Tuesday, 13 January 2009
Another game - Speaking Drum
In parts of the world, and most commonly in parts of Africa, drums are used for communication between villages. The signals mimic the speech of the people sending them and there is no universal drum language. Messages tend to be formulaic and dependent on context making it impossible to tackle new subject matter 'on the fly'. In the industrialized world this kind of communication was common on the battlefield until it was superseded by telephony and radio communications at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The disadvantages of using audible signals in battle included broadcasting your orders and intentions to your enemies and losing the message altogether in the din of the battle. This latter problem must have been exacerbated by the arrival of gunpowder. The alternative was to send a messenger but these could be intercepted or suffer a misadventure en route. But from the 1480s onwards a means was devised of transmitting messages over large distances quickly, accurately and privately. This system was named after its American deviser, Samuel Morse, and it is Morse code that we will be using for this exercise.
You will need two instruments, each capable of delivering a long sound and a short sound. If you're stuck in this regard then two sticks, one with horizontal grooves cut into it a frequent intervals along its length, will serve as one instrument. Scraping the un-grooved stick along the length of the grooved stick produces a long sound and by tapping the sticks together you have your short sound. If you want to transmit signals over a larger distance then obviously you'll need something louder. Drums are ideal for this as hitting the middle of the skin produces a longer sound than hitting the rim. Wind instruments are also fine candidates.
You will also need a copy of the code for each team (or telegraph station) and something to write with and on. Wikipedia has a clear Morse Code chart.
Divide your group into pairs of teams. Decide which team will signal first. If need be, provide them with a short message but don't let the receiving team hear. Once the other team has decoded the message they can send a reply. Adults and able children will quickly get the hang of this and establish a conversation.
Tips: Morse code's long pulse/short pulse system arose because it was the easiest way to make two different signals with the materials at hand. It is a very effective way of using rhythm to communicate. However, there is no reason why you shouldn't use pitch or different timbres to communicate the code providing you establish which sound is being used for dit (the dot) and which for dah (the dash).
Start at low volume over short distances. Save the attempts to communicate across larger distances until you and your fellows have gained some proficiency.
Keep the messages very short to begin with and leave clear gaps between letters.
Teams of two work well: one to send the signal and the other to write down and decode incoming messages. More than one pair of teams communicating will be a challenge but not necessarily insurmountable. Players will need to recognise the sounds they are being sent amidst all the extraneous noise and perhaps, in so doing, they will develop a respect for those battlefield communicators of the past.