The tama drum is nearly as common as the sabar and is
played by a larger number of ethnic groups than the
sabar, including the Wolof, Serer, Fulbe, Tukuloor,
Malinke, and Mandinko. Similar instruments are found
throughout West Africa.
Playing Methods, Performance & Context
The tama is a 'talking drum', or a drum whose pitch
can be regulated. The player puts the tama under one
shoulder and beats the tama with a curved stick held
in the other hand. To regulate the pitch, the player
squeezes the strings that surround the tama with his
arm, tightening the drum head and thereby raising the
pitch. Because it can imitate the inflections of the
human voice, certain patterns have literal verbal meanings,
although to most Gambians today, the tama is simply
an instrument used to accompany dance and concert music.
Traditionally, the tama was a court instrument, used
by kings and chiefs to summon people. Although most
tama are very small, with a diameter of about 4 to 5
inches, the royal tama, which are extremely rare now,
were almost twice as large. Tamas are used primarily
to accompany dancing or griots' chants. The
Wolof in most areas have little tradition of melodic
singing, and griots' "praise singing" is often
actually rhythmic chanting to a percussive accompaniment,
much like rapping.
The tama is an important part of almost all modern mballax
groups. Although it is not quite as indispensable as
the sabar, it adds a flavour that most groups consider
to be an integral part of their music. Assane Thiam,
the tama player of Senegambia's most famous singer,
Youssou Ndour, has made a solo career recording somewhat
traditional Wolof rhythmic chants.