A Cree Drum

One of the Nehiyaw/Cree drums has a single-head for an individual player.  Its main components are a birch wood frame and a deer hide head.  This particular drum’s sound is a harmonious buzz.  This fundamental tone contains various harmonics and the inharmonic partials (not members of a harmonic set such as the octave, fifth, third, etc.).  Tuning strings or snares produce this unique sound as they vibrate against the underside of the drum.

Tina Pearson observed and interviewed Albert Davis, the Cree/Saulteau keeper of the songs for the Saulteau Band of Moberly Lake in Northeastern British Columbia.  Pearson said his Cree grandparents, who moved there from Manitoba, taught Albert Davis how to make a drum.

First, Davis carefully selected a birch tree, one that was wet enough inside so that the drum’s frame will bend into a circle without breaking.  The tree also had to have a straight grain pattern.  Davis cut the wood from the lower part of the tree that was free from limbs or knots.  Before chain saws existed, a drum-maker would carve the wooden strip using an axe and knives.  Including the bark, the raw strip should be some five feet long, four inches wide and two inches thick.

Davis then trimmed the width by chipping it with his axe to about three inches.  Then, he removed the bark until the strip was about three-quarters of an inch thick.  The newest-formed wood worked best, so he trimmed from the inner side as he peeled away the loose layers of bark.  Next, he carved down the underlying thicker brown under-bark until he reached the orange cambium layer.  He scraped that away to expose the pale yellow recently-formed wood.  Finally, he put the wooden strip into the lake among some bulrushes to soak overnight.

After 24 hours, the wood strip was heavy with water and had become more yellow.  Davis planed layers from the inside to check its moisture content and to make the strip thinner.  He kept working until he had trimmed the width to the required two and a half inches.  He continued to plane the curved outer surface so that it would bend easily.

Pearson wrote:  “One of the drum making lessons that Davis learned as a child was that birch wood is bent so that the outer side of the wood (the bark side) forms the outer side of the drum hoop.  With balsam wood, it is just the opposite” (1987, 19).

While Davis was trimming the wood, he heated a pail of water almost to the boiling point:  “One end of the wood was put in the pail, and Davis poured water down its length with a dipper.  He did this about five times, then flipped the board, put the other end in the pail, and poured another five dippers of water down the board” (Pearson 1987, 19).

Then, he started slowly bending the strips using gentle and even pressure.  To do this perfectly, Davis had made a special device:  a two-by-six board with a square notch cut into one side about three feet from one end.  He placed this board against the cabin wall or laid it on two saw horses.  Davis slipped the wooden strip into the notch starting at one end and gradually fed it through one section at a time.

After working his way down the strip’s full length, he began the process again with the other end.  During this procedure, Davis listened carefully.  His sensitive hearing was expertly tuned to let him know that he was bending the board equally at each point.  Davis repeated the steps several times as he continued to wet, plane, and bend until the frame formed a perfect half-circle.

When this was finished, Davis quickly arched the two ends together to complete the circle.  This was a crucial moment.  If the strip broke or splintered, he would have to discard the board and start all over again.  If he succeeded, Davis quickly fastened the ends together, allowing the unformed ends to overlap about seven inches.

Davis then clamped the joint between a pair of small sticks and baling twine:

One stick was put on top of the overlapped section of the drum hoop, and the other was put underneath.  The pair was lashed together with the overlapping ends in between them.  There were two clamps-one at each end of the overlap-and the sticks were lashed together as tightly as possible so that the overlap ends of the hoop would be flush with each other.

Later, after the frame had dried and locked into shape, Davis would carve and file the overlapping ends until they smoothly tapered together into a seamless hoop.  But, the time had not come yet, because the frame was still wet and imperfectly formed.

Davis measured the nearly-finished hoop at four equally-spaced points, then marked the places where the diameter was lower than ideal.  If necessary, he would adjust the circle, inserting sticks at the proper points to stretch it into a perfect circle.  If the wood resisted, then Davis would work the wood again through another session of soaking, planing and bending.  When his crafter’s eye was satisfied, Davis hung the frame to dry above the cabin’s wood stove for approximately four days.  In Pearson’s narrative, the hoop’s diameter was approximately 16½  inches.

Eventually, as the frame dried, the fastening clamps loosened and the correcting sticks fell out. This indicated that the frame was ready for the next steps. Now, Davis tapered the overlapping ends with a knife and file.  Then, he scraped the hoop’s top and bottom smooth.  With a ratchet screwdriver and a one-eighth inch drill bit, Davis made six holes that went through the wood’s double thickness at the overlap section.  In earlier days, craftspeople would use a hot iron rod.  Before that, Davis’ ancestors fashioned drill bits from harder wood, stone, or bone and twirled these in wooden hand drills spun with a cord.

The old-time drum-makers used rawhide strips to lace the holes together; and some traditionalists still do. But, these strips would break after a few years of use, so Davis pushed copper plated rivets through the holes and pounded down the accompanying burrs on the other side.  This made a more secure and longer-lasting frame.

However, the hide drum-head was best if it were laced, so Davis drilled one-eighth inch holes around the frame’s lower edge.  He spaced these about two inches apart and five-eighths of an inch above what would be the drum’s open bottom side.

Davis also prepared to make tuning strings.  He drilled four holes three-eighths of an inch below the top side of the drum frame.  Davis paired these holes about one inch apart and directly across from each other:  “The tuning strings are made from a single length (about forty-five inches) of stretched and twisted rawhide” (Pearson 1987, 20).

If one pair of holes was considered A and D, the opposite side would be B and C.  The end of the rawhide was laced through A from the inside, drawn over the frame’s top, then pulled through hole B from the outside.  Davis brought this end through the inside over to hole C.  From there he stretched it outside and over the top of the frame to be laced through hole D from the outside.  Davis left the two ends extending inside the drum frame toward the centre.

Now, the frame was ready for its skin head.  Davis’ wife, Helen, already had prepared a cache of skins.

Generally, Cree women still perform this task: “After a deer is killed, gutted and skinned, its hide is soaked, fleshed, de-haired, and then scraped” (Pearson 1987, 21).  The women perform the steps as their forebears have done for thousands of years.  They soak each skin for one to four days, then scrape and shave them with fleshing tools made out of deer and moose foreleg bones attached to toothed steel blades.  The women peg the hides either to the ground or rack them on a frame.  They then remove the hair, again using the same scrapers.  Typically, a large hide, such as a moose, require two women to work all day.  The finished hides are set aside to be become drums, or the women tan them into buckskin for clothing.

“The Cree drum head is made with wet hide that dries and stretches across the drum frame” (Pearson 1987, 21).  Davis cut a piece of rawhide about 40 inches in diameter.  Then, he soaked it overnight in a solution of water and lye that he obtained from wood ashes or from Sunlight bar soap.  Finding a basin that was about the same size as the drum hoop, he lined the inside with the wet hide.  The edges hung down over the basin’s lip.  Davis placed the drum frame with its bottom side up on the top of the hide-covered basin.  He then folded the hide’s edges back carefully over the frame’s sides:  “The hide will eventually dry and stretch across the frame. If there is too much hide hanging down from the frame, it will pucker when it dries and the tone-head will be too loose.  If there is not enough hide hanging down, it will dry too tight and the frame could warp or even break from the pressure” (Pearson 1987, 21).

To lace the hide to the frame, Davis used two lengths of moose-skin twine. With a metal awl, he pushed the twine through the hide at each hole.  Lacing a double spiral around the circle, he wove them in and out of the holes, pulling tightly at each one.  After completing the circle, he tied a multiple slip knot at the first hole and trimmed the hide’s edges to make a fringe that hung about one-quarter inch below the lacing.

Next, Davis laced rawhide twine as a drum handle.  He selected four untwisted rawhide strips, each about forty-five inches long and slightly thicker than those he used for the tuning strings.  Using some of the same 26 holes along the bottom of the frame, Davis laced three strips across the centre of the drum.  He began with either side of hide holes 1 and 14 where he had laced the tuning strings.  From the outside, Davis brought the ends of the strip together in the drum’s centre.  Similarly, he ran the other two strips using holes 6 and 19 and holes 10 and 23.  These six ends gathered in the centre.  Davis pulled up the tuning strings up with them and tied the whole thing with a knot.  He then hung the drum overnight from a beam above the woodstove.  As the drum dried, the hide would shrink and stretch tightly across the frame.

When the drum was dry, Davis pulled the three rawhide handle strips tight, tied them together in the centre and trimmed the ends.  He used a fourth rawhide strip to form a handle:  “Starting at the centre knot, he looped the fourth strip around each of the three tied rawhide strips in turn, spiralling outward from the centre in a counter-clockwise direction.  He looped around the strips about nine times; then tied a knot, creating a six-sided centre-piece for the handle” (Pearson 1987, 22).

Davis pulled the tuning strings (snares) so they would lie tightly across the drumhead.  He tied the ends together to form a large hoop that would fit the thumb of the person holding the drum.  Davis then carved a drumstick from a Saskatoon berry bush. It was about twelve inches long, and slightly curved and thicker at the striking end:  “Both ends were carved round, with two small splits in the striking end” (Pearson 1987, 22).

The drum was complete.

To obtain the best sound, a drummer might need to sprinkle water on the hide and brush it in before playing.  Normally, the left hand grasps the drum’s handle.  The drummer then loops the tuning strings over the thumb.  When the tuning strings are unengaged, the drum produces its basic sound, a low humming tone with faint upper partials.  If the drummer makes the tuning strings vibrate against the drumhead’s underside, the basic tone is amplified with a buzz tone one octave lower.  The number of harmonics depends on the hide’s tension, the rhythm and speed with which the drummer uses the striking stick and how the thumb pulls on the tuning strings in relation to the rhythm.

At Moberly Lake, a version of the Round Dance occurs in late autumn after a successful hunt or skirmish.  At this ritualized victory celebration, the drummers have heated or cooled their drums to tune them to perfection.  The drummers then sing, basing their songs on the fundamental tone to which they have tuned their drums.  The songs often use a rhythm of long, short, long, short.

In this rhythm, the thumb pulls the tuning strings on the long  beat and releases slightly on the short beat, with the richest array of harmonics and partials occurring just as the strings are released between the beats. . . . Striking the centre of the drum produces more harmonic partials, while the areas of the periphery of the head produce more inharmonic partials when struck (Pearson 1987, 22).