Keeping the beat
( 2004-01-14 08:54) (China Daily)
During festival celebrations in China, playing drums of various sizes is one of the traditional ways of expressing people's joy. For centuries, making drums has been an important profession among Chinese farmers.
The Song Family in East China's Shandong Province make the various drums used in yangko dances, but the Chen Family in Central China's Henan Province preserve an even older tradition.
Stomping the drums
Song Qingpei, 60, has been making drums with his family for decades in Caigusong Village in Huimin County, about 100 kilometres to the northeast of Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province.
"This skill has been passed down in our family for several generations,'' said Song.
The village's history can be dated back to the early 15th century in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when their forefathers left Zaoqiang of North China's Hebei Province and moved some 150 kilometres to the east to settle down in the village.
Most of the 45 households living there share the surname Song. In making drums, stamping on the drum hides is an important procedure, hence the village's name "Cai-gu-song'' (Songs who stomp on the drums).
The village has long been famous for its drums. Professional art troupes, schools and enterprises from in and outside Shandong go to the village for drums, providing the villagers with a prosperous business.
In the village, each family is a small but complete work unit. The fame of the village's drums comes from their strict adherence to the required standards set for materials and manufacturing procedures.
Ever since Song Qingpei and his younger brother Song Qingfeng followed their father and uncles in making drums nearly half a century ago, they have rigidly followed the ancient drum making traditions.
Every spring, the village will dispatch capable men to find a dozen cubic metres of good-quality mulberry trunks. The trunks are split and put in the courtyard to dry before being thoroughly dried out using fire.
While the wooden frame is important for a drum, the crucial part is the hide surface. For this part, the Songs use the hides of local oxen, which Song Qingpei says must have "just the right tensile strength and thickness.''
Song said that the blood in the hide and any remnants of meat and hair must be cleaned away thoroughly so that the drums will not develop a strange smell when beaten hot.
The vital part of the job comes when the hide is stretched onto the wooden frame of the drum. With several people stretching it, one or two men will stand on it stomping their feet repeatedly.
With each stomping, the hide will expand a little and the stretchers will quickly take up the slack. The difficult thing is to make sure that every part of the hide is stretched at the same rate. This must be done if the drum is to endure the powerful beating and produce a deep, resonating, earth-shaking thunder for a long time to come.
"That's the secret of our lasting success,'' said Song Qingpei proudly.
Since fresh ox hides are hard to preserve and most customers visit the village during winter to prepare for the coming Spring Festival celebrations, the villagers concentrate on making drums during the winter.
There are many types of drums made in the village. Hand-drums, waist-drums, war-drums and, the most famous of all, big drums.
The big drums require higher quality materials and absolute mastery of technique, and the manufacturing process also requires more people.
Song Qingpei's father had four brothers, and two of them made drums with him. With Song Qingpei's generation, more than 10 cousins are experts in drum making. This gives them an obvious advantage over the smaller families in the village.
Song recalls that once the men of his family gathered together to make a giant drum with a diameter of 2 metres. The hide alone cost the same as an ordinary ox and they had to search far and wide for a suitable one.
"We could make even bigger drums, if we could get large enough ox hides,'' said Song. Adding that only a whole hide has the strength required for the big drums they make. Although water buffalo hides are larger, they don't produce a good sound.
Song's village is less than 30 kilometres away from Shanghe County, which is the origin of the famous Guzi Yangko Dance, one of the three main genres of yangko dancing in Shandong.
During the Lantern Festival, which falls on February 5 this year, the farmers in several counties around Shanghe will stage yangko dance contests.
The drums, played by strong young men, provide a powerful beat for the four types of dancing: women waving their colourful fans; Kungfu fighters brandishing wooden sticks; young women walking on stilts; and clowns with painted faces.
In Central China's Henan Province, another family are involved in making drums and have a source of large hides.
In June 1997, a giant drum 3 metres in diameter arrived in Beijing for the grand ceremony celebrating the return of China's sovereignty over Hong Kong.
The drum was made by five brothers surnamed Chen in the village of Chencun, about 10 kilometres to the east of Luoyang.
Made from a single cow hide, the drum is 0.97 metres in height, which coincides with the year 1997, when China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong.
"The big drum was a breakthrough for our family's tradition of drum making,'' said Chen Gangchao.
Chen's elder brother Chen Yichao added that the family business dates back to the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).
"Our family contributed drums for the celebrations at the enthronement of Zhao Kuangyin, founder of the Northern Song Dynasty,'' said Chen Yichao.
In the ancient days, huge drums were used at ceremonies or when imperial ministers arrived at the court. Thus their production standards were very high. Ancestors of the Chen Family used to make drums for the imperial court. Today, the family still carries on its long tradition of drum making.
"My grandpa made drums under the brand name 'Wenchenghuo,"which was quite famous in Central China,'' said Chen.
Just like the Song Family in Shandong, the five Chen brothers regard their adherence to traditions of quality as the key to their success. They use only the finest hardwood, which is sawn into planks of even thickness. Then they are glued together on the wooden frame. The rim is planed smooth and the surface is polished.
While a drum's body is taking shape under the men's hands, the women members of the Chen Family are boiling, polishing and preparing the giant cow hide.
After putting the hide onto the drum and stretching it, a young girl will stand on the drum jumping repeatedly until the hide is stretched to the right elasticity.
"When we brothers work together, if the wooden parts aren't dry enough, we take a break and let them dry a bit longer. We must guarantee the quality,'' said Chen Yichao.
The drum produced in Luoyang are famous not only for their high quality, but also for their huge size. This is perhaps due to the fact that 13 dynasties chose Luoyang as their capital and the drums in the imperial courts have always been as large as humanly possible.
Following the imperial traditions, folk entertainments in Luoyang also feature giant drums.
In Shandong Province, strong men play small hand-held drums in some folk celebrations, while it is common in Luoyang to see women playing giant drums that are so heavy that it takes two or more men to move them.
Under the dexterous hands of the women drummers, the giant drums can produce diversified sounds.
In Shandong, the Guzi Yangko Dance originated from harvest celebrations. But in Luoyang, women playing giant drums can be traced back to the ancient court. While the former carries the vitality of its grassroots origin, the Luoyang giant drums represent the magnificence of the imperial court.
The big drums of Luoyang not only resound in their own locality, they are heard across the nation, with over 10 types of drums.
According to Chen Yichao, they are still making the chest drum which was popular in the Tang Dynasty court dances. Another drum is still used in the lion dances of Guangdong and southern Fujian provinces. In the Yuju Opera of Henan Province, when the heroine Mu Guiying comes onto the stage, another drum that only has hide on one side must be played.
In today's Luoyang, producing big drums isn't just a career, it also
represents a cultural tradition that goes back over 1,000 years. The local
children learn to play the drums and dance with them. At festivals, performing
troupes from all the villages of Luoyang gather in the city to demonstrate a
variety of drum dances. The big drum, which was once used to serve only the
imperial family, is now generating increasing happiness for the common
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