Thunder and clouds are the best drummers in the world. The rumblings and grumbling keep in tune with the season. The message is loud and clear – the Monsoon is coming. Sound is very forceful. What the eyes cannot see, the ears can hear. In native societies the drums used to carry messages far and wide. There was a relay system, which picked up one message and carried it to another. The forests and glades used to reverberate with war songs or love notes. The drums crossed hills, rivers and dales warning friends and foes. So to trace the history of drums has to follow the story of mankind from the beginning. Drums have a hypnotizing force. Armed forces used to march drummers in the forefront to drum in terror into the hearts of the opponents.
Today the drum is used as a musical instrument. It belongs to the percussion group and can be technically termed as a membranophone. Drums have at least one membrane or skin covering, which is called the drumhead. It is stretched over a frame and then hit by the player either with his hands or with two sticks known as drumsticks. The effect is a reverberating sound. It is the world’s oldest and omnipresent musical piece and the basics have not changed over time. Most of the drums do not require tuning. Several drums placed together form a drum set which a solo performer can play.
The frame usually has an opening, which is circular. Over this the skin is stretched. The shape of the rest of the shell varies greatly. In western tradition the shape is typically cylindrical. Others may be shaped like a goblet or look like cones. Cylindrical drums may have two drumheads. African slit drums are made from a hollow tree trunk. There is the Caribbean steel drum, which is made out of metal barrels. Drums with two heads are also known as snare drums.
The sound of a drum depends on many factors that vary. It relates to the shape of the frame, the size and the thickness of it, materials from which the frame has been made, the type of material used for the drumhead as well as the amount of tension that has been applied to it. Also important is the position in which the drum is kept, the place on which it is kept and the way it is hit.
Among Native Americans the drum tradition is alive. It differs from tribe to tribe. The basic structure is the same but the methods of playing differ. The wooden frame is a hollowed log and over this is stretched and held in place with sinew thongs the treated skin of a buck or elk. They are rather large with a diameter of about two or three feet. The players stand around in a circle and all have a go at it. Some tribes have individual performers playing on hand drums nicknamed tomtoms by White man. Native American drums are handcrafted from wood and require love and attention for a couple of months before it is ready. Images of humans and animals are also carved on it before the final step of painting is done. Drums remain with families for generations and are carefully brought out during traditional festivals.
Africa is the land of drums and some of the tradition still survives and thrives. Djembe drums from West Africa give out bass and bright slap tones. Goatskin is used in the Sakara group of drums – also of West Africa. The frame is made of clay. Sticks are used to beat on it. The performer stretches the skin to bring about a sound that seems as if someone is talking. The sound is unique. The Sekere drum is made from a dried gourd or calabash and is lightly covered with many colored beads. When tapped it brings out a clear loud sound like a rattle and dominates over the sound of other drums.
In China the gong dominates classical music. Nevertheless drums have their place and the most well known is Ta-Ku, which is a cylindrical piece and played with the help of two sticks. The Paigu is a group of seven drums. Gongs are of two types – ta-lo is around cymbal with a cone in the centre. Yunlo is a set of several tuned gongs and is played like chimes. Other types of percussion are bronze bowls called quings.
In Indian classical music the most famous is the tabla which consists of a set of two – the tabla, played with the fingers of the right hand and the bayan played with the left ones. The distinguishing feature is the large black spot in the centre, siyahi. It is made from a mixture of gum, soot and iron filings and produces a bell like timbre. The tradition goes back to the hoary past. Indian Music is divided into two groups – the North tradition and the South. In South India the mrindangam is said to be the most sophisticated drum in the world. It is barrel shaped and has two heads. The heads have weights so that the tone can be raised or lowered. The ghatam is simple tuned clay pot. Kanjira is a modest sized tambourine with only one pair of jingles.
Drums are also very much a part of rural India. During the autumnal Durga festival in Bengal hundreds of dhakis come in trains from the villages to the cities to take part in the grand celebrations. They come with their dhaks or large drums strapped to their shoulders as they dance while playing.
Musical traditions change and go but the drums remain in their niche with a cosmetic change here and there.