May 2012

The Percussive Force
May 2012


Sri Lanka's traditional music is dominated by drums of different sizes and designs; drums of varying wood and sounds. The insistent pulse of percussion, the definitive heartbeat of the island, is everywhere to be heard, drifting over jungle and town alike. Watch the drummers as they prance and sway, feel the percussive force as they begin to play.

Richard Boyle

Percussion has always played an integral role in Sri Lankan society. In Buddhist temples, drums herald different rites with varying rhythms recognisable to the laity. They are also performed in particular instances, such as when the eyes in Buddha images are reverentially placed. The monarchy employed drums as a method of transmitting proclamations. Travelling from village to village, drummers used special rhythms - which the inhabitants were also familiar with - to communicate messages. The Kandyan and Low Country dances of Sri Lanka are dependent on percussion. Exorcism rituals, folk dance, harvesting, the celebration of a birth or commemoration of a death, a wedding or a public function - all are punctuated by the beat of a drum.

It is recorded that there were 33 types of drums in the past, only ten of which are extant today, the details of the remainder a mystery. The geta bera (bera is the generic term for "drum"), is the most significant. It is the main accompaniment of traditional Kandyan dancing and plays an essential role in Kandyan wedding ceremonies.

Double-headed and tubular, convention dictates it must be "three hand-spans and three fingers" long - about 71cm. It tapers towards each end where the heads, 21cm in diameter, are located. Geta refers to the knot-like embellishment circling the body.

The distinctive geta bera is slung with straps at the stomach level of the white-and-red costumed and turbaned drummer. Played with both hands, the drum is capable of an infinite variety of tones as the right-hand membrane is tauter than the left and produces a louder, higher pitch. The dynamic and varied sounds of this sophisticated instrument provide an appropriate aesthetic counterpoint to the dance.

Sri Lanka's drums were formerly made of maditiya (red sandalwood), but scarcity has led to the introduction of wood of other species, such as ehela (Indian laburnum), kohomba (margosa) and kos (jak). Drum-makers believe the wood of trees struck by lightning produce the perfect timbre. Once the ideal tree is identified, the ground around it is cleared, homage is paid, the tree cut at an auspicious time, buried in moist earth for a few days and then extracted and cleaned, ready to be hollowed out.

Unlike the geta bera, which is identified with the Hill Country, specifically the Kandy region, the yak bera is a product of the southern coastal region, the Low Country. Long, cylindrical and played with both hands, it usually accompanies dances of the Low Country performed at exorcism rituals to propitiate demons (yak means "demon") and other supernatural beings.

There is an ensemble known as the hevisi, which includes a two drum combination used in Buddhist ceremony and also for secular reasons, such as to announce social functions. One drum is the davula (or dowla), a double-headed cylindrical instrument suspended horizontally from the waist and played with either sticks or hands. As it is comparatively easier to keep strict time with the drum it is also used in military bands for marching purposes.

The tammattama, also known as the "twin drum", is a double kettledrum, the companion drum of the davula. The head of the right drum is larger and less taut than the left. Sound is produced by striking the heads with two curious sticks, the kaduppuva, which are curled into a loop at the striking end. Many kinds of split rhythms, variations and virtuoso drumming are possible on this drum. The English word "tom-tom", synonymous in Western minds with indigenous drums both African and Asian, is derived from an onomatopoeic name prevalent in several languages of the region, such as the Sinhala tammattama. Indeed, in most of the 19th Century descriptions of Ceylon by colonial writers, indigenous drums are referred to as "tom-toms".

Sound is produced by striking the heads with two curious sticks, the kaduppuva, which are curled into a loop at the striking end

The smallest percussive instrument is the udekkiya, a small double-headed hour-glass drum, lacquered in bands of yellow, red and black. One hand is used to play the instrument, while the other varies the pitch by squeezing straps threaded through rings around the drumheads, thereby altering the tension. Sri Lankan drums generally have a strident sound, but the udekkiya produces mellow tones and thus became a domestic instrument.

the smallest percussive instrument is the udekkiya, a small double-headed hour-glass drum, lacquered in bands of yellow, red and black
"It is usually beaten during the recital of a poem," comments John Davy in 'An Account of the Interior of Ceylon' (1821). "At night, it is often heard in the houses of the Singalese; many of whom spend hours listening to it, and are in the habit of being lulled to sleep by it; for ‘nothing (they say) is so tranquilising as sweet poetry, and the gentle Udakea [sic].'"

The final instrument to consider is the rabana or raban, a single-headed frame drum of two sizes. The word "rabana" is of South-East Asian origin; it's a regional drum, used as well in Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar.

The biggest, known as the "bench rabana" is the largest drum used in Sri Lanka, and has to be placed on wooden supports on the floor in order to be played. A small fire is sometimes lit under the rabana to keep it warm, which improves the sound.

The instrument is so big that up to five or six persons, invariably women, can sit round it at the same time and play, thereby producing some complex and striking rhythms. Although traditionally the raban is played with the palms of the hands, some practitioners use their elbows, even their forehead. This drum is commonly used during Sinhala and Tamil New Year festivities in April.

In contrast the "hand rabana" is only about 30cm in diameter, and can therefore be carried and played like the udekkiya. Some performers revolve the instrument on the tip of their fingers, while others play it, with one hand only, to accompany a song. Musical experts claim that it has greater affinities with Persian music and the dances of Central Asia.

There are several ways in which to witness Sri Lanka's drumming prowess, such as attending drum and dance performances. Probably the best method, however, is by experiencing the Kandy Esala Perahera, a procession with a multitude of elephants, dancers, drummers, players of wind instruments, acrobats, whip-crackers, and others, to exhibit the Tooth Relic of the Buddha. The sheer number of drums creates a wall of sound that reflects the hypnotic rhythms, the sonic diversity and the multiple expression of Sri Lanka's percussive force.