Garifuna drum-making lessons at Warasa show you the basics of making a Garifuna drum. Chisel, plane and sand a solid log into shape. Prepare the deerskin hide and fix it to the drum using jungle vines. Make the natural wood pins to tighten the ropes and add the bass or snare wires.
It is an intensive and time-consuming process to make a drum from start to finish. Book a longer lesson if you want to learn more of the steps.
We will show you how it is done the traditional way and the modern way. Prepare yourself to use or watch your teacher using power tools and get dusty! You can simply watch or get hands-on.
Garifuna drums are made by hollowing out solid trunks of hardwood, and are hence genuine solid wood drums. The hollow is traditionally started by burning hot coals in the centre of the trunk, but these days, unless some termites have chewed out a hollow for us, it is often started with the help of a chainsaw!
Once a rough hollow is made, a long chisel is used to chisel the log into a cylinder, and is then planed and sanded smooth. Holes are drilled around the bottom of the cylinder for the ropes to pass through when it is time to add the skin.
Deer skin is the most commonly used skin, and it must be soaked, the hair scraped off, and then rinsed, before being cut to the correct size. Natural vines (called teetay in Belize) are used to create two rings that fit snugly over the top of the drum cylinder: these rings are what holds the skin in place with the aid of the rope. When they are cut from the jungle, the vines are very flexible, but they become rigid after a few hours, so the rings must be formed to the correct shape and size soon after they are cut.
The rope is one single length that is threaded through the holes around the bottom of the drum and then through the upper ring which pulls down on the skin. The rope is tightened by turning hand-carved wooden pins, which causes the skin to be pulled taut.
The skin is still wet when it is first fixed to the drum, but the drum with its skin must then be left in the hot sun in order for it to dry. Once it is totally dry, the top side of the skin is then sanded smooth while still on the drum. The rope is then adjusted and the pins tightened again.
Once the skin is tight enough, the snare strings or wire are added. For the Segunda drum, string is used to make a double snare wire; for Primero, the McDonald family like to use a few strands the wire from inside a bicycle brake wire cable, as it is strong and does not rust. Wire produces a harder sound than string, and better suits the Primero drum than string.
The cylinder of a Garifuna drum can last decades if looked after and varnished regularly, but the skin must occasionally be replaced. Ray’s father, Mario, has had the same mahogany Segunda and Primero drums for over 40 years!
Dugu – Painting by Belizean artist Benjamin Nicholas
Listening to many Garifuna songs, they are very up-tempo. My Scottish indie-rock loving music tastes assumed that they must therefore be quite cheerful – maybe about catching lots of tasty fish a particular day. But that’s not how Garifuna music works – there is a particularly up-tempo Garifuna punta song that is all about when Hurricane Hattie almost completely destroyed many towns and cities in Belize:
Wa ba bumalali, Sili, lanarime dan (You’ve raised your voice, Syl, how terrible the storm). Wa ba bumalali, nirüa (You’ve raised your voice, my child.) Nabugu yali ubüu (The earth has been brought low) Wa wama ferudun, wonweguü yebe (Let us beg forgiveness, we nearly died)
Larugan aningira hüruha ubüu (At dawn the earth lay in sadness) Laramaüahandügü wagüa, giüngiuüahündügü wagüa (We could only stand around, just sucking our teeth). Higüu waban? Barüla Hati (Where is our house? Hattie has taken it)
Garifuna people believe in ancestral spirits, and that their ancestors continue to talk to them and guide them after death. For this reason, death is not considered such a sad time, and the wake of a well-known Garifuna person in PG is one of the biggest parties to be found in any given year, with all night drumming, dancing and singing (plus a little gambling to round things off).
The most important cultural ceremony that the Garifuna conduct is the Dugu, a large ceremony that takes place in the local Garifuna temple that can last over a week – I was honoured enough to attend 24 hours at one of Ray’s family’s dugu. A Dugu is held whenever there is some kind of trouble in the family, and the ancestors ask for a Dugu through the Buyei – the spiritual leader of the Garifuna temple., in order to heal the illness or seal the family rift that has occurred. The entire extended family is expected to attend, no matter what country they live in. The drumming during Dugu is especially important, with the sacred Dugu rhythm being played on large segunda drums only, which have been blessed and should never leave the temple. Daily offerings of food are prepared, with each ancestor’s favourite food being specially prepared. Once the appropriate drumming, singing and blessings have taken place, and the ancestors have had their fill, the living family can eat, with any left over food being ceremonially buried. Drumming, singing and dancing goes on through the night, with the drummers only sleeping for one or two hours here and there. Incense such as copal (termite nests!) burns throughout the Dugu. At certain stages some family members may be possessed by the spirit of an ancestor and either start dancing in the same style as the ancestor, or may pass on some oral advice or message.
Ray told me that when he went to a family Dugu after our trip to Scotland, his grandfather told him (through the Buyei) that he had followed us, and described in detail some of the places we had visited. Sometimes evil spirits make an appearance during a Dugu, and they most be exorcised by even more spiritual drumming, dancing, singing and blessings. While I may be a sceptic when it comes to anything supernatural, I totally respect Ray’s spiritual beliefs, and have certainly witnessed for myself the healing effect it has on a family during troubling times.