Friction Drums

  August 16, 2021   Read time 4 min
Friction Drums
There are many varieties of friction drum. The rommelpot in Flemish and Dutch genre paintings of the seventeenth century was a pot covered with a skin, with a stick tied into a pocket in its center. It was then most commonly a child’s toy.

Similar instruments were used in Italy and Spain for the “rough music,” the way in which a community expressed its disapproval of the lifestyle of a neighbor. Some peoples, for example, in Brazil, reverse this pattern by placing the stick inside the drum, where it often pierces the skin, with a lateral peg through the projecting part of the stick (on the outside of the drum) preventing it from being pulled through. In many places, this type of stick friction drum has been a fertility symbol, the male stick within the female vessel being rubbed to produce its effect. The type with external stick is also often a fertility symbol, the male symbol of the stick trying to push its way into the female hollow of the drum.

String friction drums are also widespread in use, and not only in our orchestras, although they must not be confused with some plucked string instruments that we shall meet later, where it is instead the string that sounds, using a drum as an amplifier (e.g., see figure H.1). With the friction drum, the string, if pulled fast, can scream as well as roar and grunt—all sounds that can well be terrifying when used in mystic rituals. The string is most commonly outside the drumshell and may either be knotted below the skin or pass in through one hole and out through another, so that it is double.

A variant of the string friction drum, one that returns us toward the bull-roarer, is the whirled drum, a small drum whose cord is tied to a stick, called in German Waldteufel or “woods devil.” The stick is usually smeared with rosin where the cord is tied so that the cord rubs on this to produce the sound that would otherwise be provided by the fingers. While this whirled drum is today a toy, the German name suggests the voice of spirits or demons howling from the depths of the sacred grove.

Recent publications have suggested that the locus or place may also have its own voice. Lucie Rault cites the work of French paleologists in some of the painted caves of southern France. They have discovered that different parts of the caverns have their own pitch and resonance, that certain notes and overtones of those notes resonate in different parts of the cavern, and that these parts are indicated by specific markings placed on the walls of the cave. The shaman or priest (for it is difficult to think of him as a musician who “plays” the cave) must first make a sound, but need do no more than whisper in some cases, and that sound is then taken up and transmuted by the cave itself. Did CroMagnon man in the Aurignacian period, some 15,000 years ago, make use of these phenomena? We do not know, but at least these theories make sense of some of the groupings of figures and other details of the paintings in these caves, and once these phenomena took place—and the slightest sound in the right place would create them—it is difficult to imagine that they would not be used. We shall return to the music of the Paleolithic caves in the next section, on the lithophones or sounding stones.

Another drum, a very small one, adds or modifies a voice. If a very thin membrane, for example, goldbeater’s skin or onion-skin, is fixed over a hole in a tube and that tube is then sung into, the membrane will add a buzz to the sound—in some cultures, changing the voice from human to that of a spirit or god; in other cultures, sweetening the sound; and in yet others, creating an instrument. The last of these was the origin of the kazoo bands of the years of the Great Depression and, of course, of our children’s toys and their homemade substitute, the comb and paper. Kazoos have quite a respectable history. Marin Mersenne in 1636 illustrated the flûte eunuque, an instrument that was revived as the Za-Zah nearer our own time. The apparent embouchure was for singing into, rather than blowing across, and fingerholes were provided mainly to make it look more like a flute, for they have no effect on the pitch, although opening them does make a slight difference to the tone quality. Tchaikovsky referred to the same instrument in his “Dance of the Mirlitons” in the Nutcracker ballet.

Both in Africa and in China, we find the concept of sweetening the sound. Chinese transverse flutes have a hole, midway between the embouchure or blowing hole and the topmost fingerhole, that is covered by a membrane made from the thin inner skin of the bamboo and that adds a buzz to the sound. Some Thai duct flutes have a similar hole in the side. In Africa, almost all xylophones have a hole in the side of each resonator covered with a material such as a spider’s egg sac for the same purpose. Other ways in which instruments are used as voices are described in Interlude F, “Messengers.”

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