Post #3 03/20/18
GOURD WATER DRUMS
What makes the gourd water drums so unique is that they are very large gourds (which is a plant) and the fact that they are floating in large bowls/containers of water. They produce very soothing sounds when struck with a soft tipped mallet. In ancient times the musicians used either a larger gourd or a large clay pot filled with water to hold the gourd instrument.
Many people ask me if the size of the water container is what causes the different sounds of the gourds. Amazingly it is not the container. The container does however allow the gourd to resonate while floating in the water. The tonal pitch comes from elsewhere. It comes from three characteristics of the gourd: its size, wall thickness, and how much air is trapped between the surface of the water and the inside, or cavity, of the gourd. You can change the pitch slightly (by at least three steps, from a C note to an E note for example) simply by allowing some of the air to escape from under the gourd – the less air trapped the higher the pitch, the most air trapped offers the deepest tone the drum can produce. The mallet or beater is a simple straight branch with some type of covering on one end – the end used to strike the floating gourd. By changing the materials used to cover the end of the mallet you can also affect the sound.
Something important to share is that sound is vibration moving in all directions through space - a wave/pulse of energy. We too are energy so we each have specific waves pulsating at different frequencies throughout us. These pulses fluctuate depending on a number of factors – our emotional, chemical, and mental state of mind, as well as our reactions to our immediate environment to name just a few. External energy waves can be complimentary to us as well as dissonant or uncomplimentary.
Here is something I have personally experienced that is relative to the idea that sound can be complimentary to people. I have a good number of gourd water drums in my collection and on a few occasions I have been asked to demonstrate these ancient drums at outdoor events. At one such event I placed about 6 to 8 water drums of different sizes (and pitch) in their water containers on the grass. I explained to visitors what they were and allowed them to play the different drums. Throughout the day people would experiment with the sounds of the drums; first this one then another until they played them all. Typically their comments would be something like, "I really liked the sound of this one. It is so soothing to me." I realized that different people selected different drums and this made me curious. After thinking about it I came to the conclusion that what they were commenting on, or reacting to, were the varying vibratory frequencies of the drums. Each drum had a different vibration or frequency. Since each of us are different, with different frequencies pulsating through us, it made sense to me that what they had discovered were complimentary energy waves from a specific drum and that drum became their favorite. The complimentary vibrations made them feel good.
Sound vibration has been researched for its healing properties and that research confirms what the ancient healers knew intuitively – that they were right in using songs, drums, and chanting in their healing ceremonies because they do indeed affect us physically as well as mentally and spiritually. Sound can also be used as a conduit to reaching a meditative state and in a meditative state we are able to commune with the Creator.
When people are exposed to the soothing sounds of the gourd water drums for the first time they respond with a smile, as if they have just rediscovered a vaguely familiar and heartwarming past experience. The sounds of the water drums resonate within them and reawaken their ancient memory.
Post #2 01/08/17
Below is a short excerpt from a book I am writing on the topic of native/indigenous instruments of the Mexica/Aztec people. The segment below is on one of the most important instruments - the Huehuetl drum. Please note: this is not the final copy - revisions are continually being made and I will also include illustrations and reference images in the final book.
The HUEHUETL DRUM – A drum that represents the heartbeat of the earth.
In most cultures around the world drums are featured prominently in ceremonial events. They represent the heartbeat of the earth. The Huehuetl drum is a very important and powerful instrument for the Mexica people. There are three sizes of this drum. Listing them from smallest to largest they are: the Huehuetl, Panhuehuetl, and Tlapanhuehuetl drums. "Hue" in the Nahuatl language translates to mean respected and/or wise, so Huehuetl would translate to mean something very ancient, very respected, and/or very wise. The Huehuetl drum is also known as the Grandfather drum.
The upright, vertical, Huehuetl drum is carved from the trunk of a tree. In the case of my two drums, the wood used to create them came from a Parota (Huanacaxtli) tree in Mexico, and since it is part of a tree it is symbolically connected to the Earth through its roots. Now this is an important concept to understand because the Earth is considered a feminine energy. In the Nahuatl philosophy, all things that exist are created by two energies – we understand and refer to these two energies as being either masculine or feminine. These dual energies are also associated with the Creator. In order to create music, or to initiate the pulse of the Huehuetl drum, the musician calls upon his masculine energy to connect with the Earth (the feminine energy). Keep in mind that it takes the two energies to create. Now this does not mean that a woman cannot play the Huehuetl drum, it only means that a woman will also need to call upon her masculine energy. Every human possesses these two energies – all things posses this duality. This concept is at the foundation of the indigenous philosophy of duality.
Most Huehuetl drums are decorated and carved with symbols, glyphs, and images that reveal specific information important to the musician or clan, or relative to a specific ceremony. Both my Huehuetl drums were created by master carver Agustin Rodiles – an artist who for decades specialized in carving beautifully detailed native instruments like these.
On top of the Huehuetl drum is a stretched animal skin - elk skin in the case of both my drums. The musician strikes the top of the drum with his hands creating various rhythms and beats as required when directing dancers, other musicians, or singers. Traditionally, small wooden pegs are inserted at a slight angle downward into the upper exterior rim of the hallowed-out core of the trunk of the tree. Once the skin has been prepared and soaked overnight in water it can then be stretched over the pegs securing it in position. As it dries the skin will tighten. Once tightened, the Huehuetl is ready to play.
At the base of the drum there are three openings in the shape of stacked triangles pointing downward. These three openings allow the sound to escape so that the sound of the drum can be easily heard over the sounds of other instruments and dancers. These openings also allow for a small fire-holder to be lit and placed on the ground within the drum so that during cooler temperatures, when the drum head loosens up it can be retightened by the heat of the small fire.
I wondered about the use of only three legs when symbolically the number four is so important to native people. As I gave it more thought I was reminded of an experience I had at La Universidad Nahuatl during a demonstration workshop on the symbolism, meaning, and practice of grinding corn on the *Metlatl (the Metate). As I listened to the instructor deliver her lesson I noticed that supporting the Metlatl, under it, were three legs. When I asked why there were only three legs and not four (again the reasoning that the number four was an important number) she responded by saying that there are four legs. Now I was confused because clearly I could see only three legs. So after a brief moment of silence between us, and the class, she finally gave me a more thorough answer. She said that the reason there “are” four legs is that the woman working with the Metlatl is considered the fourth leg – she becomes one with the Metlatl in order to create and in this case it was to create sustenance, food.
*Metlatl: The ancient grinding stone made of volcanic rock consists of two parts: the grinding platform (Metlatl in Nahuatl and more commonly known today as Metate), which is supported by three stone legs and has a slightly inclined, curved surface; and the smaller stone (Metlapilli in Nahuatl and La Mano in Spanish) which is used to push down on the (dry or cooked) corn while grinding it against and across the surface of the platform.
Before I offer more information on other parts of my Huehuetl drums I have one more comment on the triangular shapes forming the openings (negative space) between the legs. I have seen these same shapes used as an identifier in the codices representing the roofline of the building known as the Kuikakalli (Cuicacalli) - the House of Song and Dance. I believe this is the reason the triangular shapes continue as a design element of in the Huehuetl drums today - that shape is a reminder and reference to the importance of the Kuikakalli.
In the Kuikakalli students were taught the ceremonial dances, how to play the instruments, to write poetry and the importance of continuing to hand down the symbolism and philosophical knowledge associated with these cultural and artistic expressions. Additionally it was the only school where both genders attended and participated together.
One thing to note regarding the musicians who played the ancient Huehuetl drum is that in the ancient codices they are depicted playing the drums using their hands. These same musicians were also positioned in the center of the dance area and surrounded by numerous dancers who moved and danced around them. I interpret this form of organizational arrangement to be a reflection of how sound and vibration travel through space - as a wave - a pulse emanating in all directions from a central point of origin. Visualize the reaction of a pebble being dropped in a lake. You will see waves of energy visibly traveling on the surface of the water in the form of circular rings moving outward. From your point of view this is a two-dimensional expression. In reality this energy is moving is all directions. Such is the pulse of the Huehuetl drum.
Today most drummers use smooth wooden sticks about 1 inch in thickness and about 12 inches in length. The sound produced, using the sticks, is louder and offers a more dynamic effect especially for spectators. I was told by a friend of mine, Lazaro Arvizu Jr. (an Aztec Danzante in Los Angeles, California), that the reason for using sticks today as opposed to using hands is because today there is more ambient noise, city noises, that surround us and to cut through this aural congestion louder drums are needed. Years ago I was at the Zocalo in Mexico City during the annual Founding of Mexico-Tenochtitlan ceremony when I heard another version of why the drummers use sticks instead of their hands. I was told that during the early colonization period (mid-to-late 1500’s /early 1600’s) the Spanish priests had forbidden the practicing of all native ceremonies. To be caught participating in a secretly held indigenous ceremony resulted in the harshest of punishable reprimands – sometimes even death. For a Mexica drummer, it meant the cutting off of both hands. As a way of honoring those drummers who suffered the loss of their hands, today’s traditional drummers acknowledge and honor them by using sticks as a metaphor for playing without hands or as a reminder of the suffering those dedicated drummers endured for continuing to maintain their traditions in order to preserve the knowledge, wisdom, symbolism and philosophy of our ancestors.
Post #1 02/16/16
Why Native/Indigenous Knowledge Is Important
I share indigenous knowledge in the music, poems, and narratives I write. I have been doing this since 1995 and I have visited and shared native knowledge at over 300 K-12 schools across the United States. Students and teachers alike have enjoyed what I shared and found the information "relevant, important, enlightening, and inspiring" to coin a few of their comments. Most teachers, as well as parents, recognize the value of culture and the arts.
One of the goals of my work is to instill a sense of pride in those genetically connected to the native cultures of this continent. Having a healthy sense of pride is, I believe, a solid foundation on which we can build a strong and meaningful life. Being respectful of nature, discovering our gifts/talents and developing them to a very high degree, being forthright, honest, and fostering a sense of integrity as well as discipline are all components that are continually expressed in native oral tradition stories. Oral tradition stories contain life lessons. When you can teach life lessons in a manner appropriate and tailored to an individual, where they immediately see the relevance, then there is a much greater chance that the lessons learned will remain in their conscious thoughts for a longer period of time - assisting them in making wise choices and decisions throughout their life. Plus, they will hand down this time-proven knowledge to their children and grandchildren. This is essentially what culture and heritage is all about.
For those listeners that are not connected, genetically or spiritually, to the native cultures of this continent, the messages I try to share, and what I want them to gain from my presentations, is an awareness of, and an appreciation for, the beauty, wisdom, and intelligence that the indigenous peoples of this continent have attained – to recognize their contributions and to see the differences in order to become aware of the similarities. This is the true value of programs that share culture.
When you look up the definition of the word “culture” in the dictionary it is described as “the quality in a person or society that arises from an interest in and acquaintance with what is generally regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, and scholarly pursuits, etc.” In other words, it is the highest accomplishments of a society! It is the best that a group has attained! Why wouldn’t we want our children and students to benefit from the best of all cultures?
Over the years people from various geographic locations and cultures of the world have shared stories with me about their ancestors’ traditions that are very similar to the ones I share from the indigenous people on this continent! I have come to realize that there is a universal consciousness that binds us all together no matter what part of the world our families come from. By learning about a particular culture, your own or another, you begin to develop an interest in your family’s heritage, traditions, and ceremonies. When this happens, you become more aware of who you are. There is no down side to this and the world becomes much richer for it. True diversity comes only from people with different backgrounds and perspectives working together.
The most important concept to grasp is that cultural programs are not exclusive programs – they are inclusive opportunities to see the world through a different set of eyes and from a different perspective. In order to engage your critical thinking skills different perspectives must be present otherwise (using plants as a metaphor) we run the risk of becoming one huge mono-crop susceptible to disease. What we don’t need in the world is sameness (one thought or philosophy to follow) which has the potential to produce a lifeless homogenized state of mind with very little advancement opportunities – this is not conducive to enlightenment or personal growth. This is a perfect formula for stagnation and/or a gateway to a new Dark Age.
We still have a lot to learn about living with each other and with nature. There are many world cultures today that still maintain and practice their rich traditions and ceremonies. Step out of your comfort zone and experience them. You will discover that the more you learn about a different culture the closer you get to recognizing that we are all one - I am you, you are me / Nehuatl ti Tehuatl, Tehuatl ti Nehuatl (an ancient saying in the Nahuatl language of the Mexica people).
Research and continue to share the knowledge of your ancestors with your family and friends. Find the means to provide for your children what is necessary so that they learn and become proud and aware of their heritage and culture while at the same time becoming productive contributors in their local and global communities. The world will be richer for it.