Published on September 21, 2010 by Aquarius
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The most important musical instrument in Native American culture is the drum. While different tribes have many varying traditions regarding the drum, music was often used to tell stories and histories of a particular tribe, and drums were often the centerpiece of these performances.
Other than pictographs, such as cave drawings, and relics of the instruments themselves, the earliest documentation of drum use among Native American tribes occurred with the arrival of the European explorers in the 15th century. However, archealogical findings of drawings and the instruments themselves date back as early as the 7th century.
The first known styles of drumming began in the Great Basin area of the Southwestern U.S. and were simplistic in its style and rhythm.
Some scholars have theorized that vocalizations found in the music of Siberian tribes may have originated with people who migrated from Asia, via foot traffic that came across the Bering Strait.
This pow-wow drum was made by a Navajo Indian drum maker.
Native American drums come in all shapes and sizes. Some were smaller and carried with a rope or twine. Others were larger and sat on the ground on stumps and some were mounted on a stand, like a gong.
Drum skins were often made from the hides of animals such as the deer, elk or buffalo hide, and some feature rope strands that were tied around the sides and were hung like strands down the back. Skins were sometimes painted to show a story or motif. For example, Alaskan and Aleutian tribes had drums that featured pictures of falcons, eagles and whales. Northwest Indian drums show depictions of the sun, moon and fish.
Since drums are the oldest instruments known to man, they have come to symbolize different elements of the natural world for various tribes. A common theme among tribes is that the drum symbolizes a human or animal heartbeat. Iroquois and Yaqui tribes linked their drums to the water and constructed some drums that had water inside them. The water often acted as a resonator, and the drum changed its pitch as to the amount of water it contained.
Percussion was often a communal activity, and drums were used in circle gatherings as well as ritual dances.
In some cases, particularly among Maidu, Aztec and Hopi tribes, foot drums were used.
Other Percussive Instruments
Percussion use varied by region. For example, rattles played a key role in Athabaskan songs while striking sticks played an important role in Eastern tribes, such as the Choctaw, Cherokee and Creek Indians.
Many of the rituals and music practiced by tribes are still in use by native descendants. These practices have been widely studied and examined by musicologists, folklorists and anthropologists, who have attempted to categorize and record music, through the Library of Congress and online projects.
Native American music has influenced nearly every style of modern music, including rock, reggae, jazz and hip-hop. Research has traced the lineage of various types of drumming to its cultural roots. For instance, the playing of bongos and congos (hand drumming) was found to have originated from the Afro-Cuban slave trade, while stick-drumming can be traced to many different cultures, including Native American.