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Structuring for Sound

A valuable aspect of understanding drumming involves exploring the unique ways in which different drums are created to produce specific sounds. Fire and water are often used to affect the sound of a particular drum; specific materials are chosen to create a desired sound.  The playing of plank drums by First Nations along the Northwest Coast produces a deep, dramatic sound.  The plank drum, which accompanies dance songs and games, is played with hardwood batons.  This creates a sound which includes the “staccato of the batons and the deep, resonant note of the box drum combined with a rich percussive sound” (Holm 1983: 68). The type of wood used for the baton created the deep, powerful notes desired by those playing.

The Gwich’in people who reside in the Yukon use fire and heat to bring the sound of their drum to a desirable pitch and tone.  In the case of the mooseskin drums, which are used for ceremonial purposes, the Gwich’in use the skin of a young moose which is pulled tight over a circular tin.  In order to tighten the drum and improve the tone, the drum is then heated by a fire (Cruikshank 1975: 55).  Because the application of  fire and heat causes the membrane of the drum to tighten, many Nations use this method to produce the required sound from the instrument. The Dene Peoples of the Northwest Territories used to hold their dances out-of-doors on a relatively level rocky area. A fire would be started in the middle so that the drummers/singers could periodically re-heat the heads of the hand drums. More recently when Dene Ti (Tea) Dances or a powwow are held indoors a stove will serve the same purpose.  At powwows that take place out-of-doors there is always a fire burning near the central arbour where the singers/drummers can properly heat the large drums as needed.

Water affects the drum in a variety of ways: “The voice of the drum is affected by how wet the skin is as well as how tightly it is pulled, and by the amount and temperature of the water. Sometimes coals are placed in the instrument to heat the water” (Burton 1993:27). Normally about three centimetres of water are placed in the vessel and this means that the sound has less air through which to vibrate in the resonator. Depending on the desired sound in a particular community, the amount of water and its temperature can be modified accordingly. In general, the water drum provides a beat with its high pitched tone that carries through however many cowhorn rattles are present as in other Iroquoian social dances.

The resultant sound of a drum can be modified by various attachments. When one or more snares are stretched across either over or under the membrane head of the drum, the resultant “buzzy” sound  brings out partials of the fundamental  and also makes the sound more brilliant. For some Aboriginal musicians these aspects of the resultant sound are required to aid in obtaining musical inspiration for song and frequently dreams. The aesthetic ideal is to “mask” the sound of the voice in order to give it a quality of other-worldliness. If attachments such as small bones of pieces of wood are fastened to the snare, the resultant sound will be even more uniquely designed to the taste of the drummer concerned.

Some attachments to a drum are made for visual and tactile aesthetic reasons apart from sound. The stone fastened into some Siouan hand drum holders provides to the drummer a strong sense of being attached to the earth while drumming. Feathers, sinew strings, or other relatively light attachments can blow in the wind while the drum is being played. If small objects such as beads, claws, metal objects or bones are attached to these, then they will vibrate against the resonator and provide a particular quality of sound to that drum.  The individuation of the sound of each drum heightens the sense of the drum being a living being with its own name and spirit.

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