Buying Guide: World Percussion
Percussion instruments have existed practically since the dawn of human culture, with drums unearthed that date back to 6,000 B.C. Beyond their use in music, many people have imbued percussion instruments with great symbolism and healing power, making use of them in sacred ceremonies and rituals.
Percussion instruments can be classified as tuned or untuned. Untuned percussion includes hand drums, shakers, and other instruments that produce sounds and effects of undefined pitch. Tuned percussion includes xylophones, marimbas, steel pans, and other instruments with definite tonal ranges.
Just about every culture has evolved its own distinct percussive traditions. With growing global trade and the spreading popularity of the world music genre, a greater variety of authentic, high-quality percussion instruments are available than ever before.
Many of the most vibrant percussion traditions trace their roots back to Africa and percussion remains an integral part of today’s African cultures.
The djembe, a large goblet-shaped drum, is thought to have originated among the Mandinka people of West Africa. The djembe has gained great popularity in the West recently, as it’s a very dynamic drum capable of a wide range of tones from deep thumping bass to crackling high slaps. The loud volume of the djembe allows it to cut through loud mixes, and it is also easy to haul around. Traditional djembes are generally carved of wood and are fitted with a goatskin head, while modern djembes may use synthetic materials for both the body and head. Djembes are usually played with the hands, although sometimes they are played with one hand and one stick.
The talking drum, or tama, is a drum whose pitch can be changed by squeezing the vertical strings that run alongside the drum’s body. The drum is played with one hand and a special curved stick, and is said to "talk" in the hands of a skilled player.
The thumb piano, often called the "mbira" or "kalimba", is a melodic instrument that uses "keys" made of flattened nails or other metal with a gourd or carved wooden body.
The Udu is a clay pot-shaped instrument native to Nigeria with a hole in the side. Playing the drum’s clay surface with one hand while moving the other hand over the hole yields an astonishing range of sounds and effects. A variation on this drum called the Ibo is made with a variety of different materials.
The slit drum, also known as a log or tongue drum, is a wooden drum with cut-out surfaces that produce different tones when struck with mallets. These drums have a warm, resonant sound with great projection.
The Gonkogwe bell from Ghana is a large, two-toned bell that’s played with a metal or wooden stick.
Congas are probably the best-known Latin hand drums. Of Afro-Cuban origin, they were originally constructed using wood staves, and were outfitted with calfskin heads. Today congas may use shells made of either wood or fiberglass, with either skin or synthetic heads. If you play with a heavily amplified band and need a lot of volume, you should consider congas made with synthetic or fiberglass shells for their louder volume and projection. Congas made with wood shells have a slightly mellower, rounder tone.
While they are often sold individually or in pairs, a full set of congas usually consists of three drums: the tumba is the largest drum; followed by the conga; while the quinto is the smallest drum (although in some sets it’s the same size as the conga) and is tuned the highest. Some sets also feature yet a smaller conga tuned to a very high pitch, called a super quinto or requinto. If you play out often with your congas, you’ll want to invest in conga gig bags or cases to keep your drums looking and sounding their best.
Timbales have their origins in the iron vessels used to ship sugar cane juice. Modern timbales are usually made from steel or brass, and their intense cutting tone provides an ideal solo voice for Latin, rock, and fusion styles. Steady accompaniment patterns are often played on the side of the metal shell, or cascara, with the free hand providing accents on the drums. Traditionally a wood block and a cowbell or two are mounted on the timbale stand for additional sounds.
The cajon is a wood percussion box that is believed to have its origins in Peru, where African slaves substituted wooden shipping crates for the native drums they had played in their homeland. The cajon also developed in Cuba, where fish crates and dresser drawers were used as percussion instruments. In Spain the cajon is used to accompany flamenco, pop, and fusion music. The cajon is played by sitting on it and striking the front surface. The back has a hole cut in it for resonance, and the front striking surface is loosened around the edges to permit slap tones when played near the edge. Some modern versions incorporate a snare that adds a buzz to the cajon’s sound.
The dombek (also variously called the doumbek, dumbak, darbuka, derbeki, tablah, or tombek) is the most popular Middle Eastern drum. Characteristically played in a horizontal position with the hands and fingers, this goblet-shaped drum produces a wide dynamic range of tones.
The dombek comes in an astonishing range of shapes and styles. Egyptian cast-metal dombeks usually have tunable Mylar heads. They are capable of higher volumes that are audible in loud mixes, with rounded edges on the drumheads that let you play loud with comfort. Turkish dombeks are usually made of thinner metal with tuneable heads.
This style of drum has a sharply-defined rim that gives it a resonant, metallic sound. Some Turkish dombeks have cymbals or jingles inside for added accompaniment.
The frame drum, also known as a tar, is one of the most ancient drums, depicted in images from Turkish shrine room walls that date back to 6000 BC. These drums traditionally have deep spiritual and religious significance. A frame drum is shallow with a diameter bigger than its depth. Goatskin is commonly used for the head, though some have synthetic heads. The drum is held upright in one hand and played with the fingers of that hand, as well as the other whole hand and fingers.
Finger cymbals, also known as zils, zills, or sagat, are round and bell-shaped. These small brass cymbals are worn in pairs on each hand, are struck together with the fingers, and are often worn by dancers.
The tambourine is a shallow drum that comes with or without a head, with jingles around its circumference. Tambourines are popular for many kinds of music and are especially popular in Middle Eastern styles.
While drumming traditions of the Caribbean area incorporate congas, cowbells, and many other instruments used in Afro-Cuban music, the islands of this part of the world have their own unique instruments as well.
Steel pans (also called steel drums), have a bright, sunny sound that conjures up visions of the tropics. Hailing from the island of Trinidad, pans were invented when it was discovered that the dented section of a metal barrel head produced a distinct musical tone. The design was enhanced when players hammered sections of the metal into flat areas with different tunings. Eventually, pan players formed orchestrated bands. Today these bands take part in large musical competitions prior to carnivals on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago.
Smaller steel drums are pitched to specific keys, such as C or G and are tuned to diatonic or pentatonic scales. Large chromatic pans represent the full range of notes.
The traditional music of the six nations (Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland, and Wales) that comprise the Celtic lands makes use of several unique instruments.
Bones are two pairs of curved pieces of bone or wood that are held in each hand and struck together.
Indian classical and film music uses a large range of hand drums, the best known of which are tabla drums. A tabla set consists of two drums, respectively called a tabla and baya. The tabla, or dayan (literally right) drum is the smaller and higher-pitched of the two and is made of wood. The larger bayan (literally) left drum, is usually made of copper or brass. The heads of both drums are made of layered goatskin topped with a black patch made of rice paste, iron oxide, and other trace ingredients, giving the tablas their characteristic sound. Tablas are played with sophisticated finger and hand techniques. Some of the many other Indian drums include the pakhawaj, mridang, khol, and ghatam.
The xylophone is a tuned percussion instrument with wooden bars of various lengths with resonating tubes beneath them. The bars are tuned chromatically, laid out in a format that’s close to that of the piano keyboard. The instrument is played with plastic-, wood-, or rubber-headed mallets. Xylophones are used in a broad spectrum of musical genres, including classical, jazz, and ethnic styles.
The marimba is pitched an octave lower than its cousin the xylophone. The bars of the marimba are traditionally made of wood, though synthetic materials are increasingly used. The bars are wider and thinner than those of the xylophone, giving the instrument a more resonant, richer tone. Various forms of the instrument were developed independently in Africa and Mesoamerica, where vibrant folk marimba playing traditions remain.
Many hand-held percussion instruments cross cultural and musical boundaries and are used in myriad styles. These instruments are also well suited for singers, guitarists, and others who are not primarily percussionists.
The cowbell is used extensively in Latin and world music. Many rock and jazz drummers add drum set cowbells to their kit. Innovative drummers such as Horacio Hernandez have incorporated the cowbell into the drum set with a foot pedal bracket that allows the bell to be played with a standard bass drum pedal.
There is a virtually unlimited array of percussion instruments for creating special effects in every musical context.
- Chimes are hung vertically and are glissed with the hand to produce ethereal, evocative sounds.
- The triangle is a triangular steel bar that’s suspended from a stand or hand, and played in syncopated patterns with a metal striker. The hand holding the triangle manipulates the amount of resonance.
- The Latin Percussion Vibraslap is a widely used rattle effect that simulates the sound of the Brazilian quejada, an instrument made with the jawbone of a donkey.
- Jam blocks are synthetic woodblocks made of high-strength plastic.
- The Latin Percussion Afuche/cabasa uses loops of steel around a textured wood and metal cylinder to simulate the scraping sounds of the shekere, the bead-covered gourd from Africa.
- The bell tree is made of numerous brass bells vertically pole-mounted that may be struck or glissed for a variety of effects.
- The Factory Metal Percussion company designs and creates unique metal percussion instruments that create a range of sizzles, jingles, cymbal tones, and bell sounds.
Finally, no article on world percussion would be complete without mention of a couple of recent related developments in world drumming phenomenon, drum circles and wellness drumming.
A drum circle is simply a group of people gathered in a circle to make music with percussion instruments. Though drummers have doubtlessly gathered together to jam and make music together since ancient times, drum circles have developed in large numbers in western countries only since the mid-seventies. Percussionist and teacher Arthur Hull is credited with helping to spread and provide a useful template for drum circles. Hull has conducted thousands of drum circles around the planet, both for aspiring hand drummers and rhythm fans as well as for companies such as Apple Computer, Microsoft, Sony, and Toyota. It has been discovered that participants in drum circles learn valuable lessons about teamwork and cooperation.
The other important trend in percussion is that of wellness drumming. Drums have traditionally been used for eons in sacred ceremonies and healing rituals. In modern times, as part of the field of music therapy and the increasing awareness of mind-body interactions in healing, drumming has again come to the forefront. Drumming has been shown to boost the immune system, to relieve stress and post-tramatic stress disorder, and to be helpful in the treatment of symptoms of chronic diseases like Alzheimers’s and Parkinson’s, or strokes.
Many hand drums and percussion instruments are used for drum circles and wellness drumming: congas, bongos, and dombeks are fine. The djembe is particularly well-suited for these kinds of uses, with a wide range of tones and dynamics that even a novice can create quite easily.