Hand drums describe any drum made to be played with the bare hand instead of a stick or mallet. Most hand drums are known as membranophones, constructed of a solid, cylindrical frame made from materials like wood or dried gourds, which is covered in a taut rawhide sheath.

The most basic form of these instruments is simply called a frame drum, a shallow device with a wide drumhead covered on only one end. However, there are a few traditional hand drums that have no drumhead at all, and are instead made from a single piece of solid material, like the earthenware ghatam from India or the udu of Africa.

Across the African continent, hand drumming has been an important part of cultural traditions dating back thousands of years. As with most early instruments, hand drums were used not just to make music, but for sending signals, accompanying religious rituals, and herding animals.

Some of the most typical African drums include the dundun family of cylindrical, two-headed, rope-tuned instruments, and the Nigerian ashiko, a straight-sided drum with a single head. One of the most unique African instruments is the talking drum, a two-sided, hourglass-shaped instrument that creates a wide variety of pitches. The talking drum’s two heads are connected with taut leather cords, which allow players to adjust the tones so the drum imitates the sounds of human speech and voice inflection.

Around a foot across and two feet tall, the goblet-shaped djembe of West Africa is another common hand drum. These drums have a sacred spiritual role and are often revered as living beings rather than objects, which is why in the native Bambara language of Mali, the term for a djembe player, a djembefola, translates literally as “one who gives the djembe voice.” In the 1940s, the djembe spread beyond West Africa when it was brought to Paris, and its sound became increasingly popular during the 1950s and '60s with the world tours of Les Ballets Africains.

In the Middle East, a similarly shaped drum called the doumbek was developed during the 19th century, with either a wood or clay frame covered in goat or fish skin. Doumbeks are generally made in two styles: The Egyptian form has rounded edges, while the Turkish design has sharp corners on the head. However, the oldest Middle Eastern drums were simpler frame drums, such as the daf, doira, and bendir, as well as a tambourine version called a riq.

One of the most challenging hand drums to play is the Indian tabla, which consists of two drums of differing size that produce complementary tones. Other Indian styles include th...

Though popularized in Latin American music, familiar drums like the conga and bongo are really descendants of African instruments. In the late 1800s, after Cuban slaves were freed, these predominantly Bantu-speaking people from the Congo region formed impoverished communities on the outskirts of most towns. Yet because African drums were outlawed during Spanish colonial rule, the Africans’ native makuta and yuka drums needed to be produced in a new way.

To avoid persecution, musicians made their conga drums in a stave style, with many slats held together like a barrel, instead of using a solid wood body. Originally, the drumheads were attached with tacks and tuned using the heat of a fire, but as the popularity of congas and bongos grew during the 1950s, this system was replaced with adjustable metal lugs.

Today, the three common sizes of conga drums are known by different names, from smallest to largest, Quinto, Conga, and Tumbadora or Tumba. However, in Cuba, the instruments are all referred to as tumbadora, while “conga” refers to a specific rhythm played during Carnaval.

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