The timba is a caryatid drum found in the music-making traditions of the Baga, a small ethnic group in Eastern Guinea. It is played exclusively by men. The principal use of the timba is in the dances of the kä-bërë-Tshol initiation, weddings, funerals of male elders and sacrifices to ancestors, especially after the harvest.
This particular timba is carved from a single piece of wood and painted with a series of arches, triangles, chevrons, T-shapes and other abstract designs. The drum head is made from a cowhide that has been stretched over the instrument and secured with rope wrapped around wooden pegs. The wooden pegs are inserted into the barrel around the instrument’s upper edge.
The drum is balanced on the head of a woman figure who is seated, with one arm balancing the drum and the other cradling a baby that she appears to be nursing. There are also two other children at her side. Although it is played exclusively by men, the depiction of a female figure supporting a globular object on her head at the base of the instrument, as is typical of Baga drums, evokes women’s roles in society. Not only do women carry large clay water vessels or baskets for food, notably rice, on their heads, “[w]omen are the bearers of Baga society in every sense of the world,” art historian Frederick Lamp explains (1996: 124). Drums, especially elaborate ones like these, are one of the most important commissions Baga sculptors can receive. Lamp knew of only thirteen Timba in existence.
The Baga are what some anthropologists call “acephalous,” which means they do not have a historical state or kingdom. The Baga migrated westward from their ancestral home in Futa Jalon in present-day central Guinea to the western coast of Guinea, where their presence was first documented in the sixteenth century, in order to resist Islamic conversion. “Once on the coast,” Lamp writes, “the Baga ‘invented’ or ‘discovered,’ they claim, an impressive variety of both spiritual beings and spiritual ‘ideas,’” around which their cultural traditions are organized (ibid: 19).
Baga spirits tend to be separated by gender: a male spirit, often taking the form of a serpent or bird; and a female spirit, sometimes taking the form of a sea turtle. Baga drums are also separated by gender. The timba, in particular, is associated with the masculine. Its size relative to its feminine counterpart–the a-ndëf (for an example in the Met’s collection, see accession # 2012.358)–is used to reinforce male authority. This gender division is not meant to be rigid, but rather “inclusive and interconnected in nature,” Lamp writes (ibid: 25).
Throughout the twentieth century, the Baga people and their traditions were violently suppressed. First, “during colonial occupation by the French,” Lamp explains, “the demand for African art objects in France nearly denuded the Baga cultural landscape of old masks and ritual sculpture” (ibid: 19). A few years shy of Guinean independence, from 1956-7, Malinke and Susu Muslim missionaries raided villages, cut down sacred forests, and tortured opponents to Islamic conversion in the Baga territory, with the blessing of then-dictator Sékou Touré (ibid: 21). After Touré took power, traditional religious practices were declared illegal and were severely punished. In recent years, however, certain Baga rituals have been revived, owing, in part, to the interest generated by displays of their cultural heritage in Western museums. (Althea SullyCole, 2022)
Lamp, Frederick. 1996. Art of the Baga. New York: Museum of African Art.