The Entenga Drums: Part 1


The Entenga Drums were part of a set of royal instruments of the Buganda Kingdom. We know from Musisi, the last surviving drummer who played in the palace, that the King in the early 1960’s loved the Entenga drums so much that he asked the drummers to play every morning at 3AM. He felt that the drums were so perfect, that this was the only time of the day when it was quiet enough to appreciate them fully.

Hugh Tracey, the great ethnomusicologist, recorded the Entenga in the 1950s, and thanks to the International Library of African Music we brought his recordings with us and have repatriated the music back to Uganda. In addition, Lois Anderson recorded some performances of surviving musicians, wrote about the tradition and published transcriptions of about 26 tunes. His articles, ‘The Entenga tuned-drum ensemble’ (1968) and ‘Essays for a humanist: an offering to Klaus Wachsmann’ (New York, 1977, pp.1-57), are available at SOAS and at the British Library .

But, with few exceptions, this music largely died when the Buganda palace was attacked and destroyed on May 23-24, 1966. The king fled, the musicians were disbanded, the drums destroyed. And the Entenge were considered dead.

That is how we felt in 2013 when we considered reviving the drums. But we thought all the drummers that had played in the palace had died. And then, we found Musisi, who was 16 when the palace was destroyed and who is largely responsible for the drums’ revival. James Isabirye met with Musisi and they set out together to revive the drums. They worked with Shaban, a professional drummer, and John and Albert Ssempeke, who have kept many royal instruments alive, to relaunch the drums. Essentially, this took four major steps:

  1. Rebuild the drums: they needed to re-assemble the drum kit, building each of the 15 drums and re-making the Enga, the sticks used to play the drums (named after the swamp plant).
  2. Tune the drums: they had the old recordings and Musisi’s 50 year old memories and they gradually figured out how to tune them. Much like a xylophone.
  3. Learn to replay them: Musisi knew a lot of the songs, but they needed to learn each complex part for each of the six drummers.
  4. Perform live to understand how to ‘mix’: the final step is to play live and learn the right mix of instruments – the volume of each drummer, when to come in, when to be silent. In many ways, this was what we did during our field visit in November. We helped ‘mix’ as we listened to the drums formally performed for the first time in almost 50 years.

So, over the course of several months, the team created the drums, the drummers and their music. And on November 30th, at Kyambogo University, they revealed the drums to the Singing Wells team and an audience that grew and grew as they played. Here are four things we learned about these drums on Day 1:

  1. There are 15 drums. 12 of the drums operate as a collection, set in stands off the ground and as you face them, they move from largest to smallest, right to left. All these drums are played with the Enga, the curved drum stick. Again, as you face them, to the right of the smallest drum are three standalone drums, played with different sticks much thicker than the Enga.
  2. These drums are tuned like the Ugandan xylophone, each with a different note, following the pentatonic scale. Within the set of 12 drums, the third drum from right, the third smallest, is the home note, the ‘1’ for any key. Initially, tuning requires endless adjustments of the ropes that tie down the drum skins. But on a minute by minute basis, the drummers are fine tuning through a combination of water on the skins and massive hits with their fists to stretch the skins.
  3. There are six players, each of whom has a different formal name and role in creating the music. Now, I really hope you can look at the picture of the drums. In all cases, our references are from the listeners’, not the players’ perspective.
    1. Starting on the far right, you see the three standalone drums. The player of the 14th and 15th drum, the ones on the far right and the biggest of the three, is called the NAKAWOMBE and he has two big sticks. He provides a lot of flourish on the loud parts, as he’s playing the two biggest drums of the Entenga. The player that works with him, playing the 13th drum, is referred to as the OMUTEMYO. From now on, you’ll see the phrase OMU which means basically ‘player of’ and the name that follows is the drum. The role of the Omutemyo, who has only one stick, is essentially to keep time. He’s the metronome. In our revival of the drums, John Ssempeke was our Nakawombe, and Bernard Okiror was our Omutemyo.
    2. Now we are on the main kit, and we’ll start with the ‘starter’ – the OMUKOONEZI, who is the drum leader. He plays the 12th, 11th, 10th, 9th and 8th drums as you move to the left, the five smallest. He essentially plays the melody, but not the bass notes. He is generally the best drummer and we were blessed to have Shaban as our Omukoonezi, a life-long professional drummer who led the group. He also admitted that learning the Entenga was the hardest drumming role he’s ever had.
    3. To the left of the ‘starter’, is the OMUNAZI, who plays the 9th, 8th, 7th, 6th and sometimes 5th. And yes, you’ve now noticed. The drummers overlap, playing the drums of others depending on the song. The Omunazi plays the bass lines of the song. Between the Omukoonezi and Omunazi, you pretty much get the whole tune. The other drummers have specific roles, but not independent of these two parts. The second most accomplished drummer takes on this role and we were blessed with Mwondha.
    4. To the left of the Omunazi, we have the OMWAWUZI, playing 7th, 6th, 4th, 5th and 3rd. The Omwawuzi is directly linked to the starter, the Omukoonezi. When Shaban describes this he refers to the starter as 1 and the Omwawuzi as 3 and points out that in a song, the 1 and 3 play together. The 1 gives all the colour and flourish and the 3 plays the basic tune, keeping the beat. This sounds like every 1’s description of a 3 in my life! And he says the 2 and 4 are also connected. In other words, the 1 and 3 play the same melody line separated by an octave or fifth depending on the song. The lower/bigger drums play the simpler tune. And the 2 and 4 do this for the ‘bass notes.’ Our Omwawuzi was Okiror.
    5. To the left of the Omwawuzi is the OMUTENGENZI, who plays the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th. He’s mirroring the ‘second’ drummer, or the Omunazi, on the bass riffs.   Our Omutengenzi was Mpiina on some songs and Awali on others.
  4. The extraordinary part of the songwriting, then, is to create these 6 interwoven parts, such that most players are playing on the drums of the person next to them, but the sticks never overlap. And all the notes need to harmonize, while the percussion is, well, percussive. It really is like the brilliant Ugandan xylophones with the added complication that no sticks can overlap.



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