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Slit drums are found in Asia, the Americas, Africa, and Oceania. They vary in size from huge tree trunks (6 metres or more in length and 2.1 metres or more in width) enclosed in huts and played by several men, to small bamboo instruments used in Malaysia by watchmen. Large slit drums are sometimes less precisely called slit gongs.
Slit drums are frequently ritual instruments that are regarded as possessing magical attributes and are often associated with water and with death and resurrection. Because of their great carrying power and resonance, they are often also used as signaling instruments, in some places transmitting messages by reproducing the inflections of human speech. They are also used to underscore dance rhythms.

Unlike membrane drums, which are classified as membranophones, slit drums are idiophones, or resonant solids.

There are two different types of slit drums:

1. With one slit where the sides of the drum are played or

2. With more than one slit and a cross cut forming a number of tongues that can be played.

The first type of wooden slit-drum is as simple as it is ingenious. A tree or a solid block of wood is hollowed out to leave a longitudinal opening on the upper side. The edges of this slit are of unequal thickness and by careful thinning of the flanks, produce at least two sounds and many as four distinct pitches when struck. Because of this "tuning" it gives a rhythmic and melodic sound to these instruments.
This type of instrument is known virtually all over the world:
They are known in most of Oceania, the Cook Islands, and Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and into Papua New Guinea.
In Vanuatu, (the New Hebrides) slit-drums are made from a tree trunk and are set around the dance grounds, standing upright or at a slight angle. They are carved with the faces of the ancestors and are a significant part of ritual ceremony.
In New Guinea, roofed drum houses are built over large, horizontal slit-drums to protect them from the weather. The Maori, one of the relatively few peoples who have no membrane drums, use their slit-drums as signal instruments.

Those of East Asia and Indonesia are of great antiquity and of a high degree of development.On Java, slit-drums can be traced to the Hindu-Javanese period (1st-9th century AD).  

In Africa large wooden slit-drums are big-bellied drums, set on four feet, of a shape not unlike that of the buffalo. The horned buffalo shape and large size of this drum (pictured) reflect high social status of its original owner. They are used by chiefs or prominent nobles to transmit the coded tones of important messages over the long distances from village to village. They produce a variety of tones, pitches, and rhythms, which convey announcements and coded messages. Drums of this type are installed in the center of the village in a special structure where they can be protected from the rain and sun.

Early 20th century slit drum from Zaire.

The wooden linga of the Banda-Linda people of Central Africa are generally used in groups of three (or four) instruments of different size (the largest may measure up to two meters long) and form a kind of family. Each player hammers the edges of the slit with a pair of mallets ending in a ball of latex, to produce two different notes.

Besides their use for transmitting messages, West and Central African slit drums are often played in combination with membrane drums and other instruments.

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The second type of drum was originally hollowed out through an H-shaped slit which gives two extended and free moving tongues. These tongues when hit produce a note as they vibrate. The tone produced will vary depending on the length, width and thickness of each tongue.

This style of drum, featuring tongue-like shapes cut in decorative carved logs, seems to have occurred only in Central America among the Aztecs and earlier Meso-American peoples.

The Aztec called the drum Teponaztli, while the Mayans called it a Tun or Tunkel.


Today box like drums, with any number of tongues, are a modern adaptation of these ancient instruments. The tongues can be left as is or tuned. They produce a melodic rhythmic sound when played.

It was a portable drum, played horizontally, waist-high on a stand, with two beater sticks tipped with balls of raw rubber. Several instruments are, believed to have been, combined in order to play melodies.

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These photos show teponaztli drums in a variety of figurative designs.

"El tronco ahuecado que canta-The hollow tree trunk that sings"

The historic teponaztli has deep cultural and spiritual meaning for Indios and other communities in Mexico. Its name means 'wooden drum' in Nahuatl. In other dialects, it is known as tunkul, quiringua or teponagua. They are made from a section of a hollowed hardwood tree trunk (or occasionally from small gourds that also serve as resonators. As can be seen many of these instruments are decorated with lotus or other symbolic designs, and some are carved in the shapes of alligators.

Aztec narratives describe music as a gift brought to earth by both Tezcatlipoca, the sky god and Quetzalcoatl, the wind god, from the court of the Sun. The drum teponaztli is respected as a spiritual being who is exiled temporarily on Earth. Zapotec warriors were said to carry this them into battle. In addition, according to Aztec documents (called 'codexes') possibly, several of these drums were played together to accompany songs. In Central America, similar instruments (some with three or four wooden tongues or "keys") were used to send messages because of their penetrating, resonant sound.

A performer strikes the drum with wooden mallets that have rubber tips. According to Robert Stevenson, these mallets were called olmaitl. Some drums are small enough to be carried by a strap around your neck, while others, more than 1 1/2 meters in length, would be placed on a tripod.

Two smaller, Chinese offshoots of the slit drum are the wood block and the wooden fish (Chinese mu yü; also known as temple block), carved in the shape of a mythical fish and lacquered red.
The Chinese mu yü is a Buddhist and Taoist ritual slit-drum. Its Korean and Japanese counterparts are likewise ritual time markers, while in Vietnam the slit-drum is both a temple and a watchmen's instrument.
They produce a clear, penetrating sound; they were adopted into the Western orchestra in the 20th century.

The manguare pictured in the poster is made in Peru and is an adaptation of the Teponaztli.
Bamboo is used instead of wood, but it has the familiar H shaped cut to produce the two tongues.

Can you see in the photo that there is something wrong about the girl playing the manguare?
Answer: She is holding it incorrectly. It needs to be turned around so that the tongues can be played.

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If you have a good supply of bamboo, these slit drums are quite simple to make. The most important thing to remember is to make sure the bamboo is dry. Otherwise, you will have problems with the bamboo splitting and the tongues moving.

The first step is to mark the H shape in pencil.

You should make sure that the tongues are not the same lengths as will produce the same sound if there is not enough difference in their lengths. These varying lengths will give you different tones. If you make the tongues too short, they may not produce a tone at all. You may need to try to make a few with differing lengths to get the sounds you like. Chances are, you will probably get a reasonable sound first try.
The tones produced are also dependent on the size of the chamber of the bamboo. You might notice that one note resonates better that the other, this is just the air inside vibrating (resonating) to one tongue rather than the other and amplifying that sound. On an instrument of this size, there is not much you can do to tune tongues to resonating chamber. It is part of the nature and quality of the instrument.

The second step is to drill a hole on the ends of the cross markings of the H. The hole needs to be large enough to enable you to put a jigsaw blade down it. This will enable you to make the cuts.

The third step is to cut the tongues following the lines. Make sure your jigsaw blade is not too long. If it is you will find your jigsaw jumping out of your hand as it hits the base of the bamboo. You might be able to use a jigsaw blade by hand or a special hole-saw might do if you do not own an electric jigsaw.

The fourth step is to sand the cut to make sure there are no splinters and make sure there is enough room with the cut to enable the tongue to vibrate freely. Sometimes you will find that by cutting these tongues the bamboo (or wood) will move and not allow the tongues free movement. In cases such as this you can re-cut the slits or sand them to allow enough free play.