Strange Instrument #4: The Tongue Drum

I love percussions but I always had a hard time to play such instruments… Put me behind a drumset and I will Boom Boom Tchak the place out for hours, but that’s all I can do!! Give me a Djembe and I’ll empty Central Park just like a killer bees swarm will do!! And yet, I love percussions… To me, percs are the real foundation of music because it gives the rhythm… A tune with a very basic melody (say a two notes melody) is still music… A tune without rhythm is not music anymore!! And yet, what I miss the most when I try to play any percussion instrument is this damn melody bitch… And that’s what great (at least good) percussionists know how to do. They know how to bring melody in the percussive playing!!

A few years back, as I was listening to Ben Harper‘s Blessed To Be a Witness, my attention got hooked up by an interesting sound… Sweet and percussive, percussive and melodic… That was a Tongue Drum sound… The missing link between percussion and melody (well, at least one of the missing links but I can’t picture myself having a Steel Drum or a Balafon in my living room).

tongue_jejeA Tongue Drum looks like a shoe box on first sight (size 20) but everything relies on the top of the instrument. Depending on the model, the soundboard is made of 6 to 14 Padauk keys. Each key (tongue) generates a different note, and every notes are arranged within a specific scale. These instruments are designed with different tuning possibilities that can be adapted to the musician’s needs. The Tongue Drum can be played with the fingers, the full hand or with mallets which make this instrument full of perspectives. Indeed, the Tongue Drum can be played just as any pure percussion instrument, but you also can build melodico-percussive patterns or build chords by playing several notes simultaneously.


krinA few lines above, I was naming it the missing link between percussion and melody… Actually, I almost should say  that it is the ancestor instrument as history of the Tongue Drum takes its source in ancient African, Asian and south American cultures, thousand years ago. Indeed, the origin of this instrument is rooted in the ancestral Slit Drum and Log Drum which were made by hollowing out trees. Slit Drum was used as a musical instrument or  acommunication device that came up in some cultures with a proper language based upon pitch and rhythm variations. The Tongue Drum is one of the modern avatars of these ancestral instruments.

Notice that some shape and material variants of this instrument exist, such as the Hapi Drums (made by Hapi Tones) that looks like a gas cylinder or the Bellisphere which looks like a flying saucer! Yes, I’m being metaphorical today! Anyway, I’ll do a post about these later…

So, I’m gonna leave you with Blessed To Be A Witness by Ben Harper Enjoy! And if you look carefully, you will see one of Ben’s musicians playing a Slit Drum that looks quite old…


And you, what do you think about melodic percussion?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *