Beyond the Kit: Exploring the World of Hand Drums

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When someone says they play drums, the first thing that comes to mind for most of us is the modern drum kit. As a major driving force behind contemporary music, the drum kit is something of an icon, and the backbone of many of our favorite pop, rock, and jazz songs.

However, drums are one of the oldest forms of musical instrument, with history stretching back thousands of years—and long before the invention of the modern kit, different kinds of drums played a major role in the music, traditions, and communication of many cultures around the world.

In parts of Africa, for instance, hand drums feature prominently in a range of traditions and ceremonies: weddings, funerals, births, etc. Pre-Columbian Aztecs used drums as a means of sending messages to warriors in battle. And in Sri Lanka, drums have even played a role in the state’s communication of information to the people.

In some world cultures, drumming continues to have cultural importance, outside of entertainment. And drums with points of origin from around the globe have also found their way into contemporary music. You can hear these drums in current recordings of traditional music, in more eclectic styles that fuse different genres, and even in pop songs that simply use these drums for their great sound.

The beat of tradition

Since drums boast what is perhaps the richest tale of musical development in history, many professional percussionists’ styles are often inextricably intertwined with the specific traditions of their preferred instrument. However, for some hand drummers, paying respect to traditional playing styles is a focus that goes beyond the history of the instrument itself and becomes deeply personal.

De La Buena

Cecilio Negron Jr., a percussionist whose primary instrument is the congas, co-founded the Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz group De La Buena. While De La Buena has created a unique, signature sound within its genre, both the group and Negron Jr. draw considerable influence from tradition, and place great importance on paying respect to their musical heritage. And for Negron Jr., that is a matter of family history.

I play many percussion instruments but my main instrument is the tumbadora, aka congas. The origin of the drums is in the Caribbean—namely, Cuba and Puerto Rico—but the roots can be traced to Africa. I also play bongo, timbales, djembe, and drum set, to name a few.

I come from a family of musicians. My father and uncle both play percussion professionally, and began teaching me the drumming traditions when I was just a small child. Basically, I grew up with these drums, rhythms, and traditions, and have been learning them for as long as I can remember.

Ray Pereira

Echoing Negron’s emphasis on tradition is Ray Pereira, a freelance percussionist who has performed with many of Australia’s most highly respected and acclaimed artists. As a distinguished teacher of African and Cuban drumming, Pereira finds there is always much to learn about traditional drumming styles. And putting the work into understand them helps a drummer grow and develop.

When playing a traditional instrument, I think it’s important to study deeply the origins of the rhythms and the traditional context in which the music is played. You can then use this knowledge to branch out and form your own style depending on the type of music you play. I have played across many genres but keep borrowing from traditional sources to inform and influence my playing.

On the other hand, some players find that coming to these traditional instruments from a different angle can yield satisfying results, creating new and engaging sounds.

Tom Teasley

One such player is Tom Teasley, an award-winning solo percussionist, composer, and collaborator who employs many traditional instruments in his music. Teasley has performed around the globe with traditional and modern artists. His approach—applying his background in jazz to traditional drums—has developed in to his own trademark hybrid style, which he teaches to developing percussionists.

I study the traditional approaches to the indigenous instruments. I am more interested, however, in applying my background as an American jazz musician to these instruments to create a hybrid style of performance. I have an instructional DVD to be released by Alfred later this year on this hybrid approach. I’m taking drum set applications and applying them to djembe, doumbek, riq, pandeiro, frame drums, shakers and more. I’m also incorporating four-part coordination as a drum set player would use.

If American jazz is considered to be a merging of African rhythm systems and European harmony, I’m looking to expand the gene pool!

Bang on the drum all day

When it comes to traditional types of drums, the options are vast. And while many players love to continue expanding by adding new and different kinds of drums, many find there are a few particular types that really hit the sweet spot and help define their sound.

Jyn Yates

Jyn Yates, a professional percussionist who has been playing since she was 3 years old, was recently featured in the book Women Drummers: A History from Rock and Jazz to Blues and Country for her considerable talent on the drum set. And while Yates finds herself particularly at home on the kit, she also has accumulated broader skills in hand-drumming on many different instruments. From the many kinds of drums she has used, Yates focuses in on a few that are particularly important to her playing style.

While my forte is the drum set, I’ve been playing hand drums for at least 30 years or more. I specialize in hand drums of all sorts, including electronic hand drums as well. My drum of choice is the African djembe. I have several, including a hand-carved African djembe, which I have studied for years along with the doumbek, a Middle Eastern drum. I have an actual hand-carved African drum—from Africa—that’s more than 3,000 years old. My father and fellow drummer gifted (it) to me in my 20s.

I have also collected many hand drums over the years, from tablas to congas and many more. This is where rhythm started: the idea that simple drumming can relieve people of pain, or can expand the mind is an amazing thing. It’s very therapeutic, and elders thought drumming could bring alternate states of mind. It’s an amazing instrument.

Kenny Malone

Another player who stands out for having defined his sound with a particular drum selection is Kenny Malone. An expert session player active in the country music scene, Malone makes extensive use of hand drums. And even though he has experience with many styles of drum (inventing a few of his own along the way), he has found the djembe to be his go-to.

I play a djembe with unique attachments and sometime strike with a brush and/or in conjunction with a snare. Of course, I play a standard drum set as well, and for years before 1970 I was in the U.S. Navy Big Band, eventually as head of the Navy’s percussion dept.

Join the drum circle

If you are considering getting started with hand-drumming, you can learn from the experience and advice of seasoned drummers. And with the world of hand drumming being as large and diverse as it is, one of the biggest questions at the outset is “What kind of drum should I play?”

Odin Alvarez plays the drums for the New Jersey-based progressive rock band Thank You Scientist, a role where he combines a multitude of influences and instruments to drive the backbeat for complex arrangements. While his focus is largely on the drum kit, he regularly employs multi-cultural percussion, and has practical advice for anyone looking to learn hand-drumming.

For someone starting out in hand drumming, I would say an African djembe would be a good place to start. It has fewer tones to understand, as opposed to congas or Indian tablas, which are far more complicated. With the djembe only having two or three tones to worry about, a beginner can focus more on getting an idea of where their pocket lies, and how these tones can be matched up appropriately to their musical context.


Kalani is a percussionist with expertise in music education, therapy, and personal development, who has years of experience teaching world percussion. In his view, choosing a drum is a highly personal decision. For Kalani, the emphasis is on finding instruction that will get you started off in the right direction.

I think that all instrumental choices should be informed by musical choices. You have to enjoy and be motivated by the music, so begin with the music that moves you, then find out what instruments are used to play it. One consideration is size and portability. Some people like smaller drums, such as darbuka and frame drums, because they’re easy to transport. Others might like the larger congas and djembe because of the culture of community music making that they represent.

Many people will start with a particular drum and branch out into other areas. The important thing when starting out is to get quality instruction. Seek out a reputable teacher with professional experience. Building a solid foundation will help take you wherever you want to go.

Ultimately, in the world of drumming, there is much to explore beyond the drum kit. Whether you continue growing your collection of drums or find a particular model that best suits your style, branching out in to hand drumming is a decision that’s often fulfilling and enlightening.

Find the drum that’s right for you with our World Percussion Buying Guide.

Tags: Percussion Hand Drums

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