The heartbeat of Mother Earth
Aboriginal drums no mere noisemakers
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 06:00 am
There’s something special about the sound of a real aboriginal drum.
It’s not the sharp “pop pop bam” of a drum set or the wooden roll of the bongos. It’s the deep, earthy, “ba-bum, ba-bum” of a beating heart, or the “boom boom boom!” of a crashing thunderstorm – primal and powerful.
It’s a sound a young Adrian LaChance first heard back in 1991 as he walked through a field in Saskatchewan towards a round-dance.
“It almost sounded like thunder,” he recalls.
It was pure and ancient – overwhelming, yet intriguing.
“It was like an awakening, I guess you would say, to something I guess was hibernating within me, which was the heartbeat of Mother Earth.”
The sound sparked a passion for aboriginal dance and culture that still burns in him today.
Now 42, LaChance performs First Nations dances and songs throughout Alberta as a member of the Running Thunder Dancers. The Edmonton resident is also one of the few people in this area who knows how to make aboriginal drums.
“It’s such a natural sound,” he says of the drum.
“When you hear that beat, it’s like you’re coming alive.”
A sacred circle
Poundmaker’s Lodge cultural advisor Virgil Ermineskin has been around drums ever since he was five.
“The drum is a very significant tool that the native people were blessed with,” he says, and is no mere instrument. It’s a sacred item, one on par with the peace pipe or the Catholic cross.
“They are not to be played with,” he says.
The drum is a tool with which to amplify one’s prayers and carry them to the spirit world, Ermineskin says.
Symbolically, the two halves of the drum – the beater and the membrane – represent the male and female organs, explains Judy Half, aboriginal liaison for the Royal Alberta Museum.
“The meaning behind the drum is life, and to play it is to give life.”
This life-giving power is why the drum is often used in healing ceremonies, Half says.
The story of the drum’s origins varies from tribe to tribe, LaChance says.
One tale tells of a young woman whose family had been killed in a war, LaChance says. The spirits told her in a dream that if she hid in a lake for four days, she would be safe from the enemy.
On the fourth day, the spirits told her she could safely leave, so she did. The enemies did not see or harm her – it was as if she had become a spirit herself.
The spirits told her to come back to the lake for a gift to recognize her sacrifice. When she did, she saw a drum construct itself in the air before her.
The woman took the drum to her people.
“This gift will help us to heal, help us to prepare, help us to honour many things,” she told them.
Amongst the Plains Cree, the drum is generally seen as an exclusively male instrument, LaChance says. Other parts of Canada let both sexes play it.
Women gave men the drum to help men connect to their feminine side, LaChance says. When you sing while drumming, you sing in a high-pitched voice, imitating the first cries of a baby after birth.
“To me, how I identify it is as our first song.”
Makes and models
Retired Canadian music professor Elaine Keillor studied aboriginal drums in depth while at Ottawa’s Carleton University. She has published much of her research at native-drums.ca.
Keillor says some of the first drums seen by explorers meeting the Plains Cree did not have frames, consisting instead of a membrane secured over a hole in the ground.
Later ones typically had a single membrane stretched over a circular frame, sometimes with snares stretched across them for sound effects.
Pacific coast drums were usually logs or cedar boxes, as animal hides didn’t hold up well in the ocean air, Keillor says.
The Iroquois used water drums – bucket-like logs partially filled with water and covered with a skin. Singers would tune the drums to their voices by changing the amount of water in them.
“Today they often use a tin can,” Keillor says, as wooden drums often crack due to dry weather.
Inuit drums are much different from ones found outside of Northern Canada.
They have handles – a feature also found in Siberian and Tibetan drums, Keillor notes – and come with beaters that are longer than the drum is wide. Instead of hitting the membrane with the beater, Inuit players will strike the frame from underneath, resulting in a very unique sound.
The modern powwow drum is a double-headed model that may have been inspired by the residential school system, Keillor says.
“One way they thought they could ‘Europeanize’ aboriginals was to get them to play European instruments,” she explains.
Many early powwow drums were simply European bass drums placed on their sides.
Powwow drums are almost never seen sitting directly on the earth, Keillor says. Most will be elevated on four stakes (representing the four directions) to show respect and enhance acoustics. Others will be placed on blankets.
The way of the drum
LaChance says he gets many requests for drums from local musicians and has a number of them in the works in his basement workshop.
He starts by picking the right hide for the job.
“Each of the animals has a different sound,” he notes.
His personal drum is made of buffalo, which has a very deep tone. Lightweight deerskin produces a tinnier tone.
Once you’ve cut the size of circle you want, you soak the rock-hard rawhide in water for up to 24 hours to make it workable. LaChance says he usually does it for about six hours, as the hide can rip if it’s too wet.
Next comes the frame. In the old days, you’d make the frame by taking a strip of wood, soaking it, heating it, curving it into a circle and binding it with sinew or sap, LaChance says. Nowadays, most are made in a factory.
The tough part comes when you wrap the hide on the frame, LaChance says.
“You have a limited time as it dries pretty quickly,” he says – about 45 minutes.
You want to size the hide just right so that when it dries it tightens snug with the frame, he continues. While modern drums will secure the hide with ties run through holes drilled in the frame, traditional ones eschew holes in favour of tight leather bands.
Once the drum is dry, you can paint it. Ermineskin says most drums made in his community (Maskwacis) are unpainted, as custom says you shouldn’t paint a drum unless you have a significant dream related to it.
Animal motifs are common, as are the four directions and the four colours, Half says. Traditional drums often have very simple paint jobs, such as a blue dot and a red circle.
This whole process is a spiritual act. LaChance will often smudge a drum’s components during construction with sacred smoke, for example, and usually brings the finished drum to a sweat lodge to awaken its spirit.
Once you have a drum, you must follow certain protocols to respect it.
Players are expected to live “the good red road” free from drugs and alcohol, LaChance says. Drums themselves are to be stored in a warm place and held in high regard, much as one would a grandparent.
When you play the drum, you should always strike it with compassion, discipline and respect, LaChance says.
“It’s almost like a pat,” he says.
Should you hit too hard and rip a drum, you should lay the ripped membrane to rest outdoors with an offering of tobacco to thank nature for its use, Ermineskin says.
Today, the drum is often the focal point of a community, Half says.
“It’s a tool that holds stories. It’s a tool that binds communities.”
To play the drum is to show thanks to the world itself, LaChance says.
“Our Mother Earth, she gives us so much,” he says. “The drum helps us to honour her.”