Did you know that you can communicate with a drum?

Published on 08/06/2018

The extraordinary human capacity for invention in the field of communication never ceases to amaze us. In times marked by the revolution of communication between individuals, extremely unique forms of communication still exist, such as, for example, the whistled language of the island of La Gomera, on the Canary Islands, which we wrote about recently. While there are many more examples of long-distance communication throughout Europe, today we will cross the Atlantic to discover a language in the Amazon region, located between Peru and Colombia, which can be spoken or... played! 

1. Before the arrival of the telegraph in the 19th Century

Before the telegraph was invented in the 19th Century, making it possible to reproduce a short message in code form through electrical signals, "immediate" long-distance communication was not available to individuals. On the other side of the Atlantic, to the north-west of the Amazon, it has been possible to communicate sentences over twenty kilometres of distance for centuries now, with the aid of two drums. This invention stemmed from the need of the indigenous Bora community, who usually settle in small communities based around family homes in the rainforests of the Amazon. The unique settlements of such communities explains why they cannot simply rely on the human voice, with a range of 200 metres, and they have had to invent another form of communication.

Before the arrival of the telegraph in the 19th Century

2. How does the Bora drumming language work?

Thanks to two drums, known as manguare drums, one male and one female, the sounds of the spoken language are reproduced through words and phrases. To avoid homophones when playing the drums, the use of longer words or less ambiguous phrases is preferred. Based on a recent study, we know that the rhythmic structure of the instrument played imitates the prosody of the spoken language. Thus, the manguare drum represents the words of the Bora language with a number of beats equal to the number of syllables. According to a recent study by French researchers: 1, there are different rhythmic markers that make it possible to distinguish the words and; 2, the duration between the beats of the drum indicates the number of consonants and vowels. The beats of the drum are radiated within the natural surroundings thanks to the properties of the natural bioacoustics, given that low frequencies are not blocked by the vegetation.

How does the Bora drumming language work?

3. A language with its own codes

In order to relay its messages, the Bora drumming language is based on several codes. One of them is the order in which the information is played. Firstly, the subject is announced (invitation, request, etc.), followed by the person to whom is message is addressed, indicating their full name with the rhythm, and the actual information is not transmitted until the end. Therefore, this coded language enables the transmission of public announcements through an unchangeable ritual. 

4. Are the Bora people the only ones to communicate with the aid of a drum?

There are several communication systems that use drums and they are divided into two main groups: one in which the language is coded and reproduced and another which uses an independent code.
In Africa, for example, we can mention the Akan (from Ghana) and the Bantu (from Cameroon to Somalia) and the Banda-Linda (from the Central African Republic).

So now you know, the next time that you don't have an Internet connection, buy a drum and take inspiration from the Bora to communicate anything you want to say.

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Elodie Anthian's picture
Elodie Anthian

Graduate in Hispanic Philology from the University of Toulouse (France) and Master in Translation and Cultural Intermediation (EN-ES>FR) from the University of Salamanca.

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