Welcome to the second drum making tutorial on this website, this time on West African peg drums, in this example Cuban Arara or Haitian Rada drums. For those interested in mounting Lukumí batá drums a lo Cubano check out the other blog entry. Peg drums play an important role in Orisha worship in Nigeria, several different types exist, like the ìgbìn drums for Ọbàtálá or àgẹ̀rẹ̀ for Ògún.
Peg drums are common all over Africa and with slave trade reached the Caribbean and South America. They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes depending on the local traditions. Different techniques exist how to mount the skin on a peg drum. Very basic ones result in drums that are not tune-able once mounted. A more sophisticated technique is illustrated here in this tutorial. This is a contemporary mounting technique creating traditional peg drums, that can easily be tuned. I have seen this technique (with small variations) on Yorùbá drums in Nigeria and also in Ghana, Mali, Haiti and Cuba. It is the peg drum standard of today. We will build a fine sounding drum that suits the needs of today’s percussionist who is into ritual or folklore drumming.
HereI am mounting a Cuban Arara drum set, which is (more or less) equal to a Haitian Rada drum set (photo on the right). Equal in terms of the ethnic origin, which is to be found among the Ewe and Fon people in today’s Benin Republic and Togo (drums from there photo on the left). The slaves who were brought to the Carribean were classified on their arriving into so called nations. The ones who came from the slave port of the city of Alladá (on old maps often written “Arada”) in the former kingdom of Dahomey, were classified “Arara” in Cuba or “Rada” in Haiti. Up to today different ethnic traditions can be distinguished musically in ritual drumming, names like Mahi or Sabalu refer to geographic origins of the Ewe/Fon people and are used for different rhythms. In Cuba the Arara traditions mixed a lot with their neighbors back home in Africa, the Yorùbá. The Haitian Creole people who reached Cuba after the slave revolt play also an important role in this fusion. But enough of history, this is about drum making!
I was researching for the measures of an Arara or Rada drumset, which consists (mostly) of three drums. I had the chance to analyze a set someone brought to Europe and compared it to various photos, videos and information from books. So I came up with the following measures I would consider quite "traditional".
The biggest drum, the Maman or Yonofo or Caja, is played in a tilted standing position and is really huge compared to a modern conga drum. Mine is about 100 cm / 40” in height. Its head has the size of a big tumbadora, around 31 cm / 12” and at the bottom it is about 24 cm / 9.4” wide. The two smaller drums are played with sticks in a seated position. The middle drum, Segou or Wewe or Segundo, is 65 cm / 25.5” in height with a diameter of 25 cm / 9.8” on the drumhead and 16 cm / 6.25” at the bottom. The smallest drum, Boula or Aplinti, is 55 cm or 21.7” inches in height with a drumhead of 20 cm / 7.8” on its head and 14 cm / 5.5” at the bottom.
Use locally grown trees for the drum shells! Especially for peg drums search for the hardest woodtype you can get. The pegs will apply lots of tension directly to the drumshell, as you have to hammer them into the holes later. Soft wood will crack over time - or immediately. I used oak wood.
Your carpenter should not make the shells too thin. You require a strong and durable drumshell that has to resist the peg’s pressure and the upwards tension from the rope. So especially the area where the holes are must remain thicker than usually. Keep in mind that the bass drum is going to be played in a tilted position. Although the shell is thicker at the top, the center of gravity has to stay as low as possible, otherwise it will tilt over while playing (if you do not use a stand). This means that on the very downside of the drum its shell should remain thick and heavy in weight to have it well centered.
I used 6 pegs on the smaller drums and 8 pegs for the bass drum. The pegs I used are 2 cm / 0.75” thick and 20 cm / 8” long. After the mounting half of the pegs’ length will remain outside of the drum’s body, meaning your pegs will stick 10 cm / 4” out of the drum. These remaining length will allow you to tune the drum in the future by hammering the pegs deeper into the body and pull the ring downwards. To avoid the cord to slip of at the tip, the pegs get a little bit fatter, with a small slit carving on one side.
Another point: I chose to do my pegs in a softer wood type than my drumshells are made of. So when you hammer them into the shell later the pegs will give way, and not the shell. My pegs fit exactly into the holes, I could insert them a few centimeters into the holes and get them out again just by using the force of my hand. Even if they are a little bit loose, do not worry about this. Later, when the rope applies tension to them, you won’t be able to move them without a hammer. They will be stuck and wedge together with the shell.
Get your rims nice and smooth using sandpaper, if your carpintero hasn’t done this yet. The holes should be drilled equally at an angle of approximately 40 degrees (I have also seen drums with less than that). The holes are about 20 cm / 7.8” away from the rim.
You need one iron ring for each drumhead, which is the most durable solution. You could also make yourself a rather flexible ring made out of fresh branches from a tree or, as I have seen it in Nigeria, use stuff like fat electric cables. An iron ring will last forever. Depending on what kind of skin you are going to mount on your drums, the ring has to be bigger than your drumhead. Cowhide gets really thick, once you water it, and you also have to get through this narrow space with your cords, so do not make the rings too small.
I wrapped my iron-rings into some layers of gaffer tape, to have a small coating of soft material on it. That’s because the cowhide gets really hard and stiff later, and I do not want the iron ring to vibrate inside and cause a snare effect. This is very likely to happen with cow hide. By applying a soft layer, usually by wrapping some olden textiles around it, you can avoid this. With goat hide you won’t have this problem, as it stays kind of soft compared to cow hide. If your cow skin still has the hair on it and you shave it after the mounting process this also avoids the problem.
As I said I used cow hide for all my drums, as this is what would be used on Arará or Radá drums in the Carribbean, as I have been told, but it is also common to mount goat or calf hide on the two smaller drums. I own an original Ewe peg drumset from Togo with goat skin on all the drums, although the bass drum has a smaller diameter than the Carribbean drums. Water your cow skins at least one day before mounting. It is no problem to soak it for two or three days, just change the water once a day. It should be very soft and easy to handle.
I figured out a method which saves a lot of time and work. Traditionally you would fix the hide with the ring inside onto the drum and then sew it hole by hole, with a kind of huge needle and something to punch through the skin. Very likely you would need another person’s help, keeping the ring at its place. The thick cow skin won’t make it easy to sew either. So here’s a more contemporary method.
Get a transparent plastic foil that does not stretch and cut out a circle. Draw the 6 or 8 segments on it for your pegs, every line stands for one peg. Then wrap it around the iron ring as if it was your cow skin and mount it on the drum. Get it into the right distance, where you want your ring to be later. Push it a little bit downwards not to hit the ring later with your palms while playing. With a felt pen mark where the holes should be. You would just need to mark two holes, one on the upper side to get the right distance for the upper hole, one to get the right distance for its opposing hole on the down side of the ring. Mark a pair or just a few on opposing sides, then you can put the foil back flat on the table.
Using a measuring tape you can draw all your holes onto the foil in equal distance. As you see in the photo above I also drew two circles, on which I marked my holes. Mark one extra pair of holes for your starting point. There you will make the first knot and start the threading later, in a middle distance between two pegs.
On my smaller drums I did three loops with the cords on each peg, on the solo drum I did four loops. So it is three pair of holes or four pair of holes for each peg. Mark the holes in equal distance to the line, which is where your peg should be later.
Then put the foil on the prepared wet cowhide and punch out the holes with a simple small iron tube you can sharpen by yourself or a special punch tool you can get in all diameters in leather supply shops.
As you have to go twice through the same hole with the cord later I additionally punched a small cut into it with a screwdriver, so it was very wide and easy to thread. The cow skin is so strong this does not matter at all.
For the cords get pre-stretched rope, this is an important point. Pre-stretched rope from sailing supply stores does not elongate when you apply tension to it. Cheap rope will lose its tension over time just because the material gets weak. Some types of ropes are even built to stay flexible, you do not want that for your drums. Do not buy rope that has a core and a cover around it, it must be braided into one single piece. I used a 3 mm / 0.12” pre-stretched rope.
With a lighter melt it and make its tip stiff, so you can thread it without a needle or any other tools. Just a small plier might help you later. Calculate the length you will need before you cut it. It is only one long piece of rope you are going to use for the whole drum. Yes, it is a pretty long rope.
Insert your pegs at an equal distance, do not put them in too far yet, and put the skin with the ring on the drum shell. Everything will be very loose at the beginning, this does not matter in this stage. Now it is just about the threading, tensioning comes later.
Make a first knot at the starting point and continue around the drum like in the technical drawing above. You go in through one pair of holes, then around the peg, and finally go back out the same way, through the same hole, then you move to the next pair of holes. Work around the whole drum. You have to pull all the length of the cord through each pair of holes, this is the most exhausting part.
Fix the cords in loops around the pegs, but do not tension it yet. When you are done with the first round, start to tension it and pull out the slack of the rope, now you need a plier. Put the looped cords into an order on the pegs, one after the other, so that they are not crossed or messed up.
When you are done with the second round, do it a third time and pull hard. I did three rounds on my drums, if you can’t get enough, do it a fourth time…
Then make a final knot by slipping the end of the cord through the cord at the starting point and fix it right there. This knot should never again open up.
You can melt the knot down with the lighter and seal it.
Wind some cord two or three times completely around the head right above the ring. This way the overlapping skin is tightened close to the drumshell and will get a beautiful finish.
Then push the skin downwards and fix it with tape or cords. Or cut it around the drum, like on a Conga, but then you will see the rope on top. Once your cow skin is dry, it will be hard as wood. So put it into shape right now and be sure it dries up like that. Let the skin dry for several days, it will shrink and tighten up.
Then comes this part of the mounting process which makes this technique so special. Right now the rope does not apply a lot of tension to your drumheads, you would already have to hammer the pegs into the shell. But the next step will create a lot of tension and will be a challenge for both your material, especially your pegs, and yourself. Don’t lose your patience. Now it is time for treating your peg drum with brute force. Once the drum head is dry, you have to loosen the pegs one by one again. Take out peg number one. Yes, take it out completely. Really. It is no longer easy getting it out, you see?
Twirl up the three or four loops of small cords into one big cord. Be sure to twirl them up equally on both sides. It gets much shorter now, this is where the tension comes from. Insert the peg again, or try to insert it again. It is difficult, as you can not insert the peg at the same angle as before, the angle of the hole. The rope is just too short. Now use your hammer and get that peg into the shell. Yes, you have to get that peg into the shell again. It works, don't be shy.
I know, for people loving drums this hurts, but you have to do it. You will realize why your drum shell should be made out of hard wood now. Continue around the drum, with every peg now it gets more and more difficult. Yes, really. But at the end your drum will be tuned very well. My shell survived, all my pegs survived, the hammer survived, but I have to admit I was not sure sometimes. From now on, if you want to tune it, use a hammer on the pegs. Some tender and light hammer blows pull down the ring sufficiently, it is really incredible.