Resounding creativity

Resounding creativity

slit instrument

Resounding creativity

A fascinating musical instrument I recently saw in a museum dedicated to musical instruments from across the world was the slit drum.

A percussion instrument found in Oceania, Asia, Africa and the Americas, slit drums are nothing but hollowed tree trunks slit lengthwise to form an ‘H’ pattern on them and sounded by the beating of sticks. 

In an effort to alter the pitch of the sound produced by the drums, the edges of the slit are carved in varying thickness. It speaks much for the creativity of the ancient man!

Slit drums come in varied sizes and shapes. If the smallest one, made of bamboo, is traced to Malaysia, large ones have been traced to Africa, where they are also used to transmit messages over long distances by reproducing the inflections of human speech. 

Each country has its own version of slit drums. However, drums in the shape of animals and human faces are most common. While the slit drum used by the Aztecs in central Mexico, known as teponaztli, is like a log of wood with highly stylised carvings on it, China has its own version known as wood block and the wood fish.

Though varying in size and shape, the one common feature all these slit drums share is the fact that they are ritual instruments. Believed to possess magical attributes, these drums are often associated with death and resurrection.

In the Aztec culture, on certain occasions, the blood of sacrificial victims is poured into the drum to appease the gods! Such is the importance these ancient cultures accorded to this ubiquitous musical instrument. And, no occasion, be it happy or sad, is complete without the playing of slit drums, where several instruments are combined to play melodies. Traditional dance and music sessions, including poetry readings, come to life with their beats.

However, don’t be under the mistaken impression that these drums do not figure in the modern music scenario. They have been modified and used in every way possible by musicians now. For instance, the Chinese wood block was used extensively in Chinese opera orchestras for its clear sound and later adopted into the Western orchestra!