policemen and prostitutes. Idomole, on the other hand, translates to something which pleases the eye. Idomole masquerades can be considered as Egungun’s children. Their purpose is to honour the ancestors and their spirit(s). Finally, Alubata translates to "the one who plays the Bata drum."

This title can be said to refer to the Bata drummers who are present at the ceremonies where alubata masquerades perform. The alubata masquerades often wear very colourful shrouds and are the highest ranking masquerades. That they rank the highest and have a name which is associated with Bata drummers can be considered as being quite significant. Perhaps it implies that the collaboration between the alubata masquerades and Bata drummers is necessary for effective communication with the spirits and gods through vibrant sounds and elaborate movements.

According to David Akombo, one of the most important parts of Egungun dancing is "communication and the language of the drums.” Dance in Yoruba religious traditions is of utmost importance because it is one of the methods through which the gods can be contacted and engaged with. For instance, during Egungun ceremonies, the Bata drums are used to communicate with Sango. Furthermore, the rhythms created by Bata drummers are said by Margaret and Henry Drewal to be musical manifestations of Yoruba proverbs, as well as a reflection of stories about Egungun mythology.


Image: Thespian Family Theatre

Video: Fúnké and Wusilat Òjéyemí, sing praise songs and dance bàtá in Èrìn-Òsun.

Bata drums can also be used to play Orikis – a type of Yoruba poetry that can be used to praise an individual or an entire family unit. Above is an example of how talking drums, such as the Bata drums, are used in Yorubaland to sing and play Orikis.

Global Influence

Bata drums are not of importance in just Yorubaland; they are also considered to be of great cultural and spiritual significance among Cubans, who sometimes play them during Santerian religious practices and ceremonies held to praise the Orisas. Below is an example of how the drums are used during such worship:

Video: Dance in reverence of Sango, Regla, Havana Club.

In summary, it is important to acknowledge that the uses of Bata drums are of immense cultural and spiritual significance. Egungun dancers and Bata drummers do not simply do what they do because it is fun but because they aim to contact spirits and gods who they believe guide their lives and enable them to make sense of the world.  The philosophical and cultural significance attached to Bata drums serves as an indication that Bata drums do not simply generate great sounds and rhythms; they also help humans around the world – particularly of Yoruba heritage -  to understand themselves, the world around them, as well as the world beyond.