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Sri Lanka has had many types of Drums in use from ancient times and reference to these is found in the classical literature, i.e. Pujawaliya, Thupawansaya and Dalada Siritha. Although around thirty three types of drums are mentioned, today one could find only about ten and the rest are confined only to names.
It is believed that some of those drums that are in use today i.e. Dawula, Udekki and Thammattama had their origin in other Asian countries. This may be true, but today as a result of these drums being in use for a very long time, they have acquired their own shapes and materials used for the construction are also indigenous. These drums are therefore unique to Sri Lanka and the rhythms played on them are also found only here.
A study of drums would reveal that there exists a very close relationship between the drums and the people. Beating drums have been very extensively used at different times of the lives of the people, i.e. at birth, death, healing ceremonies, rituals, religious festivals, in temples, war and even to dispel one’s loneliness. Drums have become a part of their lives.
Drums were used for purposes of communication. During the time of Singhala kings, all Royal proclamation was made to the people by the drummers. Even after Sri Lanka came under the British Rule, this practice was continued. It was normal to see in the village a drummer who came to a place where people normally converged, having a Dawula hung on his shoulder. He would beat the drum with a stick and then make the announcement.
There are special rhythms used for the purpose of communication. Anyone who is conversant with these could easily identify what was happening at the time. There was ANA BERA (Bera is the Singhala word for Drum) which is a proclamation or an announcement from the king, VADA BERA indicates the taking away of a criminal for beheading, MALA BERA played while a dead body is taken to the grave and RANA BERA, drums used by the armies when they went to war.
The main types of drums in use today are referred to by the following names:
1. GETA BERA
2. YAK BERA
8. HAND RABANA (Ath Rabana)
9. BENCH RABANA (Banku Rabana)
10. DANDU RABANA
All Sri Lankan drums are turned out of wood and the sides on which they are played are covered with animal skins of many types depending on the drums. Even the wood they use for each drum is different. It was normal to have a sort of ceremony when starting work on the making of a drum, but it may be that at present due to the whole process taking a more commercial outlook, these little ceremonies are ignored. During the early days, the drums were made for special people, those who would use them during their life time and leave for their children. Even today one could find drums more than a hundred years old. Such people for whom these drums were made also earned their living by using the drums. During the time of Sinhala kings, villages were offered as rewards for the drummers who played regularly in the Buddhist temples and the Royal Palace.
There are special trees from which the wood is taken for the making of a drum. Some of these trees are, EHELA, KOHOMBA and JAK. The latter produces fruit which could be eaten boiled, cooked, fried or as a fruit when it is ripe, juicy and sweet. In the JAK, there are two varieties, one referred to as WARAKA and the other as WELA, the difference being that the former when eaten raw as a fruit is thick and hard while the latter is all mild and soft. The taste of the fruit is also different. For the drums, they prefer the wood of the WARAKA tree.
Normally when one of these rituals needs a new drum, he would first go in search of one of the trees mentioned above. People wish to obtain a tree that has grown in a village or near a waterfall. For some special reason, they would be more interested in a tree that had been stuck with lightening. Once the tree is found, they will first clean the place around the tree, remove all shrubs etc, pay homage to the tree and then bring it down at an auspicious time. Tree trunk is cut and removed, buried under the earth where there is moisture for few days. The tree is taken out, cleaned and measured and the drum is turned out according to the rules.
For all Sri Lankan drums, there are four sounds based on four main letters. With these four sounds, many more interesting and complicated sounds could be produced. These four are, THATH, JITH, THONG and NANG. All rhythms played on drums have the above sounds as their base. A student in the traditional way has first to go to his master to learn the art of playing the drum. For this an auspicious moment is important. The student will first pay homage to the Buddha, then pay homage to the teacher and at the auspicious moment, the teacher will play a basic rhythm which the student will repeat. The student will in this manner be introduced to twelve such basic exercises.
The student will gradually learn more intricate patterns and finally master the MAGULBERA which is a special rhythm played for special occasions. This is also referred to as Ceremonial Drumming. This takes place during the performance of the KHOHOMBA KANKARIYA (a special ritual), marriage ceremonies, birth, placing the eyes on the statutes of Buddha and usually at the commencement of any important event. This drumming is sometimes accompanied with the lighting of a brass lamp using oil from the coconut. People in the villages and even in the urban areas have great faith in this ceremonial drumming.
Dance and drums, they have a very close relationship. Where there is no drum, there can be no dance. Drums of course could be played without a dance. All rhythms played on these drums for many centuries were all preserved in an oral tradition, but recently as these should be preserved for generations to come attempts have been made to put theme in writing. These efforts however, one would say are not so successful or satisfactory.
Sri Lanka has three main dance traditions. They are Kandyan or Hill Country, the Low Country and the Sabaragamuwa. These are really dance forms practiced in the hill country, coastal belt or the low country and the mid country. All three traditions have their own types that should accompany the dances. They are obviously chosen from the ten types mentioned earlier. More descriptions about these drums are given below.
GETA BERA (the Kandyan Drum)
This is the main instrument that accompanies the Kandyan Dance or the Hill Country Dance. The drum is turned out of the wood from EHELA, KOHOMBA or KOS (JAK) tree. The drum tapers towards the ends and the right side is covered with the skin of a monkey while the other is covered with the skin of a cow. The long strings that go across the drum from side to side to tighten the two skins are turned out of Deer hyde.
YAK BERA (Law Country Drum)
This drum is referred to by many names, RUHUNU BERA (part of the law country belongs to the province known as Ruhunu), DEVOL BERA (This refers to a ritual performed in the coastal regions) and GHOSHAKAYA (means producing sound). This drum normally accompanies the dances of the Low Country which have their origins in the many rituals performed at healing ceremonies involving the propitiation of demons and other supernatural or mythical beings as Yakshas and Rakshas. The drum is turned out of the wood from KOHOMBA, EHELA, KITUL or, MLLA trees. It is a long cylindrical drum played with both hands. The openings on the sides are covered with the stomach lining of a cow. This lining is very thin and needs careful handling as too much of pressure on the side will make it split. The two sides are tightened together with strings that go from side to side and these are turned out of cattle skin.
This drum which is very important for the Sabaragamuwa Dance tradition has also a prominent place in the many ceremonies in Buddhist temples. It is much shorter than the Yak Bera and a significant feature in playing the drum is that the right side is played with a stick referred to as KADIPPU and the left with the hand. This is also the drum used in ANA BERA (for communication). The wood for it is taken from KITUL, EHELA, JAK, MILLA and KOHOMBA trees. According to early records this drum is said to have been turned out of the wood from the Red Sandalwood Trees. The body is decorated with paint and sometimes with silver and brass coverings. Such decorated drums could be seen at the famous Esala Festival in Kandy where the Sacred Tooth Relic is taken in procession. It is also customary for drummers to move in rhythmic patterns while playing the drum. In the Buddhist temples certain rhythms are played on this drum during the mornings, mid day and evenings and the villagers could easily identify the type of ceremony that is on at the time in the temple. Very often this drum is accompanied by the Thammattama (the twin drum).
This drum consists of two parts and while the high sounds are produced by the right one, low sounds are produced by the left one. Wood for these drums comes from KOHOMBA, EHELA and JAK trees. The drum is played with two sticks with circular ends and they are made of KADURU. THAMMATTAMA is generally not played with equal pressure. There are special rhythms played on this drum. E.g.: to invite people in to the temple, invite Buddhist priests for Pirith ceremonies or Alms giving.
The smallest drum among these instruments is the Udekkiya. This is played with one hand while the other hand is used to control the sound by applying pressure on the strings. The drum is like the hour glass and is turned out of the wood from EHELA, MILLA and SURIYA. It is painted with lacquer while the sides are covered with the skin of iguana, monkey or goat.
This is similar to the Udekkiya, but bigger in size. This is used mainly for rituals. The drum is hung on the shoulder of the player and the sound is controlled by pressure on the strings.
This is the only drum turned out of clay. The single opening is covered with the skin of a monkey, goat or iguana. It is hung on the shoulder of the player and played with both hands. Normally used during harvesting and it is shaped like a pot.
Rabana is about one foot in diameter and is turned out of wood from JAK and MILLA. The skin used to cover the main opening is that of a goat. Some performers are very skilled and they keep the Rabana revolving on the tip of their fingers. Normally playing of the Rabana is accompanied with singing.
This is the biggest among the drums used in Sri Lanka. It is normally placed on three or four wooden supports each about one foot in height. The players sit around the drum and play it with both hands. A small fire is sometimes lit under the Rabana to keep it warm and this helps it to give a better sound. This drum is commonly used for New Year festival and there are many beautiful rhythms played on them. It is usually played by women but sometimes males are also
Senior Lecturer (Retired)
University of Visual and Performing Arts