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Whenever I watch an old Tarzan movie on TV, right when Tarzan and a few of the intruding white guys are worried sick and looking high and low we suddenly hear the drums. Tarzan stiffens, puts a hand to one ear, and announces, "They have the girl. She is well, but they will not give her back unless you shut down your mines. They are 200 men strong and have guns. They will be here before dark tonight." Huh? How did he get that from a few drumbeats? Is there really a way to communicate any message besides "I'm beating a drum" across the jungle like this? And while you're at it, what's the story with those smoke signals the Indians were always sending? --Lying Awake in Wonder, Anna Banana, Olney, Illinois

You don't believe everything you see in the movies? In the age of Oliver Stone this is comforting news. But there really are such things as talking drums.

First let's kiss off Indian smoke signals. Some Native American tribes did use smoke signals, particularly on the plains or in the southwest, where the sky was usually clear and the view unobstructed. But the message was pretty basic. An army captain in the 1860s writes: "Apache smoke signals are of various kinds, each one significant of a particular object. A sudden puff, rising from the mountain heights . . . indicates the presence of a strange party upon the plain below. If these puffs are rapidly repeated they are a warning that strangers are well armed and numerous. If a steady smoke is maintained for some time, the object is to collect the scattered bands of savages at some designated point, with hostile intention, should it be practicable." Other means of signaling included fires (at night), gesticulating with blankets, or reflecting the sun off mirrors.

For your chattier Western Union-type communication you have to go to central Africa, where the Bantu family of languages is spoken. Many Bantu languages have drum equivalents, which work like Morse code except that the fundamental message unit is words rather than letters. Drum language is based on the fact that a key determinant of meaning in Bantu words is high versus low intonation. In the Bantu language Kele, for example, liala means "fiance" if the syllables are intoned low-high-low and "rubbish pit" if pronounced L-L-L. You will appreciate therefore the importance of keeping Bantu intonations straight.

Drum telegraphy is accomplished using two-tone drums that duplicate these tonal patterns. You are thinking you see a fatal flaw in this approach: like there's only one three-syllable word in Kele that's intoned L-H-L? Of course not. To provide unique tonal combinations common words are replaced by stock phrases. Thus songe (moon, H-H) is distinguished from kaka (fowl, also H-H) by stretching out the former into songe li tange la manga, "the moon looks down at the earth," H-H-L-H-L-L-L-L, and the latter into kaka olongo la bokiokio, "the fowl, the little one which says 'kiokio,"' H-H-L-H-H-L-L-H-L-H-L.

This procedure gives drum messages a somewhat discursive quality. The English sentence, "The missionary is coming upriver to our village tomorrow. Bring water and firewood to his house," parses out to the drummed equivalent of the following: "White man spirit from the forest / of the leaf used for roofs / comes upriver, comes upriver / when tomorrow has risen / on high in the sky / to the town and the village / of us / come, come, come, / bring water of lakaila vine / bring sticks of firewood / to the house with shingles high above / of the white man spirit from the forest / of the leaf used for roofs." Such a message, combined with stop and start signals, repetition, parity bits--wait a sec, wrong technology. Anyway, it might take ten minutes or more to pound this baby out, and the idea that Johnny Weissmuller could get the drift in two seconds is strictly Hollywood. But eventually the drift could be gotten, and in fairly precise terms. For more, see J.F. Carrington's Talking Drums of Africa (1949), from which all the above examples are drawn.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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