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‘Talking drum’ research helps music professor bridge cultures, language

Friday, September 13, 2013

Media Contact: Bridget Lewis

News Topics: faculty, global, humanities, liberal arts, music, research

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For centuries, the Nigerian dundun, or “talking drum,” has captivated drummers around the world for the distinctive way it captures the pitch and rhythms of native language. Now, a UT Arlington associate professor is using his research to raise its profile in the United States.

Michael Varner

Michael Varner, associate professor of music and director of percussion studies, took faculty leave to study the dundun in West Africa four years ago. He collected over a thousand photos, video and audio of dundun performances and language examples. His research and reflections were recently published in the journal, Percussive Notes.

“Often what we hear about Nigeria in the U.S. is negative news. Here is an opportunity to relate positive information about culture and language through music,” Varner said. “This is important because in this 21st century the need to understand and relate to other cultures grows more essential by the day.”

The dundun is vital to the Yoruba people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. The instrument dates back to the birth of Christ and mimics the pitches and rhythms of language used by the Yoruba (listen to traditional musicians greeting Varner in this video recorded in Nigeria in 2009). It is not unusual for someone to play the dundun and to receive a response from someone playing his or her drum a block away.

“There is no other culture on the planet where the drum actually is a surrogate for speech,” Varner said. “There’s no equivalent use of pitch in American or European music-- making individual words impossible to imitate on other drums. This is why the dundun so fascinates drummers around the world.”     

Varner will give a lecture about his studies and debut a new composition for the talking drum and bassoon, “Skin that Speaks: The Dundun Talking Drums of Nigeria,” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26 at Irons Hall, 700 Greek Row Drive.

Admission is free.

The synthesis of European music sounds (bassoon) with African music concepts (dundun) has never been tried before in the U.S., Varner said. Scott Pool, bassoonist and UT Arlington assistant professor of music, and the UTA World Ensemble will accompany Varner.

The performance is presented by the College of Liberal Arts’ Festival of Ideas, which began in 2005 with a generous donation by UT Arlington alumnus Mustaque Ahmed ’81. In 2007, that support grew into an endowment to further strengthen the program’s ability to offer six events each year to the university academic community and the community at large.  Visit to learn more.

Percussive Notes Associate Editor B. Michael Williams said he is especially pleased that the general public will get to learn about the Nigerian talking drum and called Varner’s research compelling.

“To really study this culture and its music takes a lifetime commitment. I’m truly excited by his work and think that he is already on the cutting edge of the adaptation of that traditional African instrument,” Williams said.

The University of Texas at Arlington is a comprehensive research institution of more than 33,000 students and more than 2,200 faculty members in the heart of North Texas. It is the second largest institution in The University of Texas System. Visit to learn more.


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