29th Oct 2014

Ngoma: Drum of the Dead

The Ngoma, also known as the Drum of the Dead due to its relation to indigenous royal ancestor spirits, originated in the Eastern part of Africa, particularly Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Kenya and especially Uganda. The Baganda, the largest tribe in Uganda, continues many traditional uses of the Ngoma drum. The Ngoma, like most African drums, is a means of communication within tribes and is also used during various celebrations. Its rich, spiritual history also gives it the reputation as a symbol of authority within tribes.

The Ngoma was brought to Uganda and surrounding areas by the Vendi people, now known as the Senzi. It has been called the Drum of the Dead or the Voice of God, as it was believed to have been instrumental in many of the spiritual myths surrounding the Baganda and other tribe’s development throughout Eastern Africa. Today, the Ngoma is theorized to be a replica of the Ark of the Covenant rescued from Jerusalem.

The Ngoma is a cylinder-shaped drum, as opposed to the goblet-shaped Djembe, resembling a conga drum in both shape and size. It is constructed from wood and covered with cow or goat skin on each end. Ngoma drums come in all sizes, each of which produces different tones and sounds: loud, sharp sounds, slapping sound or even high-pitched tones from the smaller Ngoma drums. Ngoma drums are usually played by groups of drummers, often grouping up to seven drums of different sizes, each with a unique sound or “voice” that create a chorus of complimentary drumming sounds.

Ngoma drum

When playing the Ngoma in a group, the various drums are even given their own names, depending on their size. Bakisimba is the largest Ngoma, creating a deep bass sound when played with the hands or sticks. The empuunya is smaller than the bakisimba and produces higher-pitched bass tones. The nankasa is smaller than the bakisimba and empuunya, high-pitched, and is usually played with sticks. The engalabi, the smallest of the Ngoma drums, produces the highest tone of the drums and may be covered only on one side of the drum, sometimes by lizard skin instead of cow or goat skin.

The Ngoma drum is important in many ways to the spirituality of the Baganda tribe in Uganda. It has deep historical ties within the development of the countries of Eastern Africa and is a great group instrument that compliments the Djembe and other African drums and percussion instruments.