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The Round Drum - Part I

by Al Moser

A round drum is a sacred symbol for many reasons. The Great Spirit created all things above and below the earth, and all these are round, except for some stones. The sun, the moon, and the earth as we see their horizons form a complete circle. The sky is round where it meets the horizon even though it forms a bowl overhead. Everything that breathes -- the two-legged, the four-legged, and the winged-of-the-air -- are round. All the plants that grow on the earth emerge from the ground with a round stem and penetrate the earth with round roots. Because the Great Spirit has created everything in a circle that man experiences, except for some stones, man should look upon a circle as a sacred symbol of life. The reason that some stones were not created round is that these sharp edged stones were usually meant for destructive purposes; therefore, if they were not meant to help sustain life, the Great Spirit chose to exclude them from the sacred circle.

The circle can be seen in every aspect of life. Each day and night are a complete cycle as the sun and the moon move in their arcs (which is part of a complete circle) across the sky; consequently, time itself is a circle from birth, to childhood, to adulthood, to old age, and finally to death -- from dust to dust. The examples around us are endless: the fire pit is usually round, a tipi or hogan is round, water makes a complete cycle, at ceremonies everyone is seated in a complete circle, and even the four winds move in circles.

Many other ornaments and sacred objects were also made in the shape of a circle. If the object was not divided into sections, it represented the universe and time. If the circle was filled with blue, it represented the sky; if it was filled with red, it meant the sun; and if it was divided into four sections, it symbolized the four directions or winds. The colors had several meanings but the drawings and the divisions were usually understood between most tribes.

Among the Oglala Sioux a yellow circle meant a month or moon, a black circle meant night, a half red circle meant a day, while a multi-colored circle or half circle represented a rainbow. All of the above reasons that symbolize the sacred meanings of a round drum do not give the full definition of the round drum's deep religious significance. I believe that on the first level of the spirit of a drum, the drum maker must realize that two living things, a tree and an animal, sacrificed their lives in order that the drum could be made. A deeper understanding into the spiritual meaning of a round drum can be realized when a novice understands that the "old ones" of all tribes not only sang and listened to a medicine drum song -- they lived the song! The songs and the drum were a way of accomplishing changes within oneself in order to bring their spirit into accord with the Great Spirit, the universe of life, and their fellow man.

The drum beats which represent the heart beat of all living things in their world, when combined with words, seem to pull all thoughts into a tangible form which can be dealt with. To an outsider, it may appear to be an unmelodious series of sounds and words, but to those participating, these same sounds and words are related phrases which have an infinite amount of meaning. They reach deep into the heart and minds, the very souls, of those who understand the deeper meanings; and with this knowledge it is easy to see why most tribes have a song for every aspect of life, and also why these songs were a special part of most ceremonies.

Making A Round Medicine Drum

Round drums are made similar to octagon drums, except for the obvious reason: the frames are not cut into eight parts because the frames will be made to form a continuous oval shape. The frames will be made from a three-inch wide cedar or willow board or from a tree limb or trunk that is smooth and without a taper. The diameter of the round drum can be from three inches to four feet, depending on the materials available and the specific use of the drum. The larger the diameter the more bass tones, conversely the smaller the diameter the higher the pitch until a three-inch drum sounds more like a rattle. The first round drum a novice builds should be either very small or should be about 14 inches in diameter, because these are the easiest to handle during the frame forming.

If a round drum is to be made from a tree limb, a very pliable green wood should be used. Willow and cedar meet this requirement, and they are also considered sacred for their fire-making qualities, medicinal uses and the many other functional items that can be made from them. Willow actually works best because it has less taper to the limbs or the young tree trunks, and it can be easily bent into a circular shape when it is still green. It can also be easily steamed and bent after it has dried.

Once the willow or cedar limb has been selected, I remove all the bark and twigs or leaves while making the limb as smooth as possible. This is also a good time to check for any flaws in the wood grain, or large knots that will become weak spots when the frame is bent. From personal experience, there is nothing worse than many hours of work wasted because a flaw was not seen early in the drum making project.

After the limb is clean and smooth I cut it to length which is determined by the circumference of the drum desired, plus any overlapping of the ends. All this can be judged by pulling the limb into the rough circle desired, or the length can be found more exact by the formula: C = R2 (plus the overlap).

C = Circumference of a circle
= pi, 3.1416
R = Radius of a circle
Next the ends of the drum frame must be cut and shaped so they will closely match and make a smooth connection. This is very important because a loose fit of the ends will cause a tone rattle to develop. Also, the ends must be trimmed to compensate for the rawhide bindings which can also cause a bulge under the drum head. To make this overlap, I mark the ends three or four inches back from the tips with a knife cut completely around the limb ends. These marks must be exactly the same from their respective ends in order to make a near perfect connection. Another method of making this overlap is to make a long taper about a third of the way back from the ends; but if this is done, the frame must be cut longer because of the amount of overlap.
After the overlap has been marked, I draw a vertical line that bisects the limb ends. These opposing bisecting lines should be located so that the inside flat surface faces to the outside of the frame circle. To remove the overlapping material, a knife, a saw or a sharpened rock can be used.
After the ends have been cut for the interlocking connection, I next remove approximately 1/8" to 1/4" of the diameter of the ends. This amount depends on the thickness of the rawhide I will be using to bind the ends together. Again, this is very important, because if not done correctly, a dip or bulge in the drumhead will cause a tone rattle.

After all the difficult shaping and trimming has been done, the bending of the limb into the completed circular shape can be the most difficult, because if the wood has dried out or has a hidden weak spot, all the previous labor will be destroyed. Usually, I try to get someone to help me bend the frame into shape, because holding the frame in place and tying the rawhide binding in place at the same time is almost impossible to do alone.

Using a combination of strength, luck, heat, and water, the frame can be bent into a complete circle. Strength is required to bend the limb into a circular frame; because as the circle becomes more complete, the stress is increased on the wood fibers. To ease this strain, the limb can be held momentarily over a fire or any heat and the moisture in the wood will begin to steam which allows the wood fibers to slip which in turn relieves the stress.

When the two ends finally overlap, I bind them together with rawhide cordage that hopefully I have remembered to cut beforehand. I tightly wrap the rawhide from the center of the overlap toward one end and then back again. During this overlapping of the rawhide wrapping, I make sure the second layer is wrapped very close together with no ridges or gaps because a smooth surface gives the best finish. If the rawhide has been wrapped tight enough, the frame will stay together and will become stronger after the rawhide has dried and shrunk.

If the drum frame needs any realignment to perfect the circle, it can be steamed and re-shaped; but the rawhide binding must be kept dry. Also if the limb cannot be easily bent into shape, the inside of the frame can be trimmed until the inside thickness is decreased and the stress on the wood will also be decreased.

Another type of round drum can be made from either standard lumber of the same type used for the octagon drums or a large, green cedar or willow trunk or limb can be split into a thin board. Either of these can be trimmed for the overlap and then steam bent into a round drum frame. The overlap of the ends can be wrapped with rawhide cordage or it can be drilled and dowel-pinned and then wrapped in rawhide. If dowel pins are used, the holes should be drilled at an angle. This gives more strength to the frame because the angle prevents the dowel pins from being pulled straight out.
The main problem with using standard lumber is that it is usually kiln-dried and therefore cannot be bent into a tight circle without splintering. To lessen the stress of the bending, I usually cut into the lumber to a depth of 50% to 75% of the thickness. These cross-cuts are stress relieving and should be made about two inches apart around the entire inside of the frame. As the frame is bent these cuts will collapse and allow the drier woods to be shaped into a round frame.
Without a modern saw these same cuts can be made using a sharpened stone which is held between the feet while the frame is pulled laterally across the stone edge. Actually, I have found the stone cutters make the best cross-cuts because they cut the grooves in a "V" shape which almost disappears after the frame is finished.
Another method of binding the two ends together is to make a rawhide sleeve that can be slipped over the overlapping ends and tightened with a rawhide draw string.
The cutting and the fastening of the rawhide drumhead is done in the same manner as the octagon drum; but there are several variations to this basic pattern. Sometimes instead of the crisscrossing of rawhide on the backside of the drum, a rawhide drawstring is stitched around the drumhead edge. This is pulled very tight and secured into a complete circle. As this drawstring is tightened, it pulls the slack out of the drumhead. A handhold is made across the back with a cross pattern of two or more cords tied to the drawstring or the edge-holes in the drumhead. Sometimes these are wrapped at the center crossing point to make a better handhold.

In more recent times, brass tacks or nails have been used to fasten the drumhead to the back of the frame, but the problem with tacks or nails is that they vibrate loose and need constant attention. Also, the tacks will begin to vibrate or rattle, even though they do not appear to be loose.

There are as many variations to securing the drumhead as there are materials available and varieties of skills of drum makers. I have found that the simplest methods, which at the same time keep the drum tight and free of tone rattles, are the best methods.

Painting A Drum

The paint should be made from natural material such as powdered rock, tree sap, tree bark, or plant material. If this cannot be done, an acrylic paint will work because it is somewhat flexible after it dries. I have found the drum will retain its colors better if it is painted while still damp. Also, it will not chip or flake as easily.

Other than being damp and clean, no other preparation of the drum is necessary.

An appropriate design can be found in the following books: The Apache Indians by Thomas E. Mails, Mystic Warriors of the Plains by Thomas E. Mails, and Indian and Eskimo Artifacts by Charles Miles. When selecting a design, I try to let the drum tell me what should be painted on it. Sometimes only I know what the symbols mean, because each drum has its own voice or spirit. This message may be a very special voice meant only for one person to hear and feel. When the design is chosen, if it is the "right" one, it will stand out from all the rest.

Making A Drumstick

I usually make the drumstick from a hardwood such as oak, hickory, or willow. The drumstick will need to withstand many hours of hard use, so a durable, strong wood is needed. I have found that the length should be nine to twelve inches. The diameter should taper from a head size of 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch down to the hand-hold diameter of 3/8 inch.

To protect the drum-head hide, the head of the drumstick must be padded. I sometimes wrap the head with wool or yarn until a small ball is formed on the top two inches of the head. Most of the time I use deer or elk hair, bound tightly in a felt cocoon. To make the latter, I first sew a double layer of felt into a sleeve about four inches long. The sleeve is placed onto the drumstick head with approximately a one-inch overhang. The other end of the felt sleeve is secured to the drumstick with sinew pulled very tight. Over the sinew, rawhide cordage is tightly wrapped and tied off. I then tightly pack the deer hair into the pocket created by the secured sleeve, making sure the drumstick head remains in the center of the pocket. When no more hair can be packed into the pocket, I sew the pocket closed, using a common whip or slip-stitch. If the padded head feels too soft, I stitch it again with sinew and use a larger stitching pattern the second time. This should be pulled very tight, which will also help pack the hair tight.

How to Care for a Hand Drum

A drum is a special object that has many meanings to different tribes. Although a drum's form, its treatment and usage may differ across North America, there are many similarities the drums share. Above all else, each drum must be treated with respect because a tree and an animal have sacrificed their lives for the drum. The results are the quality of the drum.

If the drum is too tight, it will make a "tinny" sound. This may be for a number of reasons. The tension may have been too great when you were making the drum, and as the hide dried, the skin became so tight the drum lacks a good, deep tone. If this is the case, the drum can be re-soaked for four to six hours and restrung a little looser; but this is only to be done if any of the following methods fail: A slight loosening will occur if mink oil is rubbed into the backside of the drumskin. If the weather becomes very dry or if the drum is stored in an air-conditioned area, the drum will tighten. A damp towel wrapped around the drum allow moisture to loosen the drum again. If because of weather the drum is temporarily tight, a few tablespoons of water swished around the inside of the drum and poured out will also loosen the drum. Try not to allow the outside of the drum to get wet because the painted design may become damaged from the water.

A drum that is too loose will sound like cardboard. Traditionally, a temporary correction can be made over an open fire; however, a blow dryer will quickly dry out the hide and restore the drum to its normal sound. Also, a drum that is too loose can be held over a range or even put into an oven on low heat. This is a bit risky because the hide can become baked and it may even split. Whatever the method, keep "thumping" the hide until a good tone is heard, then stop immediately, because the drum will continue to tighten a few minutes after it is removed from the heat.

If the hide splits, the drum can be given its last rites. A major split in the hide usually means the end of the drum, although some parts can be reused. The frame can be reused and the lacing can also be reused. If the rest of the drum-head is still good, it can be used to make new lacing. Sometimes if the split is a very small one, a piece of rawhide cut slightly larger than the hole can be glued over the back-side of the hole. This prevents the hole from enlarging. A pinhole can usually be ignored if it occurs in a location on the drum-head that is seldom struck.

The lifespan of a drum will depend totally on the factors of how the drum is cared for during use and during storage; it should never be too dry and hot, nor too moist and moldy. With good care, the drum will last many years, even if it, is used two or three times a week.

If a good drumstick is always used, the chances of damage during use will also be kept to a minimum. A drumstick in good condition will prevent scratches and scars to the drumheads These can cause holes and cracks that will ruin the drum, so the drumstick should be checked for wear.

From The Tracker magazine, Summer 1983, published by the Tracker School.
For more articles from The Tracker magazine, visit the Tracker Trail website.