Media History Project

Who Used War Drums?

A black drummer boy in the Union Army

A black drummer boy in the Union Army

Before writing, there was the drum. A clay drum excavated in Moravia, in central Europe, is dated 6,000 B.C.E. A drum found in Egypt, 4,000 B.C.E. A sculpture of a drum found in Sumeria, where writing apparently began, is dated 3,000 B.C.E. A drum image on a temple relief in India, maybe 2,000 B.C.E.

The Bible contains several references to drumming, such as Jepthah’s daughter playing to welcome her father home from battle. An ancient Greek vase shows women drumming and dancing. The Japanese "taiko" is estimated to be well over 2,000 years old, and in recent centuries could be found in Shinto and Buddhist shrines and temples as an aid to chanting. Chinese and Korean drums may be even older. Hollowed logs, their openings tightly covered with animal skin, were made by many primitive societies. Some peoples still make them this way.

Their obvious use was as a musical instrument. They were also used in ceremonies by shamans in Central Asia, North America, and the Arctic.

Complex Bantu drum beats mimicked the highs, lows, and syllables of tonal speech. The languages reportedly had drum equivalents. The drummed words were placed in context with other drummed words, sometimes creating long messages.

Records of military or message use may always remain unclear. They may have been the only sound sources, certainly one of the few that could be heard across a battlefield. The sound could rally troops or intimidate the foe. Around the 14th century, the snare drum, with its rattling tone created by gut or metal strings stretched across its lower drumhead, began to see service in the field with European infantry mercenaries who did not always know the language of the country they fought for. The drums were constructed to be loud. ("Rattle drums," played in India and Tibet, get their rattle from pellets inside the drum.)

The English army of the 16th century assigned two drummers to each 100 soldiers to carry a half dozen different messages. Japanese picture scrolls and painted screens of the 16th century show a soldier carrying a drum on his back while a comrade on either side beats it.

Drummers on horseback carried pairs of kettle drums during the spread of Islamic culture. This drum entered Europe during the Crusades. The "Turkish drum" used by Turkish Janissary troops entered Europe in the 18th century.

During the American Revolution, a runaway slave served George Washington as a drummer. Later he became a drum maker in Connecticut.

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