Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection


41 items


Contextual Associations The nagara is a pair of kettledrum membranophones of the Indian subcontinent. It is historically and at present employed in several distinct domains of Indian life, from royal courts and religious shrines to folk dances and film music. In many of these domains it is used in conjunction with oboes (such as the sehnai; listen to audio #1) and horns, and is almost always played by male musicians. Nagara drummers are often considered specialists, and in some folk/tribal settings only members of certain castes play the instrument. Depending on the context, the nagara used come in a wide range of sizes with their bowl-shaped shells made of clay or metal. Unlike the nagara pictured here, generally the two units of the pair differ in size, sometimes significantly. Description The shells of the nagara pictured and described here are each constructed from seven pieces of sheet metal (probably iron). (See detail #1.) The base of the shell is a shallow bowl about two inches deep pounded out from a single sheet of metal. The sidewalls of each shell consist of five overlapping wedge-shaped pieces of sheet metal riveted to one another, the bottom bowl, and the shell’s circular rim, which is made from a 1.5 inch wide band of sheet metal. The interior surface of the shell can be coated with a mixture of tree resin and vermillion (Dick et al, p. 564), though it is not possible to confirm that the drums pictured here have been treated in this way. A small hole at the bottom of the shell (detail #3) can be utilized for modifying the tension of the drumhead by pouring water through it. Each drum’s head is made from a circular hide (probably of ox or buffalo) the edge of which is rolled over upon itself (or possibly a flexible hoop of rawhide) to form a frame with a diameter that is slightly greater than that of the shell’s rim. Rawhide lacing is sewn around this hoop frame in a zigzag pattern (see detail #2), and then another very long length of rawhide lacing is used to connect this membrane hoop to a counterhoop, in the form of a ring made from twisted rawhide, on the bottom side of the bowl-shaped shell (detail #3). The drum maker creates an elaborate pattern of W- and X-lacing patterns that runs over and around a second rawhide counterhoop situated around the middle of the shell. Before the heads were attached, the metal shell was painted brown. After head attachment, the membrane hoop, the counterhoops, and the lacing were also painted brown. This gives the impression that the drum shell is made from clay rather than metal. Two wooden stick beaters are used to strike the drums (gallery #1). Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production Nagara, depending on their size and context of use, can be either mounted across the shoulders of a horse or camel, hung from the waist of the drummer, or rest on the ground in front of the performer. Usually the two drums in a pair vary in size, the larger of the two producing a lower pitch and a more resonant sound than the smaller one, as is the case with the instrument heard on audio #1 (the nagara pair pictured here does not produce sounds as contrastive as those heard on the clip). Typically, when played with the instrument resting on the ground, the larger drum rests on its side to the player’s left, while the smaller one is placed upright to the right (as seen in gallery #1). One beater is held in each hand of the performer. Origins/History/Evolution Derived from the Middle Eastern naqqara (the same source as for the European nakers also found in this collection), the nagara was most likely introduced to the Indian subcontinent during Arab conquests in the 8th century CE. The place of the nagara in Indian court life was further strengthened during the Delhi Sultanate after 1192 CE, when it was incorporated into the naubat, or the palace ceremonial band. (Dick et al, p. 564) As the use of the naubat ensemble in the court waned in subsequent centuries, a new context for this tradition evolved at Muslim shrines, at which it can still be experienced today. When exactly the nagara began to be utilized in in folk/tribal contexts is unclear. Its use in Indian films since the middle of the 20th century is intended to conjure associations in the minds of the viewers with court, religious, or folk settings in a film’s storyline.


Contextual Associations The kundu is a single-head hourglass drum of Papua New Guinea. “Kundu” is a generic name for such drums, but each of the hundreds of tribal groups on the island of New Guinea and many of its surrounding islands has a local name for this drum type (for example, see the entry for the tifa of the Asmat people). Based on morphological and decorative clues, the kundu pictured and described here very likely originated amongst the Iatmul people of the Middle Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea. A number of similar Iatmul drums can be found in museum collections around the world (see Bibliographic Citations below), and some of these are named kwangu (or kangu or kwang-gu), which would appear to be the term for such kundu drums in the language of the Iatmul. On this specimen, human faces, perhaps representing ancestors, on the handle (detail #4) and in the otherwise open fields of the drum shell (detail #5), and abstract representations of the crocodile (the gaping jaws oriented toward either end of the shell as seen in gallery #1), itself considered to by the Iatmul to be their progenitor, are carved into the shell’s surface. A decorative design motif that seems to appear frequently on Iatmul instruments found in museum collections is the alternating curvilinear spiral as seen on the “crocodile snouts” of this drum (detail #6). This same motif is found on the Iatmul side-blown horn (kut) in this collection. Amongst the Iatmul, the kwangu is strongly associated with males and their ceremonial life. It is used, for example, to accompany sagi, songs with texts that recount the exploits of ancestors and list totemic names (an excerpt of such a ceremony can be seen in the video “Melanesia: Papua New Guinea: The Iatmul: Song of the mythical ancestors,” accompanied by a kwangu displaying decorative elements similar to the instrument pictured here. Since the latter half of the 20th century, Iatmul carvers have created objects, including drums, intended for sale to tourists visiting their villages. This is perhaps how this drum began its journey decades ago from an Iatmul village, passing through various collectors’ hands, before ending up in this collection. Description The shell of this kundu is carved from a solid block of hardwood using metal tools and fire to produce its tubular hourglass form and thin walls. This form includes an integral handle (detail #3). Further reductive carving with metal tools is used to produce the symbolically-rich surface decoration. One end of the drum is left uncovered (detail #2), while the other is covered with a head made of a lizard skin that is glued with tree gum or other natural substances to a 1-inch wide exterior band around the rim of the opening (detail #1). Small black pellets of beeswax, used for fine tuning the sound quality of the drum, are attached in a circular pattern around the center of the head (three of these, and signs of three further ones now missing, are visible in detail #1). There is no indication of this drum having ever been painted; several of the kwangu in museum collections are decoratively painted. Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production If seated, the kundu player places the drum across his lap and strikes the drumhead with the open palm of the hand nearest the drumhead. If standing, the drum can either be held with one hand by its handle or cradled horizontally with one arm across the player’s chest, leaving the free hand to strike the head. In general, as well as amongst the Iatmul, a beater or beaters are not used to sound the drum. Tuning is accomplished by heating the head over fire and by applying the above-mentioned tuning pellets. Origins/History/Evolution The origin of hourglass drums in Oceania is lost to history. It can at best be pointed out that this form of drum is distributed primarily in Melanesia (Papua New Guinea and the islands to its north) and Micronesia (primarily the eastern island groups, including the Marshalls). King, McLean, and Montagu (2014, p. 715) imply that, in Oceania, this form of drum spread from Melanesian cultures to Micronesian ones. It does not appear possible at this time to link the evolution and spread of these Oceanic hourglass drums to those of other regions of the world—primarily Africa and South and East Asia—where they are found.