- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
THERESA C. BRADLEY
FUNK &WAGNALLS INC.
Standard Dictionary of Folklore / Mythology and Legend ©1972, 1950, 1949