Central America: The Garinagu, The art of drum-making

The Garifuna people, located in Central America, are famous for their use of drums and music, that is especially of great importance in religious ceremonies.

Stop at any Garifuna festival, sporting event, festival, church ceremony, nine-night (Beluria) or just a regular social gathering and you will be sure to hear the vibrating sound of the Garifuna drums. The drumming resonates through the air, leading the movement of the dancers and guiding the voices of the singers.

Garifuna drums are the “heartbeat” of the Garifuna culture. Garifuna music relies heavily on drums and in some cases their music is dictated by it. Depending on the nature of the gathering, only two drummers might be needed, but religious ceremonies require three bass drummers. There are two main types of drums, the Primero and the Segundo. The only difference between the two is their size.

The Primero drum has a smaller diameter which produces a high pitch sound, while the Segundo drum has a wider diameter which produces that heavy bass sound. The Segundo drummer maintains a consistent rhythm and so provides the beat of the song, while the Primero drummer is responsible for the faster rhythms. Each Garifuna rhythm has its own style of dancing and singing that goes with the beat.

Garifuna drums are made by hollowing out solid trunks of hardwoods such as mahogany, mayflower or cedar. Traditionally, this was done by burning out the centre of the trunk.

Today, a chainsaw does the trick. Traditionally, one log would only produce one drum, but with the chainsaw, cutting accuracy allows drum makers to garner several drums (each smaller than the other) from one log.

After hollowing, the log is then chiselled into a cylindrical shape and sanded smooth. Sixteen holes are drilled around the bottom of the cylinder and one single hole below. Rope will be weaved through these holes when it is time to secure the skin to the top.

Deer, sheep or goat skin may be used to cover the top of the drum. Cow hide is used for the larger, Segundo drums. The skin is cured in the sun and once dried, it is cut a few inches wider than the surface of the drum. Using a knife, the hair is removed, and the piece is prepared by soaking it in water. It is then stretched out over the top of the drum.

The skin is fastened to the drum using two pieces of tie-tie vines. The vines are shaped in rings that fit snugly over the top of the drum. The skin is wrapped with one vine on the inside and the other on the outside. These rings hold the skin in place with the aid of the rope. Finally, the rope is weaved through the holes at the bottom of the drum and through the upper ring that will pull down on the skin to make it come tight over the top of the drum.

Eight wooden pins are used to tighten the rope. The pins are also adjusted to tune the drums. The finished drum is then placed in the sun to dry, after which, the top of the skin is sanded smooth. If desired, the pins are tightened once again to get the desired sound.

A Primero drum normally measures twelve inches or less in diameter, while a Segundo can measure anywhere from fourteen to eighteen inches or more.

At any Garifuna social gathering you will hear the men beating the drums, while the women cook, sing and dance.

On any given day, the drums are used alongside gourd shakers, turtle shell and knee rattles; and there will also be vocalists telling of the Garifuna history, folk tales and personal stories.

The Garifuna drums generate a rhythmic and dramatic sound that pulsates through the body and makes it almost impossible to not find yourself moving to the beat.

The Garifuna believe in the drum’s ability to summon the powers of the ancestors.  The Garifuna drummer can beat the drums to summon the ahari (ancestral spirits).

Through a unique process, the dancer and drummer communicate with each other. This is manifested by the dancers’ natural flow to the rhythm of the drums.

The vibration of the rhythms of the drums, shakers (sisera), singing voices and lyrics heightens the spiritual senses.  It is a phenomenon where the human and the divine spirit meet in the music.  In the process, the participants acquire strength from communication with, and being touched by the ancestors.  During rituals, the synchronisation between singing and dancing movements generate much energy.  The pulse and the rhythm of the drumming allow a person to lose self-consciousness and become more open to the spirits.  Some participants are more open than others.  When played at certain levels, the music has the capacity to create a certain emotional climate for the devotee, especially those who are skilled and open to the possibilities.

The Garifuna music enables its people to acquire spiritual energy and, at the same time, make the connection with the life force.

There are three drums used in Garifuna rituals. There are two Segundo and one Anigi (heart) drum. The anigi, the lead drum, is placed in between the smaller drums.  This drum represents the present life. The right drum represents the past and the left represents the future. The other two drums are smaller but bigger than the regular Segundo.

Much of the songs are learnt orally, especially during ceremonies. The lyrics of the Garifuna songs show the concept known as duality. In the Garifuna and other African traditions, songs express faith, joy, good, betrayal, abandonment, suffering, beauty and ugliness, all at the same time.  The message in the Garifuna songs promotes acceptance of life for what it is and the belief that there is no reason to give up.

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