04 Apr Modern Frame Drum Culture as Preservation of the Ancient World
Over the past two or three decades, more and more professional percussion artists in the United States have begun to incorporate frame drum into their skillset, giving rise to what might be called a “modern frame drum culture.” In this article, I explore how modern frame drum culture might function as a platform for the preservation and dissemination of musical and cultural knowledge from the ancient world.
The Rise of Frame Drumming in the Modern World
Contemporary interest in frame drumming among percussion performers in the U.S. was largely initiated in the 1980s and 90s, perhaps as an outgrowth of the world music craze that was spreading throughout the Western world. During this period, visibility (and audibility) of the frame drum increased as a growing number of frame drum artists started to offer workshops at professional conferences (such as PASIC) and incorporate the drum into their world music and jazz fusion projects in the United States and Europe.
One of the first (if not the first) U.S. percussionists to gain international recognition as a solo artist on frame drum was Glen Velez, who is now a four-time Grammy award winner and considered the father of the modern frame drum movement. Today, a number of professional percussion players in the U.S. and Europe have become world renown modern frame drum artists. You can find a list of frame drummers on N. Scott Robinson’s website here.
Modern frame drum culture allows artists the freedom to develop a uniquely personalized style of playing this class of instruments. Players challenge the limitations of the physical mechanics of the drums themselves, continuously innovating new methods of playing and new sounds that can be produced by the drums. Drum manufacturers such as Cooperman have also joined the action and created frame drums with new and unique sonic possibilities, such as their 99 Slapback Drum, a versatile frame drum that has been accessorized with shaker beads.
Additionally, performers combine, juxtapose, and recontextualize diverse drumming techniques in creative ways across multiple frame drum types, even those which are traditionally not played in these manners. It’s not uncommon to hear contemporary Western pop rhythms juxtaposed with more traditional patterns associated with the drum. Or you might hear traditional rhythms combined with creative sounds such as scraping the drumhead, snapping fingers on the edge of the drum, using brushes on the head, and tapping the wooden rim of the drum.
Modern Frame Drum Culture as Preservation of Musical Knowledge
But if the aesthetic focus of modern frame drum culture is the combination and juxtaposition of diverse techniques and sounds, how can modern frame drumming serve as an avenue for the preservation and dissemination of specific bodies of musical knowledge? Well, as much as modern frame drummers focus on creating a uniquely individual style and innovating new sounds and techniques, they also learn to play these drums through the rhythms, hand motions, holding styles, or fingering patterns associated with the frame drum’s native musical context.
Since the primary method of learning to play frame drum is one-on-one instruction with an experienced expert, modern frame drummers typically absorb culturally-specific knowledge about conventions of music practice from their teachers. For example, initial lessons on riq almost always includes some instruction in traditional Arabic rhythmic modes. In learning riq, one of the primary percussion instruments in Arabic and Turkish classical takht ensemble, players are exposed to rhythms that reflect the application of the classical Arabic system of rhythmic modes (ex: maqsoum D T – T D – T –). Performers also learn two playing styles (each with a different holding position) that reflect the performance practices associated with the classical takht ensemble: a loud playing style for climactic moments during full ensemble passages and a soft playing style for moments of accompaniment.
Also, I suggest that a large body of musical knowledge is transmitted via the physical mechanics of playing the frame drum itself. Music instruments both facilitate and limit the choices we make as performers of those instruments. The size, shape, weight, and material of a frame drum often determines the holding position of a frame drum, and, thus, the techniques used to make sound. As students learn to play different frame drums, they also inevitably absorb information linked to those drums about holding positions, fingering patterns, and intuitive rhythmic patterns. The difference in the physical construction of different frame drums can also account for the wide variance in frame drum techniques across the globe.
Finally, the modern frame drum culture is unique in that many artists make a conscious effort to disseminate information about traditional music cultures through both discourse and practice. For example, Layne Redmond published a book that explores the role of women frame drummers in the ancient world. Similarly, N. Scott Robinson, an active ethnomusicology professor in San Diego and chair of the North American Frame Drum Association, has a website with frame-drum related resources, which includes an extensive list of frame drummers from around the world. David Kuckerman, a talented percussionist based in Germany, has compiled several video podcasts on several different traditional frame drum techniques, performed by representative culture bearers from around the world.
Diverging from Preservation
But because frame drum is so often linked with notions about “traditional” or “ancient” music practices, it’s important to acknowledge where the modern frame drum movement diverges from preservation and enters the realm of imagination. From this perspective, I find it useful to orient modern frame drumming culture as an outgrowth of the “world music” phenomenon of the 1980s and 90s. During this period, world music came to represent, in Veit Erlmann’s words, an “aesthetic form of the global imagination, an emergent way of capturing the present historical moment and the total reconfiguration of space and cultural identity characterizing societies around the globe” (1996: 468).
And, interestingly, in the case of modern frame drumming, a nostalgia for “tradition” and “ancientness” in many ways represents the reconfiguration of time in addition to geo-cultural spaces. Many artists situate their approach to modern frame drumming within narratives on the music of the ancient world. For example, Layne Redmond (1952–2013) offered performances and workshop-retreats modeled around female frame drumming rituals in the ancient Mediterranean world. Similarly, clinics and workshops performed by Glen Velez often invite audience participation in Indian techniques of rhythmic recitation rooted in the ancient Indian gurukula system of oral transmission.
This interaction of contemporary frame drum techniques with our perceptions of music in the “ancient” world contributes to our interpretations of this style of frame drumming as “modern.” And the juxtaposition of contemporary rhythms and styles with applications of traditional rhythmic patterns and seemingly “ancient” music practices also works to build audience perceptions of the artists’ credibility and authenticity.
But what I think is the biggest contribution of modern frame drumming is that it exposes audiences to and helps preserve, even if only at a recontextualized sonic level, the rhythmic practices of music cultures from different regions and times around the world. And the responsibility that most modern frame drummers feel to educate audiences about these music cultures and practices is working to generate a broader awareness among audiences that might not otherwise encounter these drums or performance techniques.