A study of the Ashiko drum, which morphed into a fascinating look at ancient culture, the transatlantic slave trade, the clave pattern, and the emergence of West African music in the West.

Where do we begin our drum journey, in regards to this fascinating instrument?

There are several worthy beginning points, such as:

  • The ashiko’s unique and beautiful voice
  • Its’ ancient history, dating to 9000 BC, in which it was created for religious ceremonies
  • How the drum is still used today as a talking drum amongst the indigenous people who created it, just as it has been for centuries
  • Its’ integration into Mediterranean culture through the transatlantic slave trade
  • The resiliency of its’ people that kept their traditions alive despite the oppression of European slavers, traditions that include drumming and dancing, as much a part of them as breathing
  • The genre of Ashiko music that was created specifically to keep spiritual traditions alive in the face of British colonization
  • Its’ introduction to the United States in the 1930’s and then in the 1950’s, its’ explosion in popularity in the West by a drummer from Nigeria by the name of Babatunde Olatunji

Yes, the ashiko holds all that and so much more, its’ cultural richness so vast and fascinating there is too much to be contained in the context of this web-page.  So, where do we begin?

Let’s begin our journey with the first step, “What is an ashiko, anyway?”.

Note the signature tapered cylinder shape of the Ashiko drum.

Simply, it is a hand drum made from wood and shaped like a tapered cylinder. It has a goat skin hide as it’s playing surface and ropes for tuning. Not having reached the mainstream awareness as another drum we know and love, the West African djembe, the ashiko is often unrecognized in the West (although it has been popular in the African-American and Latino drum/dance communities for several decades).

Like the djembe, the ashiko has been an integral part of its’ own indigenous culture for centuries, being woven into the religious, social and everyday tapestry of the life of the people who created it.

Djembe from Mali.

Now we begin to discuss the ashiko as its’ own separate entity, rather than a comparison to the djembe.

It is sometimes mistakenly thought of as something that is “between a conga and a djembe”.  This is not true.  (A conga, more properly referred to as “tumbadora”, is a tall, narrow, single-headed Cuban drum with West African antecedents.)

A djembe is a djembe. A conga is a conga.  An ashiko is an ashiko.  Ashiko is commonly thought of as a “counter-part” to Djembe. This is incorrect.  Each of these drums are unique and rich in their individual culture and history, each in their own right separate and unlike anything else.  They each hail from different parts of the world and different peoples.

In the days before the slave trade, when peoples from differing geographical locations (including within the continent of Africa), none of these drums would have been played together because the people were independent of each other. The conga hadn’t even been invented yet because the slaves from West Africa did not arrive in Cuba until the 1800’s.

Conga drums

Happily, in modern times, these drums cross paths with wonderful musical chemistry, and it is now common to see them being played at the same time. (A wonderful metaphor for the power of the drum to break down barriers between diverse people in a community, don’t you think?)

The ashiko drum is indigenous to the Yoruba peoples from the the south-western region of  what is now known as Nigeria, officially known as the Federal Republic of Nigeria since 1963.  “Ashiko” is a Yoruba word that means “drum”; depending on the inflection of the native tonal language, it can also mean “freedom” or “the world of time”.

Traditional ashiko drums are hand-carved from a single log of hard wood, and are not straight cones but are curved on the inside of the shell.

Typical modern-day ashiko is available in a variety of sizes, and built from vertical staves, much like a wooden barrel is.  It is the Western method to use staves; even today in Africa machinery (power saws, lathes, machine-made hand tools) to cut staves is relatively uncommon and very expensive.  The time-tested process of hand-carving is actually less costly.

One of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa, the Yoruba constitute around 50 million individuals, with the densest population located in Nigeria.


The Yoruba people have an extensive history, archeological research has shown that people were already living in Nigeria as early as 9,000 BC, and perhaps even earlier.  These amazing people have not only survived through the centuries, they have made an indelible impact on the world. For example, New World religions such as Vodou in Haiti, Santeria in Cuba and Candomble in Brazil all have their roots in Yoruban mythology and spiritual tradition.

Yoruba folk music became the most prominent kind of West African music in Afro-Latin and Caribbean musical styles. The music of the Yoruba people left an especially important influence on the music of the Lucumi people (a “nacion”, nation, or sect of Afro-Cubans), and the music of Cuba as a whole.

Ashiko drum

West Africans have influenced the music of the world, as their exciting, powerful rhythms were the basis for modern-day rock-and-roll.

Basically a combination of European harmony and African rhythm, rock developed from rhythm and blues; rhythm and blues developed from jazz, and jazz had its’ origins in the music which the West African slaves brought with them to America from their homeland.  A similar phenomenon occurred in Cuba and Brazil, and thus we have Afro-Brazilian samba music and Afro-Latin music today. Afro-Brazilian Coco folkloric dance stemmed from Yoruba imported to Brazil during the slave trade.

The Cuban rumba has its influences in the music brought to Cuba by Africans as slaves, in the late 1800’s.
*****************The following is quoted from: wikipedia
-David Peñalosa author, The Clave Matrix, and Rumba Quinto
Clave-Matrix-Afro-Cuban-Principles-African  –  Rumba-Quinto-David  –  http://www.unlockingclave.com  –  facebook-Unlocking-Clave

However, a review of sub-Saharan music will reveal that the duple-pulse forms have existed in Africa for centuries. The patterns the Cubans call “clave” are two of the most common bell parts used in Sub-Saharan African music traditions.  Musician/researcher John Collins documents the triple-pulse forms of what we call “son clave” and “rumba clave” in West, Central and East Africa. Francis Kofi documents several Ghanaian rhythms that use the triple or duple-pulse forms of “son clave.”  Royal Harington identifies the duple-pulse form of “rumba clave” as a bell pattern used by the Yoruba people of West Africa. There are many recordings of traditional African music where one can hear the five-stroke “clave” used as a bell pattern.

It wasn’t until African musicologists like C.K. Ladzekpo entered into the discussion in the 1970s and 80s that the metric structure of sub-Saharan rhythm was unambiguously defined. The writings of Victor Kofi Agawu and David Locke must also be mentioned in this regard.

In the diagram below 6/8 (son) clave is shown on top and a beat cycle is shown below it. Any or all of these structures may be the emphasis at a given point in a piece of music using the “6/8 clave.”

The example on the left (6/8) represents the correct count and ground of the “6/8 clave. The four dotted quarter-notes across the two bottom measures are the main beats. All clave patterns are built upon four main beats. The bottom measures on the other two examples (3/2 and 6/4) show cross-beats.

Nigerian dancers

Observing the dancer’s steps almost always reveals the main beats of the music. Because the main beats are usually emphasized in the steps and not the music, it is often difficult for an “outsider” to feel the proper metric structure without seeing the dance component.

For cultural insiders, identifying the “dance feet” occurs instinctively and spontaneously. Those not familiar with the choreographic supplement, however, sometimes have trouble locating the main beats and expressing them in movement. Hearing African music on recordings alone without prior grounding in its dance-based rhythms may not convey the choreographic supplement. Not surprisingly, many misinterpretations of African rhythm and meter stem from a failure to observe the dance.

Nigerian women dancing

The clave rhythmic pattern is used as a tool for temporal (meaning: rhythmic measure) organization in Afro-Cuban music, such as rumba, conga de comparsa, son, son montuno, mambo music, salsa, Latin jazz, songo and timba.

The five-stroke clave pattern represents the structural core of many Afro-Cuban rhythms.  Just as a keystone holds an arch in place, the clave pattern holds the rhythm together in Afro-Cuban music.  The clave pattern originated in sub-Saharan African music traditions, where it serves essentially the same function as it does in Cuba.
***************End Quote

The pattern is also found the African diaspora musics of Haitian Vodou drumming and Afro-Brazilian music. Over a period of almost four centuries, four million Africans were transported to North America and the Caribbean Islands in the Atlantic slave trade.

Captured from their homeland and separated from their tribes and families they were enslaved in a new world, where all familiar customs were absent. The African diaspora is the story of how Africans, though scattered dispersed, managed to retain their traditions and reform their identities in a new world. Elements of African culture such as religion, language, and folklore endured and were their links to their past lives.


The clave pattern is used in North American popular music as a rhythmic motif or simply a form of rhythmic decoration.

Ethnomusicologists observe that what we call son clave, rumba clave and the standard pattern are the most commonly used key patterns (also called bell patterns, timeline patterns and guide patterns) in Sub-Saharan African music traditions and all three are considered to be basically one and the same pattern.  Clearly they are all expressions of the same rhythmic principles.  The three key patterns are found within a large geographic belt extending from Mali in northwest Africa to Mozambique in southeast Africa.

The two main clave patterns used in Afro-Cuban music are the son clave and the rumba clave.  Both are used as bell patterns across much of Africa.  Son and rumba clave can be played in either a a triple-pulse (12/8 or 6/8) or a duple-pulse (4/4, 2/4 or 2/2) structure.

The contemporary Cuban practice is to write the duple-pulse clave in a single measure of 4/4.  “Clave” is also written in a single measure in ethnomusicological writings about African music.

The movements of people around the world and the cultural contacts arising therefrom have always resulted in the mixing of musics. One can hardly find any “authentic” music existing in the world today and even the so-called traditional types have in historical times been subjected to innovation through cultural contact. It can therefore be said that interculturalism in music is likely to be as old as music itself. At the same time, specific musical cultures and traditions of instrumentation, composition and performance indubitably exist.

Babatunde Olatunji's album "Drums of Passion", which made West African music and the Ashiko drum, famous in America.

Nigerian percussion master Babatunde Olatunji (guess what, he was Yoruba!) arrived on the American music scene in 1959 with his album “Drums of Passion”, which was a collection of traditional Nigerian music for percussion and chanting. The album stayed on the charts for two years and had a profound impact on jazz and American popular music. Born and raised in the Yoruba drumming tradition, Olatunji would have a major impact on Western popular music. He went on to teach, collaborate and record with numerous jazz and rock artists, including Airto Moreira, Carlos Santana and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. He was great friends with Arthur Hull, world’s premier drum circle facilitator.

It was Babatunde’s Drums of Passion album in which we find the ashiko drum, presented to the Western world in the hands of a master drummer, Taiwo Duval, who uses traditional ashiko technique, now nearly lost to the mists of time.

The music of the Yoruba people is best known for an extremely advanced drumming tradition, with the hourglass tension drums (or “talking drums”) being amongst the most recognized.

A culture rich in drums and percussion, other traditional drums include of course, the ashiko drum; dunduns (a group of drums consisting of “iya ilu” which is the mother drum, or the main drum, and the omele which are smaller accompanying drums and so important that it is always seen as an accompaniment in all Yoruba styles or genres of music); bata drums; gudugudu, smaller bata drums; and bembe drum, a kettle drum producing bass notes.

Shekere, a gourd enmeshed with beads or shells

Traditional percussion instruments are the shekere (a shaker made of beads or cowrie shells wound around a gourd); agidigbo (a piano-like instrument); agogo or saworo (a high-pitched instrument like a 3-dimensional tuning fork); and seli and aro, similar to the agogo; and the most accessible instruments of all, hand clapping.

Rich and complex music are hallmarks of Yoruba musical tradition, as polyrhythms (two or more different rhythms are played simultaneously) are part of traditional West African music.

An important rhythm technique used throughout West Africa is called African hemiola style, asymmetric rhythm pattern involving two bars in simple triple meter (3/2 or 3/4 for example) played as if they were three bars in simple duple meter (2/2 or 2/4), the interplay of the two groups of three notes with three groups of two notes give a  distinctive pattern of 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2; Nigeria is no exception.

Nigerian music is also known for its’ use of ostinato rhythms, in which a rhythmic pattern is repeated despite changes in metre.

Music as a way of life continues to this day.  Having some of the most advanced recording studio technology in Africa, Nigeria provides robust commercial opportunities for music performers. Nigeria has been called “the heart of African music” because of its’ role in the development of West African highlife and palm-wine music, genres which fuse native rhythms with techniques imported from the Congo for the development of popular styles that are unique to Nigeria, such apala, fuji, juju, highlife and yo-pop.

Nigerian musicians created their own styles of United States hip-hop music and Jamaican reggae.  Afro-beat is another recent popular musical development, in which various indigenous music are fused with American Jazz and Soul.  Juju music, a modern genre, is percussion music fused with traditional music from the Yoruba nation.  “Ashiko” is the original name for juju music.

Talking Drums of Nigeria

The name “juju” is derived from a Yoruba word “juju” or “juji” meaning “throwing” or “something being thrown”.  Contrary to some misinformed opinions, it is not a reference to juju, which is a form of magic or witchcraft common in West Africa, Haiti, Cuba and other South American nations. Juju music evolved in Nigeria in the 1920’s in urban clubs.  The lead and predominant instrument of Juju music is the Iya Ilu, a Nigerian dundun or talking drum.  {Author Molly’s note: if you want to hear an amazing talking drum performance, go see Thione Diop in Seattle.  A master drummer from Senegal who hails from generations of griots (a West African story-teller, a griot delivers history as a singer, poet or wandering musician, they are the keepers of oral tradition), Thione can make these babies SING.  Wow.}

Our journey now takes another step back in time to the transatlantic slave trade.  Encompassing 15th to 19th centuries, the Europeans traded with the ethnicities of the coast and also negotiated a trade in slaves, to the detriment and profit of many Nigerian people.  The shippers were, in order of scale, the Portuguese (the slave trade began with them, in the 1430’s) and Brazilians, the British, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, and the North Americans.

While the slave trade had profound effects that reverberate world-wide to this day, we’ll narrow our focus to a single drum, the ashiko and its’ music.

A modern ashiko drum

Ashiko music was imported to Nigeria from Sierra Leone during the 1800’s.  Slaves rescued at sea were
usually taken to Freetown in the West African country of Sierra Leone, where they were released. Many of them made their way back to Yoruba homelands, traveling across the northwestern face of the African continent, which had yet to be divided and named by foreign powers.

Another major dropping-off point for freed slaves was Lagos, largest city in Nigeria.

Returning to their native land, and finding it populated by colonizers, these former West African slaves created a whole new genre of music called Ashiko music.  It developed originally as a syncretic street drumming, as a way of reconciling conflicting religious beliefs and cultural traditions in Anglophone West Africa.   Played and danced by Christian Yoruba peoples, the music comprised only of drums including Ashiko, and accompanying percussion, traditionally a carpenter’s nail tapping out time on a glass bottle.  A carpenter’s saw also provided occasional embellishment for the drum music, as a particular desired sound could be derived from its’ sharp edge.

This genre, over time, became what is now called juju music in modern Nigeria.

Going back even farther in time, long before the transatlantic slave trade, long before European colonizers set foot on the continent of Africa, the Yoruba people, as did all of West Africa, had their drumming.  The ashiko drum is part of Yoruba ancient culture, in which it was used as a talking drum, to communicate over long distances.

The Yoruba language is a tonal one, and the ashiko was tuned and played to replicate native speech.  A skilled ashiko player literally makes the drum “talk”, mimicking speech tones, reinforcing their oral system as it allows criticisms, praises, and innuendos to be transmitted through music.

UpTopDrumCircleThe Yoruba people, from whom the ashiko originated, also used the drum ritualistically. They participate in a traditional religion centered on Orisha worship – the ancient deities of nature.  Consecrated drums are used in traditional spiritual practice to appease the Orishas and commune with “otherworld” forces.

Ashikos are also used in complex rites of passage.  Drummers prepared for years to play the rhythms exactly correct for each and every circumstance, whether it be a specific religious ceremony or a village social dance.

The drums were held as sacred and in regards to religious ceremony, and were seen as the voice that called to a specific deity, thus the drummers were charged with making the drums talk in such a way that the deity would recognize.  The same rhythms are played to this day, thousands of years later, on the same kind of drum, the ashiko.

As is typical of traditional African culture, the ashiko belongs to a drum family.  In the drum family, there is a mama, a papa and the children.

Dounouns, a family of drums from Guinea and Mali

(Think of the dounouns from Guinea; the dounounba is the biggest one called the papa, the sangban is the middle-sized one its’ the mama, and the littlest one is the kenkeni it’s the baby. This group of drums represents a classic drum family.)

In West African culture, the mama is the boss!  The drum is a family, and the head of the drum family is always the mama, that is the African structure.  When mama says jump, the papa and the children all jump!  This relationship between the drums is directly related to societal structure, as it represents Nigeria’s history as a matriarchal community.  At least traditionally, gender equality was reinforced by the matrilineal period of Nigeria’s past, where related female kin made up the settlements and followed matrilineal descent patterns.  The drum family clearly reinforces this past history, ensuring an aspect of gender status.

The traditional drum ensembles were a means of ensuring community, as they were never played alone.

Fast forward a few thousand years, to modern-day North America.  The ashiko was first introduced to the U.S. in 1933 when Moses Miannes (of the Igbo people in south-eastern Nigeria), came to the United States from Nigeria to play for the Chicago World’s Fair.  Among his students was Taiwo Duval and Chief  Bey.  These talented drummers (both African-Americans) were members of Babatunde’s original group, recording most famously, Babatunde’s “Drums of Passion” album.

Taiwo Duval is credited for popularizing the ashiko drum in the United States.  He uses traditional ashiko technique, now nearly forgotten.  Taiwo can be heard playing traditional ashiko on the “Drums of Passion” album, and on Sule Greg Wilson’s “Drummer’s Path” audio samples.

Ashiko drums

Ashikos are made in a variety of sizes.

The traditional technique of playing an ashiko drum is different than the Congolese technique that some teachers favor.  Both of  these are different than djembe technique, Afro-Cuban technique, Brazilian, Haitian, and other styles. Knowing how to play the traditional style requires a master teacher, one schooled in Yoruba language, culture and drumming.  Most ashiko players use either the djembe technique or the conga technique, in lieu of access to an ashiko Drum Master.

West African music changed the sound-scape of the world forever, because not only did they give their rhythms to outsiders, they adapted the musical style of foreigners to their own traditional drumming.  Ashiko music became a compromise between the Yoruba of what became Nigeria and the British colonizing power.  Juju music evolved from ashiko music.  Afrobeat was born from Yoruba tradition and modern-day American jazz.  Modern-day jazz has its’ roots in West African musical tradition.

We at Drumatic Innovation think it’s a great honor to have the freedom of choice as to how drums are played.  A drummer can focus on a strict study of culture-specific drumming, or experiment and make things their own.

We like to play outside the lines, and hope you’ll join us!

DailyBee Drum Circle

We invite you to contact us

*Call or E-Mail us Today*
Michael 208 627 9045
Molly 208 627 9045


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