Yet this drum’s story began long before this point and has continued long after it. The drum began its life in Central Africa where slit drums were an integral part of community life. It was used to make music, to mark community events such as births and deaths, to call men to hunt or to arms and to transmit messages over long distances as its sound can carry for miles.
Made from a single piece of reddish coral wood found in the forests of Central Africa, the drum looks like a calf with very short legs a long head and a short tail. It’s around 9 feet long from nose to tail and 2 feet high. The body of the drum is hollow and running across the top of the back is a slit. The sides of the body of the drum are carved to different thicknesses allowing the drum to produce different tones and pitches when it’s played.
The drum is thought to have come to Khartoum as part of the slave trade which operated in the region then under the Turkish-Egyptian rule. The drum might have been seized as booty by slave raiders or given by a local chief.
Once in Khartoum the drum was re-branded by its new owners and incorporated into the society. On each side of the drum running the whole lengths of the body is a carved rectangle containing circles and geometric patterns attributed to the Islamic influence of this new society. On one side the design is cut into the body of the wood and on the other side the wood is planed away to create the design. This new design not only changed the external appearance of the drum but also the sound it made giving the drum a different voice.
In its new home the drum witnessed the growing resentment to the Turkish-Egyptian occupation of Sudan, the invasion and occupation of Egypt by Britain in 1882 and the demise of General Charles Gordon and his army in the revolt lead by Muhammad Ahmed the Mahdi in 1885. Under Mahdi-ruled Sudan the drum again found its self in a new landscape where it remained for 13 years, patiently waiting for its next adventure.
The adventure came when economic rivalries among the European empires resulted in the ‘Scramble for Africa’. Britain wanted to create a ‘Cape- to-Cairo chain of colonies and in a bid to prevent other foreign powers from entering the area they invaded and colonized Sudan in 1898. An Anglo-Egyptian army under the command of General Herbert Kitchener defeated the Mahdi army then lead by Khalifa Abdullahi at the famous battle of Omdurman and it’s this event which made the drum’s journey to Europe inevitable.
The drum was found by Kitchener’s army somewhere near Khartoum after they took over the city and as had happened before the drum found its self being re-branded in preparation for its new life. General Kitchener had a very small emblem of the British Imperial Crown carved on the end of the tail of the drum and then presented the drum to Queen Victoria.
Now at the British Museum the drum silently tells visitors its story through the carvings on its body and again waits patiently for its next adventure.