Cameroon's Talking Drums: Ancient Precursors of the Internet and Social Media

During a recent trip back to my homeland in Cameroon, I availed myself of the internet services in a small shop off a dusty street in the capital city of Yaoundé. As I stood outside waiting to use one of the two terminals to access my Boston e-mail account from thousands of miles away, I could hear the unmistakable sound of a talking drum issuing from the hillside, probably a holy man from a nearby village calling the faithful to Morning Prayer. The juxtaposition of our most modern form of network communication with my ancestors' centuries-old method of exchanging messages efficiently throughout their hilly homeland and beyond prompted me to reflect on their common traits. I realized the drum codes of my native Ewondo, a Bantu language spoken around Yaoundé, were the functional equivalent of modern communication networks like the internet with special hardware, language and network protocol. Perhaps it wasn't Al Gore after all, who deserved credit for the Internet!

The backbone of the Ewondo "wireless network," is its hardware, called the Nkul or talking drum. It is what musicologists call a slit gong, an instrument whose body vibrates to produce sound. Unlike the Ngom, which is a dancing drum played in a vertical position, completely hollowed out and closed on its upper side with an animal skin, the talking drum station is horizontal. Like the Ngom, the Nkul is also hollowed out. The only access to its scooped-out core is a narrow slit along its length. The Nkul is like a barrel with one of the staves removed. The slit of the Nkul is a symbolic mouth with an upper lip carved thick to produce a high pitch whereas the carved thin lower lip produces a low pitch. The two lips of the Nkul are about two inches apart except in their middle where the slit is narrowed to a few millimeters by a tongue two to four inches wide emerging from each of the lips. Minkul (plural of Nkul) vary in size but a medium-sized one would be about three feet long for a diameter of about a foot.

The Nkul is made of tropical wood from Padouk (Pterocarpus soyauxii) or Iroko (Chlorophora excelsa) trees. The Nkul is usually carved from a tree chopped down with a traditional ax. The felled tree is left to dry in the woods and a rough carving is done in situ. The job is completed in the village. Drumsticks are about a foot long each and are made of softwood. There is no significant variance in sound produced by the different type of trees, but the skill of the carver determines the definitive resonance of the Nkul.

The technology is very basic and adapted to local conditions. It is, however, extremely efficient in that experienced drummers can hold conversations miles apart. The tones of a medium- sized drum can carry about four miles. Some very good drums can be heard within a radius of up to 25 miles, depending on weather conditions. The optimal drumming time is in the evening, especially after a tornado. In practice, messages are sent on demand.

The Nkul is a versatile instrument with multiple functions. It can be used as a musical instrument as a part of an ensemble, but it can also be used for the transmission of coded messages with a predetermined meaning. More interesting, though, is the function of the Nkul as a speech surrogate. The Nkul can replicate words that are used in the natural language. This allows users to communicate extensively as they would in an oral exchange or in text messaging. You might ask how this is possible when we know that the Nkul is basically an instrument that can produce only low and high pitches.

The key is that Ewondo, like most languages of the Bantu family, is properly spoken only if each word is pronounced at the proper tone. The tonal nature of the language allows the mapping of drum pitches to the spoken word. Another element that determines the meaning of the drummed message is rhythm. The mapping is certainly not unique, but given a context, messages can be made easily intelligible for the trained ear. This is facilitated by the existence of fixed expressions, drum names and drum expressions conveying certain ideas. Some of these expressions are proverbs that are still known to this day and commonly used in Ewondo-speaking lands. The advantage of using proverbs is that within a given cultural area, they succinctly convey concepts that would need long explanations to communicate otherwise. Ewondo-speaking people use the same technique for important negotiations, which can be conducted almost entirely in a back-and-forth exchange of proverbs. Moreover, each Ewondo-speaker has a specific drum code identity, similar to a user name.

I thought of all this as I visited Douala and Yaoundé in Cameroon to pay respect to my ancestors, starting with my parents. So, as I stood on that dusty street in Yaoundé on a cool January morning, waiting to check e-mails, my eyes wondered over the rolling hills within and surrounding the city. I understood at a very deep level why my ancestors fell in love with this place, after years of wandering across half the continent in search of lasting peace. I also understood why 19th century German explorers felt they had discovered a new Garden of Eden when they alighted on this part of Africa.

A few miles from where I stood, a small party of German agents with their porters met Ewondo-speaking warriors in the 19th century. Instead of attacking the Germans (as might have been expected), the Africans welcomed the Germans with food and shelter. Unbeknownst to the foreign visitors, consensus had already been reached among the tribesmen through the network chatter of the talking drums. This network created a single organic unit out of the decentralized confederation of Ewondo-speaking clans.

For the Africans, the white-skinned Germans took on the spectral appearance of ghosts, which play a special role in the collective imagination. They concluded the Germans must be benevolent deceased ancestors coming back for a peaceful visit. So they were treated as such, with gifts of food and shelter. "The pity of it all," we might think today, knowing how the story turned out.

But the misunderstandings operated in both directions. For their part, the Germans were convinced they had stumbled on the proverbial noble savages amid their quixotic pursuit of new markets, raw materials, and glory for their Kaiser. The innocence of these noble savages was clear from their perpetual partying punctuated by an incessant rolling of drums.

Just as the Ewondo-speaking warriors later discovered the Germans were not in fact their resurrected ancestors, after an elderly member of the expedition died of exhaustion, the Germans, too, realized their error. The rolling drums were not in fact part of excessive noble savage partying. Instead, they represented a remarkable communication system that allowed those in the know to exchange messages quickly and clearly, if a bit loudly.

At the time of the Germans' arrival, Ewondo-speaking extended families dwelled in compounds, the size of a small village, ideally on a hilltop. One of the reasons was military, to make attacks by enemies very difficult, in the same way that European rulers built their fortifications on promontories. Another reason was probably in order to facilitate communications with talking drums. At the time, the Nkul was as common as the telephone or computers are today. Every compound had at least one talking drum. Today very few families still own talking drums. They are found mostly in rural areas where they are used for broadcasting events and summoning people to gather.

In the ancient Ewondo-speaking areas, the wide distribution of talking drums created the infrastructure for an integrated network held together with a well-defined protocol supported by a common culture. It is also interesting that the network of talking drums reflected the same characteristics of Ewondo-speaking society: non- hierarchical, segmented, but held together by a common set of norms and practices that gave life to a common culture. The network of talking drums was an attempt to cement together in a virtual world a community known for its high propensity of individualism.

To run a successful network, you need a set of rules or protocols for creating and directing the information flow. Thus, at birth every Ewondo-speaking person is given a drum name along with a natural speech name. To avoid confusion, compound names can be used to refer to one or the other parent. Later in life, nicknames are sometimes adopted to reflect individual tastes, feats or reputations.

As a result, what has arisen over time is a universal system of generating addresses through the drum names or codes. These addresses are personal and portable, unlike modern telephone numbers, but very similar to modern web email addresses. As a result, while almost everyone has a drum name, there is no need to match a talking drum to each individual.

Broadcasting a message today is done the same way it was done in the past: the drummer drums his name followed by the message he wants to send which is repeated throughout the network for maximum effect. For personalized communication, the sender specifies the address of the receiver followed by his own and then the message. Depending on the context, a conversational exchange can develop between the two parties. It was that type of back and forth that surprised the Germans, who thought the almost uninterrupted drumming was a sign of frivolous partying. In a thickly settled area, the messages could be carried for hundred of miles if relayed properly. In some areas of the Ewondo-speaking lands, talking drum messages have been codified to convey recurring types of news and events such as births, deaths, work projects, wrestling matches, hunting and fishing expeditions and so on.

Today, the Nkul is still used in some rural areas in its broadcasting function of births, deaths and traditional funeral rituals. The Catholic Church quickly understood the potential of this communication technology and incorporated it into its arsenal of tools for reaching the faithful. Catechists, for instance, use the Nkul to call the faithful to prayers.

However, the dwindling number of proficient users and the rapid growth of modern alternatives like the radio, telephone and internet seem likely to further marginalize this ancient form of networked communication. The use of talking drums has been documented in other parts of Africa and countries of the African Diaspora. In the case of the Ewondo-speaking people, it is particularly striking how the available technology, social organization and geography combined to create a network not very different in its conceptual framework from that of the internet. Whatever the future of this unique form of communication, the fact is that hundreds of years before the discovery of the telegraph, telephone, radio or internet, a group of so-called savages "discovered" by Europeans had already laid down the principles that modern networks rely on in a simple but very effective way .