The History of the Ashiko reprinted with permission of The Chicago Djembe Project, August, 2003
In response to the request for historical information on
the Ashiko, as well as the comment quoted from the djembe-l archive, I thought
it would save a lot of time to repost a variety of historical exchanges on the
Ashiko (from Nigeria) and the Ngoma (from the Congo and other Central African
countries), found in the "Baffling Vault of Djembe-L Antiquity TM)." In 1996 and
1997, there were several threads about these very similar drums, their origin,
and their method of construction (staved vs. carved from a single log), prompted
in part by the fact that Baba Olatunji had referred to and used both in his
bands over the years. As with the djembe, the ashiko and ngoma have a longer and
more complex history in North America (and Africa) than many people
think. Particularly interesting in these quotes is the acknowledgement of
the early pioneer of African drumming in the United States, the Nigerian
Baba Moses Miannes, and the central role of two of his African-American
students (Baba Taiwo Duval and Chief Bey) in Olatunji's original Drums of Passion ensemble.
Here is a quote from Doug Kane (a longtime student of Olatunji's, and
currently a Malinke dundun instructor), in a post from 1997:
> ... Ngoma is a Congolese word for the long straight-sided type of drum (carved > from one piece of wood) common to many parts of central, western and southern africa. The Ashiko is also a straight-sided drum; one of the many different types of drums indigenous to the Yoruba people. I had the wonderful experience once of having Baba Olatunji not only describe for me but draw pictures of many of the different drums of the Yoruba and neighboring peoples.
Also in 1997, Doug answered a comment from HappyShel:
>> I do remember, though, Baba laughing after reading someone's description of ashiko's and Ngoma's. The writer had written that ashiko and Ngoma were two distinctly different drums. Baba said that Ngoma was the same as ashiko.
> My understanding is this is essentially correct. Ngoma is a Congolese word that means drum (does anyone out there know what the dialect is?). Ashiko is a Yoruba word that means drum. Both refer to long straight-sided drums originally carved from a single piece of wood, and headed using tacks or pegs.
> However, the traditional technique of playing an Ashiko drum is different then the Congolese technique that teachers like Titos Sampa and Fred Simpson teach (both of which are different than djembe technique, Afro-Cuban technique, Brazilian technique, Haitian, etc.).
Doug also mentioned a now out-of-print book by Olatunji (which is also
referenced in a quote from Kim Atkinson below):
> However, a long time before Mickey Hart published the book PLANET DRUM, Baba had written and published a book on the different percussion instruments of Africa. I have never seen it, and I don't know the publishing info or even its title, but perhaps one of us could track it down. What a wonderful resource that would be.
Jumping back one year, Baile of Baile's African Drum Works wrote in
contradiction to the following comment in 1996:
>> An ashiko is a Western (American ?) invention of more recent provenance, constructed by gluing many (@ 10) tapered staves together to form a conical tube. A skin is stretched over the wider end, using a similar system of webbing. An ashiko is probably invariably made using power saws and expensive, machine-made hand tools not available to the African craftsman. Ashiko Construction
> Ashiko is a traditional West African drum introduced to the USA during the early 1930's by the late Baba Moses Miannes of Nigeria West Africa. He, taught several people both how to play and construct this drum of his homeland and people. One of his star students that made this drum poplar is Baba Taiwo Duvall. Baba Taiwo is the Ashiko drummer on the early albums of Babatunde Olatunji. 'Drums of passion' being one such album. Check it out.Baba Taiwo is originally from Washington, D.C., and currently lives in that area. Another
> renowned drummer and drumcraftsman, a star student of the late Baba Miannes is
> Baba Chief Bey. He also can be heard on 'Drums of passion'. He teaches and resides in New York. This is some small bit of the history of the introduction of the Ashiko drum in the USA. It has been a popular drun in the African-American and Latino drum/dance communities for several decades.
> Plenty has already been said about Djembe by others.
The well-known drummer and author Sule Greg Wilson responded in the same thread in 1996 (although his post is a little unclear on whether slat
construction is traditional or not for the ashiko):
> Hey, everyone. Again, I'm shown that I need to do my work. Ashiko drums (not cone-shaped drums) came to the U.S. in 1933 when Nigerian (Igbo people) Moses Miannes came to play for the World's Fair. He stayed here 30 years, til hit by a car in the early '60s. Among his students were Baba Taiwo Duval, one of the original sidemen for Babatunde Olatunji Olatunji (also from Nigeria).
> Traditional Ashiko drums are not straight cones, but are worked/curved inside.
> They also have about 1/3 more slats than you see, and are banded. (I've examined the drum Baba Miannes had made when he came here). To hear real Ashiko, listen to Baba Taiwo on Olaunji's "Drums of Passion", or my CD "The Drummer's Path". My recording was blessed with Baba Taiwo, who did two pieces on the album. Ashiko isn't "between conga and djembe", though most people I see with cone drums play them with either of those techniques. Ashiko has its
> own way to be played. And there it Rumbles!!
> Drums similar to Ashiko are found in Haiti, Brazil, Cuba and ante-bellum U.S.
> Originally, they are rope drums, with a rim near the bottom. Wedges of wood
> are thrust in the bottom rim, that's how you adjust the sound.
> Take care.
> Sule Greg Wilson
Baile responded to the above:
> Well done, Sule. I've attempted to post similar such info, but I think somehow
> I didn't manage to post it correctly. Or something. During a stay in Nigeria
> during the winter of 1976/77 I lay awake most of the night listening to the
> sound of Dundun, Shekere, and Ashiko. This was in a town named Abeokuta, Ogun, State, Nigeria. That for the input, and keep the info coming. Alafia, Peace,
> Baile's African Drum Works
Turning now to the Ngoma, Kim Atkinson (a well-known West Coast
performer/instructor who has studied many Latin, African and Brazilian
traditions) responded to this comment in 1997:
>> I thought "Ngoma" was a Congolese term for an ashiko-shaped, carved drum.
>> Titos Sompe (lives in Santa Cruz, comes from the Congo) had one, with a huge
>> wad of resin in the center of the skin...looked similar in style to Baba's
>> regal drums, but was taller and thinner.
> I want to add a few comments about Ngoma. I played with Congolese artists
> Malonga Casquelourd, Titos Sompa and Samba Ngo and many of there contrymen for
> about ten years in the 80's. I had a chance to play several of their
> traditional ngomas, which are made from a kind of balsa wood, so the drum is
> very light. They often have a foot carved at the bottom so that the drum does
> not need to be tilted to let the bass out. The tradtional skin is an antelope
> with a thickness between cow and goat. They tend to use deer hide in this
> country. Originally the drum skin was streched by stabilizing the drum in a
> pit in the ground and roping the skin to stakes which are driven into the
> ground. The skin in then secured with thorns from a palm tree. Later a piece
> of bamboo is shoved in between the shell and the side of the skin to add more
> tension. Nowadays, we tie the skin to planks and stand on them while tacking
> the skin with carpet tacks. Some people use the Mali weave or conga type
> hardware, and make the shell from staves. The lead drum (low pitch) usually
> has the resin, which makes the sound very fat and round. This same muffling
> technique is used on the low tabla drum, Baya (India) the gudugudu,and the
> Iya Ilu Bata (Nigeria, Cuba)
> According to Dr.Fu-Kiau Bunseki, acknowleged authority on Congo culture, Congo
> means "land of the leopard" and is drivied from 'Co' and 'ngo', ngo meaning
> leopard, the totem animal of the region (remember seeing the dictator of the
> Congo wearing a leopard skin hat and belt on TV in the 60's?) Upon hearing
> this at one of his lectures, I asked about possible derivation of ngoma, at
> which point he had discussion with his countrymen and the consensus seem to be
> that in their language ngoma literally means "take leopard" with the larger
> meaning that the drum has, or can project the power of the totem animal.
> Reinhard Flatischler's book "the Forgotten power of Rhythm" has a nice picture
> of a Congolese style one in the intro.
> In the Olatunji/Dietz book mentioned in a previous post, the ngoma show are the
> kihembe ngoma of East Africa played by the Ganda people of Uganda. This drum
> has a head on both ends, one smaller than the other with zebra skin lacing
> between them. They come in various sizes and are much shorter and wider than
> Congo style. These used to be common in the US a few years ago. I haven't seen
> many lately. There is also a picture of a Venda (S. Africa) ngoma which is
> very short and wide and uses and ox hide played with sticks. The Zulus also
> have ngoma which are short and wide.
> As mentioned before, ngoma is used throughout central and south Africa to mean
> drum, but it can also mean a ceremony where drums are used. U.C. Berkeley
> published a book a few years ago about this entitled (guess what?) "Ngoma". I
> believe it was someone's PhD. thesis. I saw the add for it in Shaman's Drum
> magazine, but never bought the book because it was expensive. Anyone want to
> pursue this?
> kway bee seeki ya'ngoma (phonetic Congolese for "we give thanks for the drums,
> the drummers and the drumming" - from Titos Sompa)
> Kim Atkinson multi-percussionist Sonoma County CA USA
Kim also wrote about the issue of drum construction in response to this
comment in 1997:
>> Hi all, Some additional ideas on the origins of the ashiko and related
>> topics. Skip Burney, whom I studied with when he lived in Atlanta, laughed
>> when he heard me repeat the commonly told story that ashiko s were made by
>> Africans from staves as a lower cost, non-hand carved from solid wood djembe.
>> He said that story is bull, and the original, Yoruba style ashiko was also
>> hand carved and often very large. (Perhaps Happy could confirm this with
>> Baba?) Even today, in Africa, machinery to cut staves is relatively uncommon,
>> and very expensive. The time tested process of hand carving is actually less
> CK Ladzekpo (If you don't know who he is, check his web page. Address
> is in the FAQ) told us once that the reason some Eve drums were made of
> staves was because the British Colonial powers outlawed cutting down trees to
> make drums, as a way of suppressing native culture. The Africans adapted and
> made their drums from barrel technology. Nowadays in Ghana, one piece Eve
> drums are common.
> Stir it up, Kim Atkinson
I hope this is helpful!
--Jim Banks, Manager
The Chicago Djembe Project