About my drums and drumming.
Most creative activities in my life are accompanied by some sort of ritual or ceremony. This isn’t always because I’m interested in matters of the spirit. Rituals help me to focus on the task at hand and achieve it with minimal fuss. I’ve been told that ritual is a feature of behaviours on the Autistic Spectrum. I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when I was seven but I’m not entirely convinced most psychologists would agree with my definition of ritual.
For example- It takes me between two and three months to build one of my meditation drums and every step of the way I feel compelled to perform little ceremonies as part of the process. I start a batch of drums by gathering the various components- the essential ingredients for the magical transformation. First I find cow and calf skin that still has hair on the outside.
The skin is one of a trio of main parts that makes up the finished instrument. The skin is the vocal chord of the drum’s spirit. It is the organ which produces the drum’s voice and the nature of the drum’s voice is very important. I make my drums for calling in spirits so the voice must be deep, reassuring and mellow. I build them so the repetitive tones make the very air vibrate.
There’s no sense in trying to drum up spirits if you’re drum has a voice that’s too high pitched, too dull, too rattling or too weak. A slack drum-skin is almost always the cause of these problems. As it’s impossible to keep a drum-skin taut throughout the life of the instrument, I found it’s best to re-tighten the skin every two to three months for the first year. I recommend this whether the skin needs it or not. After that the tightening should be done about once a year.
I lay the skins aside when I first receive them while I’m gathering shaved goat-skin parchment. I use goat-skin for the resonating surface of the drum. In other words the smooth side is rarely struck with a mallet. It’s there to vibrate from the force of the other skin being struck. The size, thickness and overall quality of the goat-skin determines what diameter and depth of drum I can make without compromising a good solid voice.
The skins have a special place they reside in the shed while they’re waiting to be transformed. I speak to them whenever I pass them by and at least once a week I’ll visit the skins to thank them for allowing me to work with them. I explain to them what a drum is. I show them the best drum I’ve ever made. I play it for them so they know what to expect and aspire to.
Once I have the skins I start looking for drum shells. I either make them myself or recycle old drums kits. I tune my drum shells to D harmonic or B minor.
To tune them I tap each shell with a drumstick to hear what note it makes. Then I’ll painstakingly shave away timber until the shell sounds a D below middle C. This can take a long while. Sometimes it takes days to get it right. One of the blessings of autism is that I have perfect pitch so I suppose it’s not such a daunting task for me.
The tuning of the shell helps produce the deep resonant hum that builds up after a few minutes of playing and for which my drums are renowned. I don’t know many instrument makers who bother these days with all that tuning but in the nineteenth century it was the mark of a master-craftsman.
When I’m happy with the tuning the timber is treated with a special lacquer made from shellac. Shellac is the accumulated secretions of a south-east Asian bug. It was used extensively in earlier times for French Polishing. I apply a series of layers of shellac until I'm happy with the finish and the sound.
Ropes are the third main item on my list. Goods rope are very, very difficult to find and almost always expensive no matter where you source them. I’ve managed to find some wonderful black drum ropes recently and they work extremely well. Now and then I'll use sinew but only for a drum that's been commissioned.
I keep the ropes apart from the skins and shells until the hours before the drum-skin are stretched over the shells. When the application of shellac is all finished I mark out the circle of the drum-head leaving enough room around the skin for a reinforcing stitch along the edge.
Then I prepare to cut my skins using a special knife. I always use this same knife and I always speak to the skin as I’m performing the task. I also sing a very personal song in which I explain to the skin that it is being separated into several skins to make several drums. The cutting of the skin is not only a crucial moment in the creation of a drum, it’s also the most dramatic moment. One mistake; one momentary lapse in concentration, one slip of the razor-sharp blade will leave a skin ruined and useless.
When the skins have been cut I burn sage and lavender smoke to bless them. I don’t know why I do this. It just seems the right thing to do. I offer my thanks to the skins and I wish them an untroubled transition. Then they’re soaked in water and oil of Spikenard, overnight.
Next day I stitch the edges of all the goat-skins as these often tear under stress from the ropes and need to be reinforced. Each skin takes about an hour to stitch. During that process I may watch a documentary but I’m always talking to the skin to reassure it all is well. I burn incense to sweeten the air. Let me tell you- a waterlogged calf-skin at this stage of the process is a bit on the nose- even with Spikenard to take the edge of it.
Once the skins have been stitched holes have to be punched in them to take the drum ropes. This is another task that must be performed with precision or the results will be disastrous. I talk the skins through this process and judge every hole-punch by eye. I rarely make a mistake here unless I’m interrupted.
The skins are then returned to the water to soak overnight again. In the morning I place the skins on either end of the shell and introduce the ropes to the other two parts. Once I’ve told them what to expect I can begin the process of threading the ropes through the punched holes. This can take anything up to an hour to get right. I can’t be interrupted during this process. If I am I am compelled to unthread the drum and start again. I don’t tighten the skins too much at this point because they can so easily rip when they’re wet.
I’ll set the whole drum aside and let it settle in for a day. I always explain what is happening to the component parts and then I play my best drum for the new instrument. When the skins are nearly dry I’ll begin tightening them and tuning. This doesn’t usually take more than a few minutes. When the tuning is right I’ll burn more incense; usually lavender, and blow the smoke over the drum.
I wait until nightfall and play the drum for the first time in utter darkness. This helps me focus my senses on the vibrations, aroma, sound and texture of the drum. I may spend a week playing each drum; finding the nuances of the harmonics and testing each one out to it’s limit of volume and intensity.
I don’t build my drums with dance performance in mind. They’re for meditation. I meditate with each drum and call in the spirits. I try to develop a special relationship developing with each drum before they go off to their new homes.
The mallets are made individually for each instrument and there’s a whole process involved in getting each mallet right. I won’t go into that now. Enough to say the making of the mallets is as steeped in ritual as the drum-making.
Usually I make a batch of five or six drums and they’re sold almost immediately. There’s always someone waiting to get their hands on one of these instruments. Helen makes sure they don’t sit around for too long. We have a regular stall at Mind, Body, Spirit Festival where I usually sell out of my current stock.
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© Caiseal Mór 2011