Some Instruments Used In Traditional Music

There was a time in Dominica when music was inextricably woven into the fabric of the everyday lives of the people of the island. It was a functional art, being utilized in activities of work, play and worship.

Today music is less functional and for the most part exists as a means of entertainment. Even so, the instruments used then may still be heard in the production of the traditional music of Dominica.

The Drum

The Drum is perhaps the most popular of musical instruments used in the production of traditional music in Dominica. It represents a strong, almost mystical link between the island and Africa. African slaves were banned from using the drum since it was a powerful medium of communication among them and was frequently used to successfully incite riots and revolts.

It was after emancipation that the drum was played freely and openly. It was taken out onto the streets at Carnival time giving the drummer an uncanny power over hundreds of revellers at one time. In the fields, men worked with rhythmic precision to the beat of the drum and rich antiphonal chanting. On moonlit nights, bele dancers traced intricate, sometimes frenzied dance steps to its beat and young and old played and sang.

Although there are quite a number of styles of drums, basically the instrument is made up a body which is formed out of a wooden keg, metal can, or a hollowed tree trunk. The head is made up of animal skin (very often the skin of a female goat), stretched over one end of the body of the drum and held in place by a metal or wooden ring. When the head is knocked with the hands or with sticks, the skin vibrates thus emitting a sound. The system which is used in some drums like the TambouBele, is a device of rope and pegs that keep the skin stretched and in place. The tighter the skin, the higher the pitch of the sound produced.

The Bamboo Flute

Man playing bamboo flute

The bamboo flute is a transverse wind instrument made from a length of bamboo stalk approximately 30cm. long and 2cm. in diameter. It is closed at one end and has seven holes; one that the player blows into and six that he uses to produce various pitches as he opens and closes them.

Very often the bamboo flute is played as a solo instrument. It may be accompanied by drums or in certain instances by the percussion section of the accordion band.

The Instruments of the Accordian Band (Jing Ping)

Jing Ping instruments

The accordion band is the most popular ensemble of folk instruments on the island of Dominica. In recent times, it has been fondly referred to as the Jing Ping band - the name being an onomatopoeia resembling the finely textured sound that is produced by this delightful ensemble.

The Accordian

The accordion, although not indigenous to Dominica, forms an integral part of the traditional band. A retention of European culture, it is a portable aerophone sounded by reeds and the only melodic instrument in the ensemble. It has a set of treble buttons on the right and a set of buttons for chords on the left of the bellows. The more commonly found accordions in Dominica are single action ones, meaning that there is one reed per note, sounding either on the press (when the air is squeezed out of the bellows), or on the draw (when the air is drawn in).

In the band, the accordionist is called upon to establish the melody then to improvise extensively on it.

The Tambal

The tambal is a frame drum, rather like a very large tambourine, utilizing a stretched skin over a wooden body. The metal jingles interspersed along the body of the instrument make for a more lightly textured sound as the player drums. The instrument is held sideways (with the head facing right) and is supported between the lap of the player and the thumb of the left hand which hooks into a loop of twine attached to the instrument. The fingers and heels of both hands are used to produce very syncopated rhythms.

The Gwaj

The Gwaj is a cylindrical idiophone made from a sheet of tin, the surface of which is pierced with holes. It is sealed off at both ends and contains seeds, beads, or tiny stones. A beater, fabricated with three or four lengths of binding wire fitted into a wooden handle is used to scrape and knock the instrument's rough surface as the player, holding the instrument by the tin handle, manipulates the seeds within, producing a series of complex rhythms.

The Boom Boom

The boom boom is a length of bamboo (about 60cm. long and 5cm. in diameter) which is opened at both ends. The player holds the instrument at an angle of about 45 degrees to the floor. He blows into the instrument producing a booming sound. The use of syncopation gives the music bounce and drive.

Traditional Instruments

Extracted from: Dominica's Arts & Culture Magazine, Division of Cutlure, 1994
by Pearle Christian