Stop in at any Garifuna festivity, any sporting event, festival, church ceremony, nine night (Beluria) or just a regular social gathering, and you will be sure to hear the vibrating sounds 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 their drums and in some cases their music is dictated by it. Depending on the nature of the gathering, there might be a need for only two drummers, 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 drums have a smaller diameter which produces a high pitch sound, while the Segundo drums have a bigger diameter which produces that heavy bass sound. The bass drummer maintains a consistent rhythm throughout a song 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 in the center of the trunk with dry cohune. Today, a chainsaw does the trick. Traditionally, one log would only produce one drum, but with the chainsaw, accuracy of cutting allows for drum makers to garner several drums (each smaller than the other) from one piece of log. After hollowing, the log is then chiseled 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 skin is used for the bigger Segundo drums. The skin cured in the sun. 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 prepped 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 ti-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 cover tightly 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 shells 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.
Information courtesy The Rodriguez Family, Dangriga Town, Belize.