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  • Drum Circle Instruments
  • Bruce Cana Fox (bio)

The drum circle is a rich field for innovation and use of nontraditional materials and techniques to make music [1,2]. Over years of enthusiastic participation in river-camp drum circles, I have made quite a few instruments in order to create different tambours, to avoid the impulse to buy things and to simply show off entertaining stuff.

One of my favorite instruments is a collection of metal containers that I call the river gamelan (Fig. 22), originating from electric blowers used by river-rafting companies to blow up inflatable rafts before trips. After making one good blower out of two bad ones, I had housing left over. I kept the housing because it made interesting noises and put it in my kit of drums and percussion for the upcoming trip's drum circles. One night at the fire, having gotten a beat going, I was passing out some percussion instruments. I held up one part of the blower housing and a little stick. One lady reached out for it; I gave it to her and went on. When the other half of the housing came out of the bag, she wanted that too. Pretty soon she had all my metal bits arranged on the bench beside her. Her groove sounded like Javanese gamelan music. I now keep the kit together and often play the river gamelan in small circles. If I step away, it does not take long until someone else sits down and gets a different sound from it than mine.

Some drum circle beginners are reluctant to hammer out their beats on a big drum. Many, however, will take a shaker and join in. As a substitute for expensive store-bought shakers, I use a plastic cosmetics container, cheaply available at certain big-box stores, and a tablespoon of BB ammunition. I screw the lid on and take one pass around the side and cap with transparent strapping tape.

I once had a tea can with some rivets in it that produced a nice buzzing sound. A friend took it, along with a stick, and customized it in a fit of drum-circle enthusiasm. It looked bad but, when stroked with a crenellated stick, made a rack-a-rack-a sound: a shaker and guiro in one. Also, if one taps on the bottom with the end of the stick and also brings the tea-can shaker down on the thigh, one can obtain a chick-a-tap-a sound.

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Fig. 22.

River gamelan, various drum circle instruments, 2007.

Photo © Bruce Cana Fox

For a totally different effect, when the circle grows quiet, a scratching sound is sometimes nice. Two small sanding disks with coarse grit sandpaper can be manipulated to yield many different qualities of scratch and whiz.

At a camping store, I found a little bicycle bell that, when the cap was turned in either direction, made a very nice high-pitched ringing and could be easily manipulated to maintain some pretty complex patterns.

For the pure joy of showing off at a big drum circle, the gong rack is the big winner. I had restrung a friend's gamelan nipple gongs to their original rack with some sturdy plastic-covered seven-strand fishing wire. This repair led me to the thought that it would be nice to have a sound like that in other drum circle venues. I obtained a set of five Thai nipple gongs by mail order and designed a rack to secure them to an upright drum I had had in use for some years. The rack is just laminated plywood, with cutouts for each gong and holes for the seven-strand supporting wires.

When a spontaneous drum circle forms and conventional percussion resources are unavailable, do not panic. Whatever is at hand can often be brought to bear. I have joined in from time to time with nothing more that a Swiss Army knife and an empty beer bottle. With these one can find a variety of sounds depending on where the bottle is tapped and how it is held.

Bruce Cana Fox
24421 Flaxwood No...


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