Asmat Drums

The typical Asmat drum is hour-glass in shape and is carved from a single piece of soft wood, (including the handle). When a suitable tree is found, it is cut to the desired length and is stripped and left to dry for some time. Then, the interior space of the drum gradually hollowed out by burning the core and scraping  out the charred wood.

The top of the drum’s circumfrance is notched and a piece of Monitor lizard skin is fixed to the surface by using a mixture of blood and lime. This blood is usually the blood of the drum owner. The skin is then secured into place by a braided ring of rattan. Small balls of beeswax are placed in the center of the skin which help minimize unwanted vibrations that affect the sound quality. The drummer tunes his drum by briefly holding the top near a fire. The skin dries and thus tightens, there by tuning the drumming surface.

Depending on the ethnic group the drum body can be short or very long. The largest drums are used by the Safan. The smallest drums were commonly used in the past by the Emari Ducur. The drum body can be unadorned, adorned with carvings or very richly decorated.

Many drum handles show four “ear-like”arches in which beads and/or raffia tassles or bows. They are symmetrically arranged on each side of the handle - two up and two down. Some handles actually are carved in the form of an ear with a carved tassel.

The length of the handles, carved decoration and its symbolism are dependent on the cultural uniqueness of each group. The variations range from simple, square shapes to complex combinations of anthropomorphic figurines, bird beaks and other motifs. In recent years a number of carvers from the coastal villages have used hardwood as the drum material. This changed the traditional decorations by allowing for increasingly complex motifs. Hardwood has proved to be ideally suited to carve intricate objects. Asmat drums are to be handled very carefully and are usually stored on a shelf over the fireplace, where they are protected from moisture and pests. Yearts of smoke, soot, and human sweat exposure results in glossy black patina. Drums that exhibit this characteristics can be decades old. Most often they are handed down from father to son. To play the drum, it is held by the handle or wedged between the arm and hip and beaten with just one hand. Other Asmat musical instruments include blowing horns, mouth harps, and  bullroarers.

Asmat drums in Basim