Cosmology · Metaphysics

African Drum Telegraphy and Indigenous Innovation

By Zulumathabo Zulu © 2017

Dear loyal followers and readers of my writings,

I have just written a new scholarly paper African Drum Telegraphy and Indigenous Innovation. This peer reviewed conference paper was delivered at Southern African Society for Education at North West University, Mafikeng in 2013 under the title African Telegraphy and Indigenous Innovation. I have now re-written the paper under the new title African Drum Telegraphy and Indigenous Innovation for the University of Pretoria new publication. You are encouraged to give your feedback on this paper.


Technological Innovation using indigenous knowledge systems in Africa is almost non-existent in modern scientific and engineering literature. This apparent hiatus of African technological artefacts by the African inventors tends to make it appear as though the African natives had neither the interest nor the intellectual curiosity to solve unique problems of their society using engineering principles especially in the area of telecommunication. This paper seeks to fill that gap by providing concrete analytical accounts of technological artefacts by the African natives like the talking drum using membrane, trapezoidal and slit log drums and others designed to broadcast telegraphic information over long distances using the same principles of mathematics, physics and materials science as in modern telecommunication.

The interesting fact is that the African engineering technologists of long ago had designed a wireless telecommunication system that was ahead of its time as confirmed by European observers in their historical accounts while the colonial authorities were still using the pony express-like system as a form of long distance communication before the invention of the electric telegraph in the 1800s. This paper confirms that Africans commanded a sophisticated knowledge of the drum as well as its taxonomical functions which made it possible to broadcast drum messages over great distances and long before the advent of modern telecommunication.

Keywords: indigenous knowledge systems, African drum, African telegraphy, technological innovation, drum communication, networked drums, relay system, talking drum, abstract drum machine, relay network graph.



The popular myth is that a drum plays a musical function which confines it to producing sounds for purposes of dance and other forms of ceremonial rendition. Scholars like (Temperley, 2000) make the vital point that to understand the role of rhythm in African music and African society, the broader perspective of the ethnomusicologist is more important as opposed to confining ourselves to the narrow analysis of music theorists (the italics are mine).

In this paper, we consider three types of drums namely (1) membrane drum, (2) trapezoidal drum and (3) slit log drum.

The Membrane Drum

The membrane drum uses an animal skin on the drumhead. The relationship between the drum and the drumhead is one to many given the fact that some drums use a single drumhead while others require two drumheads. The drum is made out of a special tree for which the engineering technologist must seek prior permissions before touching and using it due to the fact that the African natives (Zulu, 2013) believe that the tree possesses the spirit. The necessary permissions are sought from the gods of the cosmos with regards to that particular tree. After the gods of the cosmos have released the spirit of the tree to be reincarnated as a drum then another permission is sought for an animal to be offered as a sacred sacrifice to the ancestors. The spirits of the animal and the tree unite as one to produce the sacred sound that venerates the revered gods of the cosmos.

It should be noted here that the type of the animal used for the drum depends on the design purpose of the drum, the size of the drum and the spirits guiding the engineering process. The best animal is that of Tshepe (the antelope) as confirmed by my informants and Dingaka (indigenous doctoral practitioners of African medicine) but the goat is also used in a popular fashion for this purpose. More often than not, the main drumhead uses a double membrane particularly a huge drum like Igede of Nigeria, a talking drum or a medicine drum designed for therapeutic rituals. The interesting fact is that even if the drumhead is designed for a double membrane, the execution of the workmanship is so flawless that it is not possible to see that the drumhead uses a double membrane. Without disecting the drumhead, it would require a special technological device like a vibration analyzer to determine if the drum is fitted with a single or double membrane.

The African materials science knowledge is very relevant here. The African engineering scientists leverage design knowledge from their erudite ancestors who have gone before them that different animal skins produce different types of sounds depending on the skin’s material properties, mechanical properties and the sacred life of the animal with respect to the revered cosmos. This type of knowledge belongs to the modern specialized branches of solid state chemistry, solid state physics and multivariable calculus. As independent researchers who subject their ontological, epistemic, axiological and Lewa (strategic knowledge) systems to the rigour of scholarly investigation, we find that the African engineering technologists are guided and inspired by their ancestral knowledge of the cosmos wherein their ancestors trace their genesis.

The following is the table of contents of the full paper:


You can read the full paper on Academia.Edu as follows:


9 thoughts on “African Drum Telegraphy and Indigenous Innovation

    1. Dear Lindi,

      Your feedback is appreciated! Keep these comments coming. The feedback is like a fuel that fires us.

      Absolutely, this topic is extremely important like a host of other articles I have authored. My direction is that of a humble messenger on a mission critical task on behalf of the erudite ancestors who wish to convey their urgent message to the future generations. I am doing just that and once my mission has been completed, I shall depart from the planet for the cosmos.

      Because of this mission critical task, I adhere to the moral code and the sense of urgency.

      Siyabonga ka khulu


    1. Dear Khadijah,

      Thank you for connecting with these sacred pages of the erudite ancestors who have gone before us. The gods of the cosmos inspire these writings.

      A sense of urgency is critical if we are to renew ourselves as a people. This is a sense of urgent necessity whereby we reset our old ways and restart a new path that fosters a sacrosanct relation with the erudite ancestors.

      Siyabonga ka khulu (we are exceedingly grateful)


  1. Hi Zulumathabo, I appreciate the knowledge you are sharing, I fisrt came accross the talking drum through a book called information< it does give some useful data but does not engage the drum in a scientific way as you do. Unfortunatley the link that you have shared has expired, is there another way that one can acquiant themselves with the full paper?

    Many thanks in advance,


    1. Dear Sandile,

      Bhungane! Mthimkhulu! Your positive feedback is well received by me! The scientific paper African Drum Telegraphy and Indigenous Innovation: African Contribution To Communication Science is in the process of being published in a book as a chapter. This paper is well received by various scholars which is the reason it has completed a peer review with glowing reviews. It is my understanding that it will be published by University of Witwatersrand Press in Johannesburg. As soon as it is out, I will announce this information on these sacred pages of the erudite ancestors who have gone before us. Watch this space.

      You must also support our work! Badimo ke bao! Thokoza Makhosi!


  2. Amazing paper! I just need an information

    You said :
    “An example of this rapid communication system is the First Matebele War of 1893
    that broke out between the colonizers of British South Africa Company and the
    Ndebele Kingdom of King Lobengula (the son of the great King and Military General
    Mzilikazi). The events of this battle were relayed via the drum telegraphy between
    Matebeleland and Mombasa in a distance of more than 3000 kilometers and then
    relayed from Mombasa to Accra covering a distance of more than 6,500 kilometers to
    a total distance of more than 9,500 kilometers”

    But you didn’t provide a source for this claim, I would like to know where you found this information. What is your source please?

    Siyabonga ka khulu.


    1. Dear Marixwe,

      The first order of business in human relations and interaction is how you communicate to others. How you get your point in such a way that it resonates on the other side. As soon as I saw the word “claim”, that was enough to take the wind out of my wings. Moreover, as an African, you must know that Africans have Botho/Ubuntu way and not this snobbish WASP way. It is OK to acquire English but we must not aquire the bad English habits.

      For you information, here is the meaning of “claim” from the OED dictionary:

      claim (n.)
      early 14c., “a demand of a right; right of claiming,” from Old French claime “claim, complaint,” from clamer (see claim (v.)). Meaning “thing claimed or demanded” is from 1792; specifically “piece of land allotted and taken”.

      I hope, going forward, you will divest yourself of the WASP tendencies. Badimo ke bao! Thokoza Makhosi!


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