Sound Quality

The gung-gong has musical call-and-response interaction between center strokes and edge strokes. Cords divide each head into two sonic zones: center strokes have a clean booming sound; edge strokes have a buzzing sound from the vibration of the snare-like cord. Alhaji tunes each gung-gong drum to its properly resonant relative pitch, which will vary according to the drum’s materials, as well as temperature and humidity conditions.

Musical Roles of the Gung-gong

Gung-gong parts have well-designed, propulsive phrases that establish a strong groove. Dancers get their timing and energy from the clearly audible gung-gong drums. Some items of repertory call for interlocking phrases for lead gung-gong and answer gung-gong. In these cases (see Takai-Takai, Nyagboli, and Kondaliya), the lead gung-gong part has many substitutions, variations on phrases, and leeway for improvisation. In other items of repertory, the two drums play in unison (see Solo Dances). Even when the gung-gong part calls for unison, two experienced gung-gong drummers can play intricate phrases in perfect unison like long-time athletic teammates who anticipate each other’s moves (see Damba Mahile). The two drummers may also spontaneously decide to divide themselves into soloist and accompanist (see Nakohi-waa).

Description of the Gung-gong

Cedar wood carved into a cylindrical shape is the body of the gung-gong drum. To transform the wooden shell into a drum, the drummer lays wet goat skin over each opening and holds it in place with a rope hoop that fits snuggly over the skin. After lacing the two heads together with strong goat skin, the drummer wraps leather strips between the laces. (The gung-gong drum is tuned up by tightening the tuning strips; the drum is de-tuned when not in use so that the laces do not stretch out.) The goat fur is shaved off and the snare-like cords, called chahira, are tied across the upper portion of each drum head. Finally, a scarf is fixed onto leader loops to enable the drum to be worn over one shoulder and then wooden body of the drum is covered with an attractive cloth (see Playing Technique/gung-gong).

Like the lunga drums, the drum beater is a curved wooden stick but, counter-intuitively, the smaller head of the lunga drum is played with a thicker stick with a larger knob while the much larger head of the gung-gong drum calls for a drum stick of thinner diameter with a smaller stick head. Players use the bare hand to modulate the sound of center strokes and also to play finger strokes in the chahira zone of the drum head.

Playing Technique

Playing technique on the gung-gong is far less complicated than the lunga drum. Alhaji explains this by noting that the gung-gong does not “talk” as much as the lunga. He observes that the Dagombas imported the gung-gong drum from people who speak another language, whereas the Dagombas themselves created the lunga drum and designed it especially to “talk” in the Dagbani language. In terms of technique, the gung-gong does not entail controlling pressure. Once it is properly tuned, the player simply has to strike it well.

Getting Ready to Play
Tuning the Gung-gong

A gung-gong has five tuning straps that always are kept loose when the drum is not being played. The first thing the player must do, therefore, is to tighten up the drum skin. The drum is not tuned to a particular pitch; players know from experience how a gung-gong should sound. Of course, this leaves newcomers in a bind since we did not grow up as Dagomba drummers! Listen to the audio files on the website to become familiar with the sound of a well-tuned gung-gong.

Untie the drumstick and hold it in your strong hand (right hand if you are right-handed). Place the drum in front of you on the ground with the drum skins facing to the sides. Orient the drum with the free ends of the tuning straps running toward you so that you can easily tug on them. Notice that each tuning strap is looped around two sets of laces and that at the edges of the drum, where the laces pierce drum skin, there are leather washers that prevent tearing. With the butt end of the drumstick or heel of your weak hand tap on the four washers to begin making the drum skin tight and snug. Next, before you pull on the tuning strap, place the thumb and index finger of your weak hand on the laces alongside the tuning strap. Now comes the most important step: strongly squeeze the laces toward each other while at the same time gently tugging on the tuning strap. The weak hand does most of the work; the tuning strap merely holds the laces in their tightened condition. The tuning strap will weaken and snap if you pull on it without using the strength of your weak hand. Having now tightened on set of laces, tap on the drum skin to test its sound. Repeat the process for each of the other four straps, tapping the skin each time. Gradually you will hear the drum rising in pitch and acquiring its proper resonance. Finally, check the chahira snare cord that runs along the upper portion of the drum skin. It should be tight enough to buzz against the drum skin. If it is too loose, gently tug on the free ends of the snare. The gung-gong now should be tuned up and ready to play. Test it again and, if necessary, tighten the drum skins slightly by tapping on the leather washers.

If the drum is tuned well and the drummer strikes it correctly, the gung-gong seldom needs attention during a performance. Most newcomers beat with too much force, however, and the drum often becomes too loose. When this happens, knock on the washers. In extreme cases you may need to stop playing and tighten some of the tuning straps

Wearing the gung-gong; playing position

Normally players stand up when playing both gung-gong and lunga drums. A scarf holds the gung-gong in playing position. Simply slide your weak arm through the scarf and let the drum hang down from your shoulder. The drum fits against your ribs. If the scarf is too long, the drum will be too near your waist; if the scarf is too short, the drum will be too close to your shoulder. Place the elbow, forearm and wrist on the upper surface of the drum. The elbow should never come off the drum: downward pressure on the drum with the elbow keeps the scarf firm against the shoulder and a slight inward elbow pressure keeps the body of the drum against your ribs.

Newcomers often find that the drum slides off their shoulders. The drum will stay on your shoulder more effectively if you allow gravity to work, so don’t hunch up your weak-side shoulder, hip, and knee. Create a curved torso shape into which the round body of the drum can fit. Be sure the strap puts pressure on your shoulder and remember to never take the elbow off the drum.

If you will be playing while seated, the key thing is to rest the drum on your knee so that the elbow can be in its proper position. Alhaji instructs students never to slouch the body on drum’s body, which muffles the drum’s resonance.

The drum should be roughly horizontal to the group with the front slightly higher than the back. The front drum skin faces forward.

Striking the drum

The music of the gung-gong drum is made with a palette of four tone colors. Put differently, there are four types of strokes for gung-gong: bounce or open stroke with stick in the center of the drum skin, press or mute stroke with stick in center of the drum skin, bounce or open stroke with stick near the edge of the drum skin in the chahira zone, and bounce, slap-type stroke with bare hand in the chahira zone. Strokes above the snare are played much more quietly than the forceful center strokes. It is physically challenging to quickly change from strong strokes in the center to light strokes at the edge, but this is an important aspect of gung-gong technique.

Bounce open stroke with stick in center of drum skin

This is the main stroke that creates the most prominent sound on the gung-gong drum. Hold the stick exactly as you do a lunga stick and use the same body mechanics that you use on lunga (see lunga section). Be sure have your thumb in proper position; do not let is rest on the shaft of the stick. Try to attain relaxation in the muscles of the arm and shoulder; use only rotation in the elbow joint and leverage in the hand to move the drumstick.

“Hit center!” This is the foremost instruction that Alhaji must endlessly repeat when he teaches newcomers. The drum only sounds really good when struck in the center of the drum skin. The muscle tension in your sticking hand and arm also affects the drum’s resonance. Try to be so relaxed that the stick rebounds away from the skin after you strike it. Striking the center of the drum seems as if it would be simple to do, but it proves maddeningly difficult to consistently achieve. When I teach fundamentals of gung-gong technique in my classes, I tell students to let their weak arm fall limply from the shoulder and then, as it they are puppets with a string attached to their hand, to raise the wrist upward until the tip of the drum stick rests in the exact center of the drum skin. Observe the position of your arm, elbow and wrist: keep that position even as you energetically beat the drum.

When you make this stroke, the fingertips of the weak hand should ever so lightly press on the edge of the drum skin. This minimizes the buzz of the snare and increases the prominence of the drum’s deep booming tone. Whenever you play a bounce stick-stroke in the center of the drum, always modify the vibration of the drum skin with the finger touch. However, take care not to press too hard, which will muffle the ringing tone of the drum. You should be able to easily slide your fingertips across the surface of the drum skin. Alhaji expresses his sense of the good sound created by the fingertip muting by saying, “Let the drum sound inside.” All the air inside the body of the drum should be made to vibrate. A well-struck gung-gong creates a palpable vibration that you can feel on your skin and inside your body. It feels good.

Press stroke with stick in the center of the drum skin

The gung-gong drum is incapable of changing pitch like the lunga drum, which actually mimes the sound of spoken Dagbani. Nevertheless, a press stroke enables the gung-gong to sketch the rise and fall of the spoken language. The press stroke sounds higher than the bounce stroke.

For a press stroke, the wrist rotates away from the torso just at the moment of impact so that the lower edge of the stick ends up striking the drum skin. The stick should hit only once and remain in contact with the drum skin for a split second, lightly pressing inward. Once again, you must try to strike the absolute center of the skin. Given the need to rotate the wrist, “hitting center” requires that you adjust the trajectory of the head of the stick. This is essential. Alhaji cautions against what he calls “slapping” the drum. By this he means not hitting it too hard and not exerting too much inward pressure on the skin. Instead, he uses the English word “stamping” to denote the press stroke. The sound should be loud enough to be clearly heard but not excessive or harsh. The fingertips need not touch the drum skin for this stroke.

Bounce stroke with stick at edge of the drum skin

This stroke closely resembles the center bounce strokes but with two important differences: it should be played with much less force and it should hit very close to the edge of the drum skin. Although it hits in the chahira zone of the skin, it never comes near the snare itself. The stroke does excite the snare, however.

Only a very slight movement of the wrist moves the head of the drumstick from the center of the drum skin to the edge. You need not change the position of the whole arm, or even the angle at the elbow between upper arm and forearm. All it takes is a slight abduction (side-to-side motion) in the wrist joint to move the bones in the hand. Try to minimize the effort needed to place the head of the stick exactly in center and very near the edge. The music of the gung-gong requires accurate and quick change from center to edge.

Stroke with fingers of weak hand in chahira zone

Although the stick hand makes the loud strokes on gung-gong, the fingers of the bare weak hand are vital to making a good sound. Keeping in mind that the elbow always remains on the body of the drum, the wrist rises away from the drum in preparation for this stroke and them comes back down when you play it. As the wrist approaches the drum, rotate it away from you body slightly so that three fingers hit the drum skin. The index finger serves as the axis around which the hand rotates; the little, ring, and middle fingers strike one after the other in very rapid succession and bounce off. The resulting sound is between a slap and a bounce. The bare finger stroke really makes the snare cord vibrate.

The fingers work together with the stick. Every bounce center stroke is modified with a fingertip touch. Together, the strokes of stick and fingers combine to make the rhythmic patterns in the chahira zone. The music of gung-gong comes from the call-and-response between the rhythms of the drum skin’s center and the rhythms from above the snare.