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- DRUM -


The most widespread, sacred, and ritually significant of all musical instruments: a hollow frame or vessel with one or two openings covered by a stretched skin and sounded by beating with the hands or with sticks; also, the slit-drum (a log hollowed through a narrow groove and stamped, rammed or beaten with a stick), and certain other percussion instruments lacking the skin head, such as the water drum and the stamped pit. Drums date from Neolithic times and have served all over the world for accompaniment to religious ceremonies, dancing, singing, marching, and communal work, for the exorcism of evil spirits and expulsion of scapegoats and evil-doers, for divination, for the induction of a state of possession suitable for communication with the gods and supernatural forces, as a means of signaling, and especially as a fertility charm. Their absence in a given area, as among some Indian tribes of modern Brazil, the early Greeks and European peoples, is the oddity rather than the rule. , As a matter of historical record, works of art in Mesopotamia dating from 3000 B.C., show a wide range of drums in use, and sculptured relief's of India show their importance there at least 2000 years ago.

The origin of the instrument is unknown, though various cultures have legends of drum creation. The Fjort story credits the invention to a bird, Nchonzo nkila, which beat the ground with its drum-shaped tail, Even Nzambi, the Earth Mother, was not allowed to deprive the creator of its ownership. Many Pacific and South American peoples believe that the slit-drum was the invention of a water divinity, whose functions it serves. Whatever the origin, a particular type of frame drum probably spread over Asia and Europe from the Near East, and the slit-drum of many South American tribes extending to its northernmost use in California is of the Pacific type.

The rounded, hollow shape, just as it does in many household vessels, earth pits, etc., carries to the mind of primitive man a female connotation, hence, cohabitation, fertility, water, rain, grain, moon-all closely linked ideas. The original shape was probably cylindrical, the form of a log, and the original material, wood, for these were the earliest manifestations of man's work. In this shape, the slit-drum of Pacific and American cultures, with its hollow body and narrow slit rammed with a pole, is completely mimetic of the sex act, Bulging barrel, kettle, cup, bowl, and goblet shapes, now executed in wood or metal, probably followed the introduction of pottery drums, which evolved in very early times and strengthened the female symbolism of shape, material, and use. Archaic barrel drums of Japan and China were filled with rice or rice hulls, and in other parts of Asia, as well as among North American Ojibwas and Crees, grain-filled drums were used.

The meanings and the sex applications become enormously complicated with acculturation and the multiplication of types of drums, beating instruments, and uses. For example, small frame drums with the skin stretched on a shallow hoop have been almost exclusively the instruments of women in Semitic lands, where they accompany singing and dancing and rites of the moon. Greek and Roman followers of the cults of Dionysus and Cybele used them, as did Egyptian dancing girls of the 18th century B.C. Yet the Egyptian god Bes, attendant at childbirth's, is sometimes shown playing this instrument. Furthermore, this drum closely resembles the shaman's drum widespread in . Asia. It is differentiated sharply in that, like women's drums generally, it is played with the bare hands, while the shaman's drum is struck with a stick, horn, or bone.

The whole problem of the drumstick has its own symbolism. Probably the most archaic types of drums were all beaten with the bare hands, and many continue to be so played, by both men and women. The use of a stick or tubular implement, which is symbolic of the phallus, contributes the fertilizing agent to the conception of the female instrument, and is consistently reserved for men in most societies. A Koryak rainmaking legend tells of attaching a woman's vulva to the frame of a drum and beating with a penis for the stick. East African coronation drums must be beaten only with a human tibia, a phallic symbol, (Today we still refer to the leg bones of fowl as drumsticks.) The large hanging drum of Japan, tsuri daiko, is played with two leather-knobbed sticks, the right designated as male, the left, female.

With this double implication of fertility, therefore, the tabus and restrictions on the use of drums vary considerably from place to place. Chaco Indians use their drums, as they do rattles, to help girls through their first menstrual period and to speed the ripening of algarroba pods. In some African tribes, drumming marks the rites of circumcision. In southeastern Asia, they are beaten for the funerals of men only. The entire usefulness of a drum may be destroyed among certain Pacific island peoples if a woman sees it in the process of construction, but in the New Hebrides women play the slit-drum, which is sounded at the rising of the new moon. The Wahinda of East Africa consider it courting death for men to look at a drum. They will carry it only at night, and even the sultan is safe from the danger of the sight of it only at the time of the new moon.

As against the sexual connotation of the drum in primitive usage, Origen, the early Christian Church father of Alexandria, considered the tympanon, drum of his period, a symbol of the destruction of lust and the great Eastern civilizations extend the symbolism to more abstract concepts. Shiva, in his dancing manifestation, has the attribute of a small hourglass-shaped drum which stands for sound, communication, revelation, incantation, and magic. The Chinese system of cosmic coordination matches drums with north, winter, water, and skin.

The making of drums involves numerous magical practices and beliefs. Lapp drums are made of wood selected for the favorable direction of the grain. The Melanesian drum-makers climb the tree selected for the body of the drum and complete the whole drum before descending. The Babylonian lilis, worshipped and played in lamentation for the darkness of the moon, was covered with the hide of a special black bull, sacrificed in the temple of Ea, god of music and wisdom. The great honor of his fate was carefully explained in incantations sung to the bull before his ritual slaying.

The earliest membranes for drums were probably the skins of fish, snakes, and lizards (water animals), and only later, possibly when drumsticks began to be used, were game animals, cattle, sheep, and goats used. For the huge log war drums of Africa, some tribes consider skins of wild beasts most suitable. Human skin flayed from their captives or slain enemies was sometimes used for the ancient Peruvian huancar, the belief being that the use of a part of his body gave possession of the enemy's strength and vigor and would strike terror to his companions.

Attaching the skin to the frame with nails had a special significance, both for the barrel drums of the Far East and the Huehuetl of Aztec Mexico, nails bearing a protective virtue then, as today, in many cultures. Also the inclusion of various objects inside the drum has been thought to add to its powers. Small bits of crystal or obsidian from a volcano are used in the shaman's drum of the Araucanians for curing effect, with amulets, skulls, shells, etc., being used elsewhere. Therefore it can be dangerous to take a casual glance into a drum.

The elaborate formula observed in making the trio of Haitian vodoun drums of today is characteristic of such activities. The maker, before cutting the selected tree, offer invocations, lights a candle, and sprinkles cornmeal around the roots. He breaks an egg against the trunk, rubs it well over, the bark and offer a libation of rum. Rum is also poured into the hollow of the drum after it is scraped out. It is also poured at the threshold of his house and out toward his cornfield. The first peg hole for attaching the skin is marked and called the mother (manman), and there the first peg must be driven in, the first attachment of the skin must be made, the lacing first knotted, and the tuning begun. Before any skins are put on, all three drums must be aligned in the sun, rum is poured before each, and the maker, calling on the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, lights a candle on each mother peg. The drums are not played until they have been baptized, for which they are dressed in apron like christening garments by a set of godparents, with prayer and offerings of meal and pouring of water.

The largest of these drums is called the manman, the next the seconde, and the smallest bula or bebe, and they are named and endowed with a soul or spirit, the hunter, This naming ceremony is paralleled in Sumerian custom thousands of years B.C., in which the balag drum of the god Ea received a proper name and dates were counted from the time of its dedication.

The distinction of sire in this vodoun practice is paralleled elsewhere. In the New Hebrides, the largest of a group of slit-drums is also called the mother. It is common in primitive societies for the largest d,drums to have the greatest magical power and to be dedicated to the most important divinities, while smaller ones take on lesser spirits, serve for more ordinary utilitarian purposes, or even descend in time to the level of toys. The two largest drums of the Shangn cult of the West Indies speak to St, Michael (Catholic identification of Ogun) and John the Baptist (Shango). Sometimes the original or older type of drum of an area retains its function for solemn ceremonies, while the later importation's serve for lighter, secular entertainment. Indians of the Sierra Nevada of South America do their religious dances to a large, single-headed wooden drum, and use a double-headed European, type of instrument 10, secular dancing. The Miskito tribe of the Caribbean lowlands playa goblet-shaped drum for funerals, and memorial rites, and use the European type for, signaling and less important ceremonies.

Special dress for drums is not unique in Haiti either, Among other, the huehuetl, still used by the Huichols of Mexico, has a holiday garb for festivals; the sahibnahabat (master drum) of India, a pair of huge silver kettledrums mounted on an elephant for, processions, wears a long drapery; the Japanese da daiko, a spoolshaped instrument used for, great occasions in the bugaku orchestra, is enthroned on a tasseled and draped platform.

More integral forms of decoration of drums include carving, painting, and the attachment of various objects to the frame, nearly always with the purpose of furthering the powers of the instrument. Some of the most ancient log drums, which stood upright or aslant on the ground for playing, were given feet or tooth like appendages to be driven into the earth. The foot, a phallic symbol in itself, was often carved in Malaya and among the African Bakunda (a Bantu tribe) to resemble human legs and feet. In other areas the foot was conventionalized into a decorative stand. Many slit-drums, such as the Aztec teponaxtli, represent complete human or animal bodies-pumas, jaguars, alligators-with the powers of these creatures. Some, as among the Uitoto of Colombia, have a woman's head at one end, and that of an alligator (creature of water) at the other. The dragon and the phoenix, each with its own life associations, appear often on Japanese and Chinese drums, and tongues of flame may be carved above the frame. The Assiniboin of North America used the drum itself on a painted drumhead, and surrounded it by symbols of the rainbow, clouds, and sunshine, while on the other side appeared a star with colors and symbols for night, twilight, and sunshine.

Signs and figures painted with blood or alder-bark juice on the head of a type of Lapp drum were used for divination. A collection of small rings on the head were kept in motion as the drum was beaten, and according to the signs on which they came to rest the shaman made predictions.

The use of rattles or jingles attached to the drum adds to the special powers of those instruments.
The sound of a drum, and certain drum rhythms have their own meanings. West Indian Negroes believe that the drum will remain voiceless until an invocation calls the spirit into it, and each supernatural being of the vodoun group, as in the parent African tradition, appears in answer to his own particular drum beat. The voice of the drum is the speech of the god. Chaco Indians distinguish certain traditional rhythms as "the beat of the jaguar," "the beat of the vulture," etc., and the Sumerian balag, mentioned above, spoke with "'the bull's voice," and like the Lapp drum, was used for divination. When drums are used for rain-making, the sound is thought of as thunder.

Sometimes the drum is used to modify the human voice, give it a non-human, ventriloquistic sound more suitable to incantation. The Chukchee shamans of northeastern Siberia speak into the drum for this effect, and in the Yaqui Coyote dance of Mexico, an old man drummer sings into a hole in the side of his drum as he beats with muffled stick.

Actual language can be conveyed by drums. The Ashanti and other West African tribes, as well as some American and Oceanic peoples, by the use of definite intervals and rhythms in beating their log drums, can so imitate the speech melody of their languages as to convey messages in words and be understood over long distances. This telegraphic use of drums probably antedates more conventionalized signals for fire, assembly, flood, and the transmission of military orders, just as the huge slit-drums of primitive tribes are earlier than the small portable type now used in Malaya by watchmen.

Many methods are used for tuning and changing the timbre of drums, and for both musical and magic purposes the different tones have been desired. Islamic music distinguishes carefully between muffled beats, achieved by wetting the skin, and clear beats, struck from a heated skin. The Siberian shaman may achieve the same effects by heating his drumhead at his fire or moistening it with urine. Tightening or loosening the lacings of the skin may produce difference of tone. An African side-drum was called "the hypocrite" because of the many different tones that could be produced by pressure of the arm under which it was held, and its sound is said to have survived in the Negro humming called "moaning."

When the hand is the striking instrument, the tone may be changed by using the flat of the hand, the fingers, or the base of the thumb. African, West Indian, and Asiatic drummers produce intricate variations by the manipulations of their flying hands and fingers.

Some drums are sounded not by beating at all but by friction. Resin or grit is used on the fingers and rubbed over the head, or a vibrating cord or stick on the membrane produces a continuous rumbling sound. This, in a different way from the ramming or beating of drums, also symbolizes cohabitation and is used at initiation ceremonies of both boys and girls in Togoland. Europe also has its friction drums, now chiefly toys, but probably dating back to fertility ceremonies.

One tuning method for drumheads, the application of a paste to the center of the skin, originated in sacrifices and offerings to the drum. Though the primary significance of this practice is now largely forgotten and only the achievement of two different tones from the areas with and without the paste is intended, the custom originated in smearing the blood of enemies or sacrificial animals on war drums to bring strength in battle, good fortune to the armies. Later, any red colored substance served the same purpose, and still later the offerings changed to agricultural symbols of abundance, such as rice, meal, saffron, etc. In India some barrel drums are treated with a different paste for each head, so that greater tonal range is obtained. However, Chamar women of southern India paint five cinnabar spots on the drumhead before a ceremony for Mother Earth, and the Haitian vodoun drums are still treated with alcohol and flour before a service, not so much for the tonal changes as an offering to the spirit of the drum.

A part of the Mexican Coyote dance previously mentioned includes the offering of meat to the drum. Dancers carry it in their teeth from the plates where it is laid out to the drum. An allotment of meal was regularly provided for the Sumerian drum a-lal; the Aztec slit-drum was also the recipient of sacrifices and offerings; and novices of the cult of Attis in Rome ate a sacramental meal from a drum in a secret reenacting of the death and resurrection of the god.

Certain drums are assigned special houses, guardians, and properties. The sacred jar drums (bajbin) of the Chamulas and Tzotzils of Mexico are brought out only at carnival times, in the interim being cared for by two attendants. Every week or two incense is burned before the drums, which rest on a table in the house of one of the guardians. The day before a carnival they are given a drink of brandy, are washed with hot water and camomile, and fitted with new lacings, while one attendant waves a banner in the four sacred directions, the other, in ceremonial headdress dances through the washing, and fireworks are set off. Only after such attentions can the drums be carried to the church door for the carnival dancing.

The African Bayankole maintain a dome-shaped drum house for their two greatest drums, which are served by a woman known as "the wife of the drums". Her duties are to attend to the milk and butter-making from the herd of cattle owned by the drums, to offer milk to the drums daily, and to keep house for them. Another woman is charged with keeping the fire in the drum house to the temperature preferred by the drums. At the birth of a son or on any occasion for rejoicing the prominent men of the tribe bring cattle or beer as offerings to the drums. No one may kill one of the dedicated herd except on order of the chief and the meat is presented to the drums before it can be eaten by the guardians. Hides from the cattle are used to repair the drums and the butter made from their milk is smeared on the drumheads.

So powerful and holy are the drums in East African society that the drum yard provides sanctuary for criminals and other fugitives as the church did in European tradition.
In contrast to this idea drums have also served as the instrument of execution, expulsion, and disgrace. Thieves have been drummed to their hanging; the roll of the military drum in European armies beats a cheat or a disgraced officer out of camp and out of the regiment; and drumfire prefaces the volley of the firing squad when a spy or traitor stands with his back to the wall. In China, human scapegoats, selected as the embodiment of pestilence, have been driven from their villages to the beating of drums that the community might be restored to health. In Burma, cholera epidemics have been broken up by creating a din to frighten away the disease demons, drums adding their sound to the uproar. And on the island of Boru, day-long beating of drums and gongs preceded the departure of a boatload of evil spirits driven out to sea with all the troubles of the community.

Singing, dancing, and drums are almost inseparable in folk customs. Some American Indians have no concept of song without the undercurrent of the drum. Street singers in Egypt today are accompanied only by the drums they carry. The Ethiopian chant is set to drums and hand-clapping. The wedding songs of modern Jews of Yemen are sung to drumming and dancing, much as Jewish singing was done before the Temple at Jerusalem was built. Singhalese, Hausa, and Eskimo-all have their drum songs.

Among the dances dependent on drum rhythm are the healing dances of shamans in Sumatra, in South America, and in Siberia; the whirling dance of dervishes in Cairo; the convulsive dancing of vodoun and Shango, and their distant connections in West Africa; the classical bugaku dances and NO performances in Japan; the prancing of the Morris dancers in England, with their characteristic pipe and tabor accompaniment; the frenzied tarantella of Italy, with its tambourines; the sword dances of medieval Europe, and the jazz of America. Negro slaves, transported from Africa to America without any of the ceremonial objects basic to their lives, improvised drums of barrels, nail kegs, and boxes slapped with the bare hands in order to preserve some vestige of their background. When forbidden to drum, as they were in Louisiana in 1740, they pounded the wooden floors of their shacks with their feet in the intricate drummed and shuffled rhythms essential to their religious ceremonies.

The greatest use of drums for purely musical purposes perhaps is Asiatic. There the drums assume a melodic as well as rhythmic function in the orchestra in a manner not known in the West until the modem experimental art music of the 1920's. In Burma, where the chief outlet for orchestras is the accompaniment of the pwe shadow plays, a full drum chime is characteristic. It consists of as many as twenty-four tuned drums, arranged in a circle around the player who plays with his hands in an extraordinary display of virtuosity. The Javanese and Balinese gamelans also feature drums to guide the changing tempi for the choir of gong instruments, and in India the drums frequently outnumber all the other instruments in an orchestra or band.

On the strictly practical level of everyday use, drums have served to set the pace for communal work groups such as the combite and gayap, and for the strokes of rowers in Egypt. American slang holds an indication of the application of showmanship to business in the term "drummer" for salesman, and the phrase "drumming up business.' They bring to mind the picture of the ballyhoo of the medicine-show, the sales-talk from the tail board of a wagon, and the straggling parade behind one bass drum painted boldly with the name of a nostrum.

Finally, drums have boomed as a battle rally on every continent, and have stood as the talisman of victory and the symbol of royal and military might in many cultures, with the attendant sacrificial and signaling meanings previously discussed. The traditions surrounding the military drums of European and American armies are of comparatively modem origin. The importance of the military drum grew up as the foot-soldier superseded the armored and mounted knight as a tactical element in war. Then the drum and the cross-fife came into their own to set the time for the marching feet of the mercenaries. Kettledrums (English naker, French nacaire), introduced from Arab countries after the Crusades, joined the armies, and kettle-drummers of the 15th and 16th centuries were trained to perform with affected and exaggerated pomp and gesture, still seen in the antics of present-day drum majors and majorettes. The much-admired clash and clang of Turkish Janizary music set the style for European military bands, and Swiss soldiers marched to the roar of some of the largest drums ever made, copied from Near Eastern models. The drum was paired with fife or bugle as the visual and aural motif of war, of military glitter and discipline. Swift trials on the battlefield were held around a great drum serving as table or desk for the judge, and the term "drumhead court-martial" spoke of summary justice. Heroic drummer-boys, as the youngest lads officially attached to an army, provided appealing figures for tales of defeat turned to victory. While mechanized warfare, vehicle-transported troops, and electrical and radio communication have taken from the drums their serious function in war, their appearance in parades still brings out the motor impulses of marchers and spectators that are the secret of the power of the drums in all societies, perhaps an extension of the same motor impulses displayed in the drumming activities of animals.

Standard Dictionary of Folklore / Mythology and Legend ©1972, 1950, 1949