This is the "Talking Drums" page of the "Preserving Culture and History in Africa" guide.
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Preserving Culture and History in Africa   Tags: primary source world  

Last Updated: Nov 27, 2017 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

Talking Drums Print Page

Primary Source


About this activity

Suggested for grades 4 to 7


Key Questions

1.  What is a jelli, and why are they so important for people in Mali?

2.  Why are some drums called "talking drums?"

3.  What do you need to know before you can understand what talking drums are saying?

4.  What are some ways that "talking drums" were used in Mali before phones and radios?


Curriculum Connections

Try using this activity when teaching about:

  • family culture and community history
  • Mali or West Africa
  • symbols
  • storytelling

Common Core Connections

Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.



Talking drums are West African drums whose pitch can be regulated depending upon how the player strikes the head of the drum and changes its tension. These pitches can mirror those of a person's voice, and thus, the drums are called "talking drums."

In Mali, talking drums have historically been used for four main purposes. First, they are used by jellis or griots charged with orally recording, preserving, and sharing their community's histories and culture. The jellis used the drums as memory devices to help them remember important people and events. Second, drums are used to communicate messages across distances and villages. A king or other political authority may send a drummer throughout his land as a messenger. The drummer plays his drum, and because the villagers know the "language of the drum," they understand if the king is issuing a warning, a celebratory invitation, or some other news. Talking drums are also used during religious rituals. Often, jellis and griots ran these ceremonies and used the drums not only for celebration, but also for sacred rites and stories. Finally, talking drums are used to bring people together and to help settle disputes among members of a village.

Although cell phones, radios, television, and the internet have largely replaced the need for talking drums as a primary means of communication, talking drums and jellis remain an important part of West African cultures. The drums are now used more for celebration and entertainment than for communication, yet jellis continue to be respected members of society and are considered keepers of tradition. Indeed, several have become famous recording stars of world music who often tour Europe and the Americas.



To share information using sounds, words, or text.
The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.
Griot (pronounced "gree-oh")
A word of obscure origin that refers to West African oral historians who use poetry, song, music, and drums to preserve their histories and to spread messages between villages.
Jelli Literally, blood. The word jelli is a word from Mande languages that is similar to griot and used in some West African societies to describe oral historians who use poetry, song, music, and drums to preserve their histories and to spread messages between villages. Also spelled as jeli, djeli, or djelli.
Mali The Republic of Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa, includes ancient kingdoms and great centers of learning such as Timbuktu. Mali became independent from France in 1960.
Vocabulary Set of words and their definitions related to to a specific language or area of study.

Pre-learning Activity


  • familiar sounds clips
  • Morse Code Key (see Document box in left column)


1.  Ask students what the word communicate means. After allowing them to discuss, read the definition of the word communicate from the Terms list.

2.  Ask students how they can communicate ideas and information with each other without speaking. Answers might include:

  • Body language (sign language, nodding, facial expressions, thumbs up, etc.)
  • Written word (writing, computers, texting, etc.)
  • Sounds (clapping, etc.)

3.  If it hasn't come up, explain to students that sometimes sounds can be used to communicate ideas and information. Play for students the following familiar sounds, and for each, ask the students what the sound means and how they know what it means.

4.  Ask students if they can think of other sounds that have recognizable meanings.

5.  Ask why we might use sounds instead of words. Answers might include:

  • sounds are louder than voices
  • everyone can understand them regardless of what language they speak
  • sounds are faster than sentences

6.  Then play the Morse Code Audio Clip. Ask students if they know what the sounds mean, and if not, why they cannot understand it. Answers might include that they haven't head it before, nobody taught them, etc. Explain to students that they learn the meaning of some sounds (telephone, applause, etc.) without trying but that other sounds are more complicated. Tell students that Morse Code is a secret language made up of different sounds, and that to understand it, you must first learn the vocabulary of Morse Code. Give the students the "key" to Morse Code and write the word hello on the board in Morse Code.

  • Hello =  ....    .    ._..    ._..    _ _ _
  • Hint:  When speaking in Morse Code, the dots are pronounced "dit" and the dashes are pronounced "dah."

7.  Allow the students to use the key to decipher the word.  

8.  Explain to students that sometimes people use sounds to share information, but that if you are not trained to know what the sounds mean, you cannot understand what is being "said."


Primary Source Activity


  • Video of Joh Camara (Transcript of the interview is available in the Handouts box in the left column.)
  • copies of terms list for students
  • map (projected or print out) of Africa & Mali


1.  Tell students that you are going to watch a video of Joh Camara, a master drummer and dancer from Mali, West Africa, who knows how to speak a special language that is based on the sound of a drum. Show students a map of Africa and point out Mali.

2.  Hand out the terms list to the students.

3.  Play the video, pausing at each blank screen to discuss what Joh said and to answer questions and check for comprehension

4.  After the video, lead a discussion around the following questions:

  • What are jellis, and why are they so important for people in Mali? 
  • How do the students' own families remember their history and culture? i.e., do they tell stories, do they have a family tree, do they sing songs or participate in any family traditions?
  • Joh learned to drum by watching his family of jellis drum. However, jellis also have to memorize their community's history. How do you think playing music/drums along to words helps them remember the history? (If students are struggling, prompt them to think about "The Star Spangled Banner" or "Yankee Doodle.")
  • What are some different ways that talking drums were used in Mali? 
  • What do you need to know before you can understand the language of the talking drums?
  • When might talking drums have been used instead of words? Why might they have been used instead of words?  
  • How do they think people in Africa today communicate? If they no longer need to use talking drums to communicate, why are they still so important?

Extension Activity

1.  Ask students if they have ever wanted to share a private message with a friend or family member.

2.  Explain to students that they can make secret codes to communicate, too. Ask students to work in pairs to create a written code using the handout provided.  For this activity, they will need to create a symbol for each letter of the alphabet.

3.  Ask students to use their codes to write a message about something that is important to their family's culture. Then instruct them to exchange and decode the messages with their partner. 

4.  Tell students to then write a message to share with a different classmate, but do not let them exchange the key. Ask why this is difficult, or impossible, to decode.

5.  Lead students in a discussion of how hard/easy it would be to memorize a new or coded language such as talking drums. What type of training might jellis need? Why would this make jellis so important to the community?


About the Author

Liz Howald was a program director at Primary Source from 2009-2013. Before joining Primary Source, she taught Ethics and World Cultures and US History at Heritage Hall in Oklahoma City and acted as an editor of K-6 social studies materials at Houghton Mifflin in Boston. She currently serves on the board of directors for Humanitarian Notes, a non-profit organization that produces music that educates, entertains, and raises HIV/AIDS awareness in Africa. Howald received undergraduate degrees in religious studies and international relations and a graduate degree in Islamic studies from Boston University.


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