The bougarabou is a big drum with a big sound. Similar in look to the djembe, it is larger and has a deeper resonance. It comes to us from West Africa, specifically from the Jola peoples in Casamance, Senegal and the Gambia. Traditionally, it is played with just one drum, but in recent times bougarabou drummers have taken to playing up to four drums at once.
The bougarabou drum is sometimes referred to as the conga drum of Africa. This is due to similar tonal qualities the two drums share. However, the bougarabou is generally thought to have a broader range of sound than the conga drum. This range is thoroughly influenced by the tuning preferences of the drummer. Unlike the modern conga drum, bougarabou drums are still constructed in a mostly traditional manner. The bougarabou is made from hollowed out wood, with an hourglass shape and a head skin typically from cow or buffalo. To supplement the sound, drummers wear bracelets that jingle as they play.
The bougarabou drum can be played either standing or sitting. When sitting, the drummer will rest the drum between the legs with a slight incline away from the lap. This ensures the bass is not obstructed. When standing, the drummer usually uses a strap or a stand. When using a strap, the drum should be placed between the legs or to the side in such a way that the drummer does not have to move the shoulders to reach the center of the drum.
Playing the bougarabou drum can follow either conga or djembe techniques. Traditionally, it is played by hands only or using a stick. The stick can still be used, but is only suggested if the drummer knows proper technique. With the skins used for the bougarabou drum heads these days, it may be easy to damage the drum. Historically, the bougarabou drum was made using antelope or cow skin for the heads. Antelope is strong enough to take a beating with a stick, but the calf and sometimes goat skins that are used for heads these days may not be able to tolerate it.
One of the most famous bougarabou drummers is Saikouba Badjie. His drumming is one of the first recordings of the bougarabou and he is known for drumming all night, sometimes for many days at a time. He began his recording career with traditional drumming practices, wearing bells around his wrists, singing and playing only one drum with his hands while others danced and clapped along with him. Now, he has moved on to playing several bougarabou drums at once by hand.