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!
Below are some Garifuna items and jewellery pieces made by us from sea glass collected in Belize.