Have you noticed how drums lend a sense of feel to the music you are listening to? Often we tend to tap our feet or fingers in rhythm with the beats of the drums. One reason could be that drums were with us from the dawn of mankind.
Initially, probably the sole purpose for the use of drums was used as means of communication over large distances. But as the rapid evolution of the human race happened, the drums evolved too in both make and design. Traditional drums continue to be played using hands, while other newer versions are played using mallets, sticks, or brushes. Modern versions of drums thrive on electric sound systems.
Sri Lanka has acquired an extraordinary style of drumming over the centuries, one of the loudest and most exuberant in the world. It is said that sixty-four traditional drums were part of the country’s collection of musical instruments of which only ten of these drums are currently in use for rituals in temples and festivals. There was a time when each drummer was personally responsible for making their drum right from scratch. They would have to select the wood, and animal skins and assemble their own drums that would suit the length of their hands. Not anymore. A group of artisans jointly create these traditional drums. During my recent visit to Kandy in Sri Lanka, I witnessed the making of traditional drums by one such group of artisans. The visit to their traditional drum-making village Kuragala, in Kandy, was a learning experience. Around 80 families in this village have been engaged in making different kinds of drums for generations. They supply these traditional drums to drummers performing for temples and festivals.
The different kinds of traditional drums they make are:
Classic Kandyan drum, also called the geta bera, is a double-headed drum, measuring exactly 67cm long, slightly bigger in the middle than at the ends. This represents the Up-Country tradition (Kandyan or uda rata).
Yak beraya or pahatharata beraya which represents the low-country (pahatha rata), also called dhik beraya for its long, cylindrical shape.
Daule, shorter but larger, is another double-headed drum. It is hung from the player’s waist and played with a stick in the right hand and the palm of the left hand. This is associated with the Sabaragamuwa tradition.
Tammettana bera, a pair of tiny kettledrums (don’t mistake them as tom-toms) tied together and beaten with a pair of sticks. Found commonly in all three regions.
Dekkiya and udekkiya are drums popularly used in the Kandyan tradition of dance.
Gata beraya and the yak beraya are left uncoloured, while the davula, tammattama, uddakkiya and rabana are coloured with natural paints.
The raw materials used for making Geta Bera (bera in Sinhalese means drum) are logs of the Jackfruit tree (other trees are Golden shower, Ironwood, Thespesia populnea, Deodar cedar, and Margosa) which form the shell of the drum. I was told the trees are sourced after being carefully studied. Trees growing near a temple are sought after for a long time. They also use trees brought down by lightning. But trees growing near cemeteries are a big no.
The trunks are drilled till they are a hollow shell, taking care to have it uniformly thick. With modernization, they have the help of an electric lathe. What would have taken days now gets done in a few hours. They pass on the wooden shell to the hands of smoothers, who smoothen out the surface and polishers who give a fine polish to the shell.
The sides of this wooden shell are covered with cattle hide on one side produces low pitched sound and the other side with goat skin has a sound or beat higher in pitch. Different skins are used for the two drum heads to produce contrasting tones. These skins are sourced from local butchers. They are chemically treated and hung to dry in the sunlight. The skin that is used for the drums is cut into circles and tightly bound onto the drum with the rim (hoop). It is the rim that secures the head to the shell. The strips used to hold the sides are also made from animal skin.
For the right musical sound, the tension of the strings that hold the shell of the drum has to be right. Lots of physics and well-experienced hands produce the best drums. These small details matter in producing good-quality drums. Strangely these artisans are not musicians themselves. I was perplexed by how they decided on the sound of the beats. They work to the beats of inner rhythms, I guess. Hats off to these talented men working silently, creating drums that produce powerful rhythmic beats!