Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Dorset Drums Assembled

Button Point drum reproductions
The Dorset Palaeoeskimo drum reproductions are finished now, except for the drying and the drumsticks.  I'm starting to get hints of what they might sound like, but the skins are still a little too wet to know for sure and I need the right kind of drumstick to really unlock their sound.  The drums are small, but they look absolutely tiny in a lot of these pictures.  I suppose my hands are bigger than most Dorset people's would have been, but there must also be some weird perspective going on in some of these shots, because they don't seem quite this teeny-tiny in real life. Here's some more info about the real-life artifacts that these reproductions are based on.

The braided sinew cord that holds the
caribou rawhide drumskin in place
begins and ends at the handle, where
it is wrapped partway up the handle.
For the most part the frame is held together with friction and sinew cordage.  I decided to reinforce the joint between the handle and the hoop with a bit of hide glue.  I think that the original drums may have been designed for the handle to be removable for easier transport and storage, but I elected to permanently attach the handle with glue and by wrapping the lashing for the drum skin tightly around its base.  The main reason for this is that I'm concerned that the wedge shaped handle will split the wood of the frame if it is removed and re-inserted too often with too much pressure.  The original artifacts have splitting in the frame that starts from the hole for the handle and I want to permanently avoid that in these pieces, if possible.  The splitting in the original artifacts doesn't look like its enough to render the drums unplayable as the orientation of the wood grain necessary to bend the hoop means that the crack will propagate around the circumference of the drum rather than dive out towards the edge.  Still, I don't want to test that theory, because it took a long time to get to this point and I want the drums to work for many years to come.

The reproductions beside the printed pattern of the original drums.  The photo is on a 8 1/2" x 11" sheet of paper and shows two drums stacked on top of each other.  I reproduced the one in the middle.

Each drup hoop has three holes.  I'm not sure what these
two are for, but the far one (between the electrical tape and
clamp on the far side of the hoop) is for the handle to attach.
I wrapped the wood with electrical tape while I cut the holes
to minimize the risk of accidentally cracking through the
On both of the original Dorset drum artifacts there are holes in the frame opposite the drum handle.  The drum that I reproduced has two of them, one directly opposite the handle and one a few centimetres away.  At one time I was planning to use these holes to anchor the braided cord that lashes the drum skin in place, but I've decided to leave them open.  I've studied the photos of the holes more carefully and I can't see any indication that they might have had a cord or line running through them.  To me, they look more like the hole where the handle is inserted.  I made a few little wooden tabs to stick in the holes.  I have a couple theories about what those holes might be.  One idea is still that they serve as an anchor point for the line holding the skin in place, but instead of the line passing directly through the holes, it could have been attached to a small peg inserted into one of the holes.  In my reproductions, I've wrapped both ends of that line around the drum handle to better reinforce that joint, but as I've said, I suspect that the handle was actually designed to be removable.  Attaching the skin lashing to the opposite side of the drum would free up the handle, so that it could be removed for storage and or transport.  Or, perhaps the holes could be used to attach something that somehow changes the sound of the drum. Maybe a rattle or something that vibrates?  I don't know.  A third theory  (the one that I'm leaning towards at the moment) would be that something symbolic, perhaps a carving, could be attached to the drum.  Inuit drums were often part of the Shaman's toolkit and the Dorset drums have been interpreted similarly.  My hunch is based on other people's unpublished research, so that's all I'll say at the moment.  I might come back to it when their paper comes out.

Despite the size, they sound very
similar to large Inuit drums, but with
the volume turned way down.
I'll talk more about what the drums sound like in another blog post and hopefully have a short video clip, but my first impression is that they sound more like Inuit Drums that I was expecting.  The smaller size doesn't seem to affect the quality of the boom, but it does affect the volume.  Inuit drums are designed to be played by striking the frame with a drum stick.  The problem I'm having right now is that the "boom" from the drum is so quiet that the "clack" of the stick on the frame drowns it out.  I can get a good sound by tapping the frame with my fingertip, but so far, when I use a stick all I hear is the clack of stick on wood.  My plan is to wrap the stick in the softest fur I can find to muffle the sound of the stick/frame contact so that the low "boom" from the drum skin is audible.

Another view of those extra holes.  The drum on the floor
in the background has small pegs inserted into the holes.
If I can get that far, I'll be happy.  The archaeologist who I am making one of the drums for is a musician and a drummer.  I know what I'd like to be able to play on the drums, but maybe the more realistic goal is to get the instruments to the point where someone who actually knows how to play can start experimenting.  The results so far haven't been exactly what I was expecting.  I wasn't expecting the boom of the drum to sound as much like the much bigger Inuit drums as they do.  But they are just so small and delicate, that I don't think they could have been played as vigorously or loudly as the later Inuit drums.  You'd be able to hear them in a small skin tent, but I don't think the sound would carry outdoors.  Its a drum for small places and few people to hear.

I like the pattern that is visible on the drum skin on the one in back.  For reference, the hoops are about 7 inches in diameter.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

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