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Reginald Mensah plays the Atumpan outdoors
Reginald Mensah playing the atumpan

Fante, like all Akan languages, is tonal. The same phoneme delivered at different pitch levels will convey a different meaning. Spoken Fante also has a certain implied rhythm to it, the result of having long and short vowels as building blocks of words. Utterances in Fante, therefore, have somewhat of a musical quality to them. All Akan peoples have come to use select sound producing instruments to function as speech surrogates, instruments on which the rhythmic and tonal parameters of well known spoken phrases can be reproduced well enough for the knowledgeable listener to recognize the text. Such speech surrogate instruments are primarily associated with chiefs, and the texts produced on these instruments are usually praises and proverbs.

The atumpan drum (actually a pair of like drums) is perhaps the most well known of Akan/Fante “talking” instruments. The pair of drums is played by a single drummer gifted in the retention of appropriate texts and in the transformation of these texts into drumming. The two drums that comprise the atumpan are similar in size but tuned slightly apart from one another. This pitch difference and a small vocabulary of single and double strokes are sufficient to convey the necessary relative pitches and the inflections of the Fante language.

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