Sunday, January 10, 2010

(This is a little something I had written ages back for an online rock magazine called; on browzing through it the other day I stumbled across this write up and decided to put it up for my readers here on
It talks in details about man's inherent sense of rhythm and the emergence and relevance of hand drumming all over the world. You wouldnt find the exact same article on the website as I have made a few grammatical and factual corrections here, nevertheless, in essence it remains the same.)
Those who have been brought up in one of the many traditional and musically inclined Indian joint families can surely identify with the indubitable fact that music, in whichever form it may be running down their respective family lineages, is and will always be a fundamental basis on which the family heritage survives. In India as well as in various other cultures, percussion, besides other forms of music have for years been such a channel through with rich tradition has been passed down from one generation to the next.
For centuries countless pairs of hands have been fashioned and perfected in order to master the art of laying down rhythms on resonant surfaces, the one important truth it has established is that, it is the hands that come first and then the surface on which it plays. Both are of paramount significance when we are talking about drumming. My point here is not the instruments or the tradition, not even the musicians, it is the two surfaces that create pure magic when they come together, the skins.
The following is a brief journey that’ll attempt to explore the importance of hand rhythms, their deep rooting in tradition and how they stand for man’s inner pulse;
Music, as I’ve always maintained, comes straight from one’s own inner self, it’s the manifestation of man’s undying hunger to express, therefore for the primitive man, drumming on a surface with his bare, naked palms came the closest to expressing what was hidden deep beneath. Physical contact with the instrument was needed to transfer thoughts into it, so it could proclaim in it’s own distinct lingo what its master had in mind. With the realization later on, that such hand drums could be used as outstanding sources of rhythm for backing up other musicians, the relevance of hand percussion started uncovering itself.
Even today more than half the world’s drums are played by hands. Traditionally one’s palms have been considered the best beaters for most drums save for the few others that had such skins and such build that needed and responded better to sticking, this resulted in various striking, finger rolling, muffling and slapping techniques to evolve gradually. Such techniques, very precisely, made the most of the various tonalities of a hand drum thereby attributing an intricate and detailed sound to any rhythm pattern. Such techniques are used widely today and many have been innovated upon and fashioned to suit the changing musical perspectives.
One shall notice that a rhythm played on a drum with the fingers and the palms have an altogether different feel to it, but it sounds totally different when laid down on the same instrument with sticks or mallets. This happens due to the difference in the surface area of a palm and that of the striking section of the mallet, i.e. the head. That’s why most hand drums sound differently on being played on by mallets and come out with their natural sounds when played on with the hands. This is the nature of hand drumming and this is where it’s power lies.
Most hand drums are of two kinds, the single surfaced or ‘headed’ ones and the double headed ones. Of the two surfaces of a double headed drum, one is normally the Base surface, on which the baser accents are played and the other one is the Treble surface on which, mostly finger rolling or slapping is used in order to construct a full beat pattern.
The Indian Tablas, for example are considered to be one of the most expressive instruments apart from the Iranian Tombaks. These are actually two separate, single-headed drums; with a black dot on each head called the Gab or Shyahi placed exactly at the center of the drumhead. These Gabs give the drums their distinct sound. The wooden pegs on the edges can be hammered and tightened to improve the tone. Most of these tones have traditional names such as, “ta”, “ki”, “Na” etc are called “bols” and can be sung or recited by the player. The range of the Tablas is basically two octaves. The Dholak, Dhol, Mridangam, Pakhawaj, on the other hand are two-headed hand drums played with the fingers. The Kanjira is another small, single headed lizard skin drum known for its raw base tone, has only one little zil or Jingle on its sides. The Ghatam, on the other hand, is a clay pot on which slapping techniques and finger dribbling is employed in order to bring out that characteristic ‘clattering’ sound, the mouth of the Ghatam can be covered with cupped hands in order to produce woofing base accents.
The Iranian Duffs, similar to the Arabic Riqs are traditional frame drums that have very similar playing techniques yet they are fundamentally different. In case of the former, rings are attached to the inner surface of the drum in order to give it a distinct raw sound, whereas the latter, has zils attached to it, like the Kanjira and it of course sounds different. Most small frame drums are gripped by either the right or the left hand from the bottom with the skin facing away from the player and the comparatively larger ones such as the Irish Bodhrans or the Tars are held under the arms or between the legs and can be played with a brush and hand combination.
Glen Velez, the Frame Drum maestro’s contribution to Frame Drumming has brought these traditional instruments to the forefront and into popular music today. He invented a drum set constituting only Frame Drums and was the first musician to master the brush and hand combo technique. Almost every country has it’s own set of Frame Drums, we’ve heard about the Indian ones, few of the other lesser known yet extremely time-honored and classy instruments are the Spanish Adufe (a double headed drum), the Brazilian Pandeiro, the Italian Tamburello and the Ghaval from Azerbaijan. Frame Drums with thin skins are finger sensitive and a variety of finger drumming techniques can be used on them but the ones with a thicker membrane need sticking. Fingernails, fingertips and sometimes knuckles can also be effectively used to make very high-pitched tones on few sections of the drum such as the drum shell or near the edges.
Arabic drumming is primarily based on three important tones i.e. ‘Doum, tak and kah’; but Persian drumming is slightly different from this as they use ‘snapping techniques’ to make high pitched sounds and don’t use the ‘Kah’.
The Middle Eastern Doumbeks or Tonbaks/Tombaks are another separate category of goblet shaped drums made of Ceramic or metal, held between the legs or underneath an arm and played with both palms in a ‘circular fashion’, in this technique the base of the palm and the fingers are mostly used in a cyclic motion to play rhythms on the drum surface. These methods of course have slight variations and differ from drum to drum.
Africa is another ‘world power’ as far as rhythm is concerned. Unlike the Middle Eastern system of rhythm that has a lot of similarities with the Indian one, one will find a lot of distinctions between the African rhythm system and that of India or the Middle East. The three basic tones in West African drumming are ‘Gun’,
‘Go’ and ‘Pa’, there are more, which only advanced players can produce from their drums. Few of the major drums of African origin are the Djembes, Kpanlogos, Bougarabous, Ashikos, Udu drums (similar to Ghatams), Talking drums, Bata drums, Djun Djuns and the stool drums. All of these are meant to be played with the hands (except for the Djun Djuns which can be also played by mallets) and are great for playing in Drum Circles, as they are loud, crisp and have an amazing reverberating effect. The African drumming methods stress more on striking the drumhead with the palm and the use of the fingers is limited, it also stresses heavily on power. The Talking Drum on the other hand is a unique contraption, as the ropes running down its body are to be squeezed by the player, holding the drum underneath his arms in order to change the pitch while playing. The depth to which music is embedded in Africa is revealed by a simple proverb of theirs, which says, ‘A village without music is a dead village’.
The Brazilian and Afro Cuban hand-drumming systems yet again are, parallel in many respects; The Congas and Bongos are the drumming mainstay in these regions and are also widely used all around the world for various kinds of music. The Bongos are very sweet sounding instruments and are played softly with the fingers, their Moroccan counterparts are made of Ceramic and have their bottoms sealed instead of opened. In the Caribbean, of the two Bongo drums, the smaller one is called the ‘Macho’ and the larger one, the ‘Hembra’. The late Carlos E. Landaeta came up with the first 5-key Bongo drums and research is on whether the Bongos can be traced back to ancient Africa. The Congas are often played in sets of 2 and 3 and are all differently pitched. From high to low these drums are called the ‘Tumba’, ‘Conga’ and ‘Qiunto’. These drums are played with palm heels and tips of the hands and of course, they differ from one playing style to the other. The Bongos are by and large played with the Congas as they compliment each other really well.
As for instruments purely of Brazilian origin that are hand played, we have the ‘Cuica’, which is a ‘Friction drum’. The player firmly rubs a wooden post attached to the center of the head inside the drum cavity with a cloth, to create an exceptional ‘chattering’ sound. Another instrument used for the most popular form of music in Brazil, the ‘Samba’ or the ‘Bossa Nova’ is the ‘Pandeiro’, the Pandeiro is similar to the Tambourine as it has a row of jingles attached to its sides and is played like a Frame Drum. Various other ‘Agogo Bells’ are also used widely but since they have a hard metallic surface, they usually need to be played on by sticks.
Hand percussion does not end with drums; there is a spectrum of different sound effects, including a variety of shakers, juju shakers, bells, bar chimes, Caxixis, Ghana bells, Castanets, Claves, Steel drums, Kalimbas and Jam blocks out there that can be used with the hands to produce brilliant, trance like sound effects for a percussion gig.
On a lighter note, one can self improvise by trying using sticks on hand drums or even drumming on various articles around the house like tables, vessels, buckets, empty plastic bottles and plastic containers filled with grains, used as a shaker; like various percussionists were known to have been doing when young!!! It’s real fun and in the process one can actually discover a lot of new tones and effects coming from these different and out of the ordinary sound sources.
Talking about odd sound sources, I guess its nothing new to see percussionists today drumming on their cheeks with their fingers to create a sound similar to wood blocks!!
This kind of experimentation with sound, where the body takes center stage has been christened ‘BODY PERCUSSION’. Further, a few ‘beyond the edge’ percussionists are known to have recorded and even played live on stage, sound samples by slapping their thighs, snapping, or even stomping their feet on various surfaces!!!!
Apparently the above ‘stomping’ and ‘slapping’ may not have anything to do with what I started off on i.e. the kinship between hand percussion and ones musical legacy but don’t you think it does take us back to one fact, and that is human beings still rely profoundly on their bodies to make music. Even after so many decades of technology invading the music scenario, by whose virtue almost all musical instruments today have wires going in and out of them and can be made to sound so unrealistic, man still recognizes this essential, natural chemistry between his own body and the music that naturally flows out of it; he still feels the need to be one with the surface he contacts in order to tap this music.
This natural impulse is somethin our predecessors, the apes, nomads or whatever they were called have bequeathed us; it is their legacy, their heritage, their religion, a religion called rhythm.