John F. Carrington

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John F. Carrington (21 March 1914 – 24 December 1985[1]) was an English missionary who spent large part of his life in the Belgian Congo. He became fluent in the Kele language and in the related talking drum form of communication, and wrote a book titled "The Talking Drums of Africa".


John Carrington arrived to the Belgian Congo in 1938.[2] He was involved in teaching throughout his missionary career in Yakusu, a major school center run by the Baptist Missionary Society, where he worked between 1938 and 1950.[3] He was struck by the fact that although there were no telephones, everyone know exactly when he would arrive at a village.[2] He found that the local Kele people were communicating via drums. Each village had an expert drummer and everyone could understand drum language, which echoes the rhythms of the spoken Kele language. Carrington published The Talking Drums of Africa in 1949. By that time, the Kele drum language was falling out of use. Today, it has become extinct.[4]

Carrington moved to Yalemba in 1951, where he found two drum languages corresponding to the Heso language of the Basoko people and the Topoke language of the Baonga villagers on the other side of the Congo.[5] However, he found that out of 200 boys at the school only 20 could drum. Carrington said "The boys now say, 'We want to read and write,' and laugh at the drum".[6]

In 1969 Carrington published his novel titled ″Talking Drums of African″ describing his time spent with the Lokele tribe in Africa. He stresses an individual obtain adequate background information on the spoken Bantu language before the drum language can be taught since the speaker must be fluent to sufficiently communicate.[7] For a small novel Carrington is able to discuss various topics in regards to African drums and do so without complicated terminology; including drum translations, how drums were constructed and in which situation drums were played, giving adequate examples of each.[8][9] Carrington has stressed that the drum language is a dying art and those closely associated with it should take pride in their native art but it seems as if few are willing to do so.[9] Many questions are left unanswered though, rhythm is never discussed along with how a sentence is ended, which many critics believe is a key concept in understanding drum language.[10]

Drum Knowledge[edit]

Carrington is so knowledgeable in Lokele that an African interviewed said “He’s [Carrington] is not really European". They believe that although he is white, Carrington is actually a black man who was reincarnated into a white family. Any time Carrington messes up when translating or playing the drums the native African players blame his white upbringing for his mistake.[11] To understand drum language, you must first understand the tonal language and concept of pitches. When drumming, pitches along with drum beats distinguish words. In Lokele a word can translate to a completely different one depending on the pitch. When drums are played, they must not be played in a soft or quiet manner due to the fact that the message can be translated incorrectly if played to quietly.[12] In English this would be equivalent to putting different emphasis on certain words in a sentence or syllable in a word.

Carrington is arguably one of the most knowledgeable men in regards to talking drums and the way in which they communicate. In his book, ″Talking Drums of Africa″, he seems, however, to leave out several key pieces in which African Drums talk. Nothing is mentioned about the rhythm or speed of the beats necessary for the listener to accurately translate the sentence being conveyed.[13]


  • John F. Carrington (1944). The drum language of the Lokele tribe. UP. 
  • John F. Carrington (1947). The initiation language, Lokele tribe. 
  • John F. Carrington (1949). A comparative study of some Central African gong-languages. Falk, G. van Campenhout, successeur. 
  • John F. Carrington (1949). Talking drums of Africa. Carey Kingsgate Press. 
  • John F. Carrington; D. Ridley Chesterton; William A. Deans; Ella Spees; R. E. Harlow; Getrud Koppel; J. Grainger; Annie M. Cowell; Moses Penge; Simon Ambaume; Yosiya Butso (1955). Kitabu cha Zaburi. British and Foreign Bible Society. 
  • Malcolm Guthrie; John F. Carrington (1988). Lingala grammar and dictionary: English-Lingala, Lingala-English. Baptist Missionary Society. 


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b "Boomlay". Time Magazine. 22 November 1954. Retrieved 25 October 2011. 
  3. ^ Vinck, Honoré (1993). "John Carrington". Annales Aequatoria. 14: 565–583. JSTOR 25837115. 
  4. ^ Freeman Dyson (10 March 2011). "How We Know". NY Books. Retrieved 25 October 2011. 
  5. ^ Shenker 1974, p. 85.
  6. ^ Shenker 1974, p. 87.
  7. ^ H., G. (1949). "Review: Talking Drums of Africa by John F. Carrington". Aequatoria. 12 (4): 158. JSTOR 25837992. 
  8. ^ T., H. T. (July 1950). "Review: Talking Drums of Africa by John F. Carrington". Newsletter. African Music Society. 1 (3): 39. JSTOR 30250293. 
  9. ^ a b Worsley, P. M. (March 1951). "Review: Talking Drums of Africa. by John F. Carrington". Man. 51: 40. JSTOR 2793610. 
  10. ^ Jones, A. M. (July 1949). "Review: Talking Drums of Africa by John F. Carrington". African Affairs. 48 (192): 252–253. JSTOR 718628. 
  11. ^ Ong, Walter (1977). Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Cornell University. p. 95. 
  12. ^ Ong, Walter (1977). Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Cornell University. p. 98. 
  13. ^ Jones, A.M. (July 1949). "Talking Drums of Africa by John F. Carrington". African Affairs. 48 (192): 252–253. JSTOR 718628. 


  • Shenker, Israel (1974). Words and their masters. Doubleday.