An Inuit Drum

Luke Arna’naaq discussed different sizes of drums that he remembered in his childhood:

I recall seeing various sizes of drums. They were almost identical except the larger drums seemed oversized. The smaller drums . . . had fawn skin stretched over them. . . . Drums were purposely [designed] with the handles secured slightly at an angle and off centre . . . so the drum will be off balance. The top of the drum will want to fall, while the bottom “because it’s lighter“ will want to be on top. The handle was placed like this to eliminate stress in the dancer from trying to keep the drum balanced during the drum beating. Drums that are made like this are surprisingly easy to handle. . . .

The skins were absolutely free of holes. Whenever there was a small hole in the skin it was patched up right away by sewing a piece of skin over it. The drum skins were extremely thin, so the patch had to be very thin as well. The skin of the drum had to be soaking wet during the entire time of its use. The katuk, or drum beater, is wrapped with a caribou skin (with the hair off) in two layers to prevent the drum from making too much noise as it is beaten. That way, the beating sound is much nicer to listen to. In the old days it was difficult to make a drumbeat sound because the beater was cushioned by a double layer of rope wrapped around it, thus making the surface of the beater fairly soft.

Sometimes there are occasions when the skin of the drum needs to be re-stretched. We would be asked to call the neighbours to come over to help with the stretching. . . . Once the skin has been re-stretched it makes a better sound because it is strongly fitted all around the frame of the drum and the whole skin is very tight. . . . The skin, with all the excess tissue scraped off, is very thin and the frame is made of wood.

Each person has his own unique style of drum dancing-movement. . . . Some don’t do the knee-bending motion . . . [but] just stand still. Some move around in a circle without ever uttering a sound. . . . Some are so good in their motions that they move back and forth gracefully (Arna’naaq 1987: 13).

How to make a Qilautik

Find a fawn caribou skin [isiq] with no holes in it. . . . [S]ubmerge it in a pond with the hair towards the surface, [a] process called immittiaq. . . . Leave the skin submerged in water for a few days, but make periodic checks to see if the hair is ready to fall off. Once the whole skin is well soaked . . . , take it out of the water and remove all the hair. . . . [If the frame is not ready for the skin,] set the skin to dry by pegging it on the ground. The drying pegs should go through 1½ millimetre holes made about 15 millimetres apart all around the edge of the skin. . . . [Leave] about two millimetres of space between the skin and the ground so air flows freely and the skin dries evenly and quickly. . . .From a caribou sinew, braid the long thong that will be used to tie down the skin to the drum frame. . . . [It] needs to reach three times around the drum frame.

Find a piece of oak wood and cut a strip about 3½ millimetres, 1½ millimetres thick and 2½ metres long to make the rim of the drum. [Thin it down to the desired thickness. Groove the outer surface along the centre to accept the braided sinew that holds the skin stretched over the frame.] . . . Cut an angled piece off each end of the strip about 14 mm long, so the rim will look even when the ends are overlapped.

Fill a large pot with water and heat it to boiling. Dip the oak [or wood] strip into the boiling water and bend it gradually keeping the groove on the outside until it becomes a perfect loop. Overlap each end by 14 cm and drill two holes through the overlap where the handle will rest. At this stage a handle [ipu] is ready to be fitted to the rim. Cut a piece of wood about 30 millimetres long, round off all corners and secure it to the rim with braided sinew thong. You will need an instrument, called an ipjuutaq, to stretch the skin tight over the rim of the drum. To make it, cut a piece of wood about 30 millimetres long and two millimetres in diameter, pointed at one end. . . . [The skin] must be completely soaked before it can be stretched over the rim of the drum. The kitikkiut, sinew braided to a certain thickness and strength, is used to tie the skin over the frame of the drum. The end of the kitikkiut is fastened to the handle. It is then stretched tightly around the frame three times and secured to the handle again.

The next item that you will need is a drum beater, or katuk. This is a piece of wood about 35 mm long and 5 mm in diameter. The handle end is carved all around the circumference, leaving about two millimetres on the end to stop the stick from slipping away from the hand” [Anon. 1987a: 14-16].

Once the crafter has finished the Inuit drum, it would accompany traditional songs:

Traditional songs, pihiit, are of different types, some belonging to men and others to women. There are rules one must follow when composing a pihiq such as hama and qamna, or aninaa which belong to a ladies’ pihiit. These three are the main ones. Others are uvangaa (me or I), avanii (here), una (this), mannaat (this situation), avvaa (over yonder), ajaaja, pangmaa (somewhere on the land), immaa (listen), amnaa (that over there), and qangmaa (referring to the effect of open space or the outside).

Pihiit contain lyrics of all sorts about such things as animals and implements. The person who leads off the singing is referred to as akkijuq. She notices someone ready to drum dance and starts off the singing of a pihiq first, leading others to sing along in unison. Imngiqtut are people who sing someone else’s pihiq loudly in unison. Imnglinnaqtuq refers to a person who is drum dancing with only the song, when he is standing in the middle of the singers with the drum and the beater in his hands, but is not making the usual vigorous drum beating and body motions. The person would sing a pihiq all by himself, once in awhile making a light tap on the drum, while others listen and try to learn his pihiq. When a person is singing a pihiq (either his personal song or someone else’s pihiq) audibly so others can hear it, then he or she is trying to teach (Ilisaijuq) it to others. The drum dancer usually comes to an emotional or excited point and utters a certain sound, a nipjiqtiqtuq.

Sometimes this utterance can occur during the initial stages of the dance, but not often and not aggressively. Each dancer has his own unique way of making an utterance and, when he does so, it is an indication of his excitement or happiness. . . . Vigorous drum dancing is called nallau’jijuq or “lying down with the drum” and is commonly practised by men [Anon. 1987b: 18]

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Native Drum