Thursday, September 23, 2010

And the beat goes on, and the beat goes on

I grinned as I smelled a very fresh corpse in the back of the Land Rover, driving the nearly impassable goat trail from Nkomero Village, heading back to the tarmac road that would take me to Nyanza and on back to Kigali. It was not the fresh corpse that caused me to grin. In fact, there was no corpse at all, but rather a spectacular sounding set of traditional drums made by the best drum maker in Rwanda. The smell will be explained later.

Fifty-six year old Denis (one “n”, pronounced “Denee”) KAGABA has been making the finest drums in Rwanda for 40 years,… as did his father,… and as did his father’s father. His father and his grandfather made and played drums for the Mwami, that is, the King of Rwanda. Each of them also lived within the compound of the King’s Palace (a very large, very well-kept thatched hut) and held the position of “Abiru”, the King’s Secret Keeper. (Now just how hard could that job be? You mean that I get paid for simply keeping my mouth shut? I want that job! Hmmmm, if I tell a secret, I die? Maybe I will just stick to farming and drum making.)

The drums that Denis makes cannot be found in the souvenir shops of the major cities. Yes, those shops offer drums, but they are unplayable novelty toys for tourists. Denis crafts “the real deal”, using a rare, select hardwood from an Umuvumu tree, nearly extinct skills, and weeks of labor. He runs a “Custom Shop,” special orders only. I ordered my drums many weeks ago.

The body of each drum is hand-carved from the trunk of an Umuvumu tree, a very strong tree that is considered a symbol of peace. The bottom of the single piece cylinder is carefully calculated to be exactly half the diameter of the top of the drum. Although the bottom end is also finished with what I would call a playable “drumhead”, I asked and was told in unequivocal terms that the bottom must never be played. Why? “Because that is against our tradition. It would be wrong to do that.” (I have great respect for Tevye.)

The drumheads and the hide strips that stretch and secure them are all cowhide, never from the ubiquitous goats. Why? “Because it is our tradition. It would be wrong to use goat.”

I really like the deep, dark, rich color of my drums,…  and that color gives rise to the distinctive aroma. The drums are stained by blood,… literally painted with lots of blood.
Ahhhh! A smell louder than the sound
A drum is not simply “a drum.” Each has a name. The Big Boy bass (on the right) is an “impuma.” It will rattle your fillings. The middlest guy (but appropriately lined up on the left) is an “igihumurizo”. The little soprano (my term, not theirs) in the middle is an “inyahura”. Say ‘em fast ten times.

Cost? Approximately $100 - $130 per drum, depending on size, paid in advance. Shipping to U.S.? Priceless (too much to think about). 
Jean Paul proudly standing in front of an
Umuvumu tree which will someday bear drums

Is the fine art of Rwandan drum making soon to be lost with Denis. No,… as the tradition continues to be passed on from father to son. Denis has been training is 14-year-old son, Jean Paul, who is very proud to acknowledge that he too worked long and hard on my set of drums.

The caravan from Denis' back to the Land Rover
Many, many thanks to my amazing friend, Sarah Hipp, who hooked me up and made all this happen. Sarah works with LEAF (The Lake Eden Arts Festival, and facilitates for Playing For Change (