Two days ago I started reading James Gleick’s new book, The Information. I don’t know what the critics think, but it has met my two most important criteria: It held my attention; I learned something new. And a third, good prose style — efficient if not poetic — is also satisfied. So here is today’s little gem from the book: Talking Drums. The first, brief report of these to the European public was by Francis Moore in 1730, who navigated the Gambia River on a reconnaissance mission for the slave trade. A century later, Captain William Allen, on an expedition up the Niger River, noticed more. Speaking of his Cameroon pilot, he wrote:
Suddenly he became totally abstracted, and remained for a while in the attitude of listening. On being taxed with inattention, he said: “You no hear my son speak?” As we had heard no voice, he was asked how he knew it. He said, “Drum speak me, tell me come up deck.” This seemed to be very singular.
Singular it was indeed! It was not until the publication in 1949 of The Talking Drums of Africa, by the missionary John Carrington, that non-Africans understood and deciphered the drummers’ code. Carrington realized that drummers could quite communicate complex information — “birth announcements, warnings, prayers, even jokes” — over long distances through a specialized tonal language. It was a language that was nearing extinction just as its secret was uncovered.
I don’t want to take away your reading pleasure, so I will leave you with these (1) the drummers had developed an amazingly sophisticated system of disambiguation and error correction that allowed them to communicate complex sentences using only two tones, (2) A man from the Lokele village, where Carrington lived for many years, had this to say about him:
He is not really European, despite the color of his skin. He used to be from our village, one of us. After he died, the spirits made a mistake and sent him off to a far away village of whites to enter into the body of a little baby who was born of a white woman instead of one of ours. But because he belongs to us, he could not forget where he came from, and so he came back.” The man added, “If he is a little bit awkward on the drums, this is because of the poor education that the whites gave him.
Postscriptum. As a fun little programming exercise, JC and I worked up something to transform text to an imaginary musical language. Below is the text and the “music.”
Hey man, look at the sun!
Hey man, it keep us warm!
It grow our our food,
It keep us warm.
Hey man, look at the sun,
And feel it be warm on your face!!
For the source code for converting text to music, if you are interested in such things, see our github repository. It is part of our sf2sound project. The most relevant files are talk.py and talk.sh.
NOTES. The transformation of text to “music” effected by talk.py encodes vowels as quarter notes — a = do, e = re, i = mi, o = fa, u = sol. Consonants are encoded as a pair of eighth notes, e.g., p = do re, b = re do. All the plosives are encoded as a major second, unvoiced ones rising, the voiced ones falling. In general, members of a phonetic group — fricatives, liquids, etc. — share some musical feature, e.g. the same interval. Spaces and punctuation marks are coded by a short melodic fragment. See the code for talk.py for further information.