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Date: 20th century
Medium:Wood and hide
Geographic Location: Côte d'Ivoire
Dimensions: Height: 41 1/8 in. (104.458 cm) Diameter: 18 1/2 in. (46.99 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Marcus
Object Number: 1981.139.FA

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For the Senufo (se-NOO-fo) peoples of Côte d’Ivoire (Coat di-VWAR), the drum is used as a musical instrument as well as a means of communication similar to a public address system. At times, drums were played as men prepared the fields for planting, creating a rhythm for the swing of hoes and encouraging competition among young men.  Drums were also played to accompany the singing of Senufo women as they sang songs in a secret language to deal with gender conflicts and other frustrations. In addition, drums were played at boys’ and girls’ coming-of-age rituals and funerals of important elders.


This tall, four-legged drum with a hide drum head has a set of symbols carved in relief on its wooden body. These symbols represent cultural concepts important to the Senufo peoples. For example, the image of a serpent being attacked by two long-billed birds may represent competing powers of the universe, while the image of shackles reminds Senufo viewers of the suffering of their ancestors during the Sudanese wars or their forced labor during the French colonial period. 





The Function of Drums


The Senufo Peoples




The motifs carved in low relief on this drum’s cylindrical chamber are not merely decoration, but symbolize important cultural concepts. The horned face, for example, represents the carved masks that junior members of the Poro (POOR-o) society wear at funerary masquerades. Animal imagery includes a serpent being attacked by two long-billed birds, perhaps cranes or herons, and may refer to the potentially dangerous competing powers in the universe. The U-shaped form probably represents a python, which is both a symbol for the world and the primary insignia of the female Sandogo society diviners, who are able to ascertain the cause of threatening circumstances through the divining ritual. The crocodile, or giant lizard, and quadrupeds (i.e. wild animals) are symbols of threatening or destructive forces. The shackles symbolize the suffering Senufo ancestors endured during the Sudanese wars (Islamic jihads) of the nineteenth century and the impact of the forced labor the French imposed during the colonial period. A tortoise is a divine messenger. It is also a symbol for water and, in recognition of its longevity and endurance, for health. The scalloped collar beneath the raised band encircling the drum may be purely decorative, but the inverted shapes at the bottom of the drum represent small animal horns and contained potent medicine.


The Function of Drums


Drums provide the background rhythm for a number of activities in Senufo (se-NOO-fo) villages and towns. Drumbeats turn the painstaking labor of preparing the fields for planting into a fun competition for young Senufo men by creating a beat the planters can use to match the strokes of their hoes. Drums also accompany songs praising the champion planter.

Senufo females, on the other hand, use drums to accompany songs they sing in a secret language about their problems with men and the frustrations they share.  Although women’s role in society complements that of men and the mysteries of procreation give them power, Senufo women do not share equal rights with men.  Singing about men and personal difficulties using a call-and-response pattern is an important way for Senufo women to express themselves.

Drums are also frequently used during ceremonies and religious rituals including coming-of-age ceremonies for boys and girls and funerals for village elders.

Additionally, drums like this one serve as prestige objects, elaborately carved by only the best sculptors.



Senufo women dancing around drums, near Korhogo, Côte d'Ivoire, 1971.


The Senufo Peoples


The three million Senufo peoples inhabiting Côte d’Ivoire (Coat di-VWAR), Mali (MAA-lee), and Burkina Faso (BURR-kee-na FAH-so) are organized into villages, each governed by a council of elders. Senufo men and women are initiated into gender-based societies which define their roles. The men’s society, known as the Poro, teaches men their social, political, and spiritual roles, while the society known as the Tyekpa or Sandogo (SAHN-dough-go) teaches young women to become diviners and mediators between the human and spirit worlds.





Encouraging Dialogue
1. Make a collection of five, quick sketches of details and patterns that you see on this drum. Discuss your sketches and the images that you see on this drum with classmates. What words would you use to describe the images you see?
2. Consider the decoration of musical instruments. Why might someone make an instrument covered with carvings and other decoration? The carvings on this drum are meant to convey some of the cultural history of the Senufo peoples. How might decorations like those found on this drum impact how someone perceives a musical performance?
3. Why might art museums display musical instruments like this drum? Does placing one in an art museum influence how we view, experience, and understand it? If so, how? Do you consider this instrument a work of art? Why or why not? 
4. This drum was used for many different purposes. Imagine how the sound of the drum might change depending on the user and his or her purpose.
5. Music is a tool for communication and public address in the Senufo society. Consider the function of music in your own life. Does music always have a “use” to the person or society that creates it?
Making Connections
1. The Dallas Museum of Art’s collection includes many works of art that relate to music and instruments. Some of the works have religious and ceremonial connections, while others are secular. Some are two-dimensional, while others are sculptural. Explore and compare with the Drum the following artworks: Richard Lindner’s Rock Rock, a painting of a rock and roll star; Starry Crown by John Biggers, which is named after a traditional African American spiritual; Leadbelly, a portrait of an important singer; the Side blown horn from the Mende peoples; and The Guitarist by Pablo Picasso. Write a comparative essay or creative short story, which incorporates at least two of these DMA works of art.
2. Consider how the sound of different rhythms might communicate different messages or ideas. Make a drum using recycled materials, or simply use a desk. Then, pound on the drum in a way that communicates a specific message (such as “gather around” or “today is a beautiful day”). Have some friends listen. Without telling them what message you are trying to convey, have them listen and write down what they think your rhythm is trying to say. Then, compare their answers with your message.
3. Review the function and meaning of this Senufo drum with particular focus on its various uses. Music is used for ceremonial purposes in many different cultures and religions around the world. Research another musical instrument or tradition and compare it with the Senufo drum. Create a presentation of your findings and share it with classmates.
4. With a group, brainstorm a list of important occasions, events, or experiences at your school that you feel should be celebrated. Select one thing on the list and further discuss its importance with classmates. Then, design a drum with symbolism which conveys key information about this important thing at your school. Write a brief paragraph about the significance of the drum. Compare and contrast your drum design with designs created by other class members. 


Embedded Audio Player.
Listen to curator Roslyn Walker describe this drum. (Part I)

Embedded Audio Player.
Listen to curator Roslyn Walker describe this drum. (Part II)
Embedded Audio Player.
Listen to curator Roslyn Walker discuss the Senufo peoples.
Reference Books:
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, 1997. Page 141.
Glaze, Anita J. Art and Death in a Senufo Village. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1981.
Goldwater, Robert. Senufo Sculpture from West Africa. New York: The Museum of Primitive Art, Distributed by New York Graphic Society, 1964.
Walker, Roslyn A. The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.
Books for Students:
Aardema, Verna. Dillon, Leo & Diane. Why mosquitos buzz in people’s ears. Puffin Books, 1975.
Förster, Till. Senufo (Visions of Africa). 5 Continents Editions, 2006.
Hart, Mickey. Liebermann, Fredric. Sonneborn, D. A. Planet Drum: A Celebration of Percussion and Rhythm. Acid Test Productions, 1998. 
Merrill, Yvonne Y. Simpson, Mary. Hands-On Africa: Art Activities for All Ages. Kits Publishing, 2000.
This website discusses the Senufo peoples.
This website discusses the history and culture of the Senufo peoples.
The collections of the Metropolitan Museum include many Senufo works of art.
This resource contains drums of several different African peoples.



Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood.  Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging.  In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy.  Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.


  1. Consider the Museum Setting

Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions.  Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture.  These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects.  Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.


  1. Provide Context and Narrative

When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used.  Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today.  Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way. 


Equally important to context is geography.  Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures.  A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes. 


  1. Use Inclusive Language

Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases.  By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider.  Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.”  Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion.  Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.


  1. Carefully Select Vocabulary

When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures.  Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity.  Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc.  This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions. 

Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).


  1. Avoid Decontextualizing Activities

Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context.  Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context.  (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit)  Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied. 


  1. Find Common Connections

Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires.  We all seek to understand the world and our place within it.  Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples.  Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own.  While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion.  Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate. 


  1. Consider the Study of Cultures

In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely.  Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement.  This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures.  Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others. 




Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.


Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006. 


Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.


Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World.  Information Age Publishing, 2009.


Prothero, Stephen.  God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.  Harper One, 2010.


Prothero, Stephen.  Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t.  San Francisco: Harper, 2007.


Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.


Said, Edward.  Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.


“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”