African Talking Drums | The Information by GleickChris Ridgeway | 14 Aug 2011 | 14:25
I’m blogging through ”James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood.”
Chapter 1: Drums That Talk (When a Code Is Not a Code)
Studying the history of communications technologies, you commonly read that the electric telegraph is a singularly important milestone; especially, it marks the first time that human communications could travel faster than a human. Some exceptions are typically noted (light signals in Paris, bonfires in ancient Greece), but these were limited in their influence until Morse Code appears in the 1840s America.
In his first chapter, James Gleick effectively demonstrates yet another example where Western history has made major misses. African talking drums, poetic and complex, transmitted messages over hundreds of miles without a physical messenger. And this well before American soil was dubbed such.
Europeans were in Africa for centuries, but the “talking drums” weren’t well understood until a 24-year-old missionary named James Carrington settled on the Upper Congo in 1914.
One day he made an improptu trip to the small town of Yaongama and was surprised to find a teacher, medical assistant, and church members already assembled for his arrival. They had heard the drums, the explained.
Carrington spends his life in Africa, and becomes an expert at the talking drums, publishing The Talking Drums of Africa in 1949. His knowledge shows us why Westerns couldn’t comprehend the information. The drums, high and low, relied on the same tonal language attributes that most African languages and Chinese Mandarin do—and most Western languages do not. In this case, high pitched drums meant high pitch in speech, and vice versa.
But the high and low drums couldn’t express consonants or vowels, only the tones. Just as English speakers can understand sentences like this,
if u cn rd ths
u cn gt a gd jb w hi pa!
African drum listeners could use the context to fill in the the missing information. This lead to creativity and error correction of the drummers, who would recite poems or longer stories to remove the ambuguity.
Drummers would not say, “Come back home,” but rather:
Make your feet come back the way they went,
make your legs come back the way they went,
plant your feet and your legs below,
in the village which belongs to us.