November 28, 2002

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Gourd goods
Yellow Springs High School student Rebecca Guest and her classmates turned gourds into drums during a workshop earlier this month. See story, page 12.

YSHS students make drums out of gourds—
Students drum up music

On a recent chilly November afternoon, everything seemed warm and cozy inside the art room at Yellow Springs High School, young people chatting easily with each other as they worked on their projects.

“It’s a little bit like quilting,” said teacher Carla Steiger-Meister. “We sit around and talk.”

But the talking ceased as another sound began, softly at first, then louder. A drumbeat, steady and firm, filled the room. The young people worked silently as a young woman played her drum, the ancient sound somehow satisfying.

“This is the coolest project I’ve ever done in school,” the drummer, Zoe Hayes, said when she stopped playing her instrument. “I always wanted a drum but I didn’t want to pay $200.”

Now Zoe has her drum. Better yet, she made it herself, right down to the tiny designs she created first with pencil, then burned into the drum with a wood-burning instrument. She was one of the first students to complete her drum, during Steiger-Meister’s recent two-week African musicology and drum-making workshop.

“It’s a teacher’s dream come true,” said Steiger-Meister. “It’s what I strive for. It’s incredibly joyful for me to see the students so totally involved.”

Throughout the workshop, local African musicologist Geof Morgan taught the students the ancient art of making drums from gourds.

Using bottle gourds from California, the students spent a few grueling days cleaning their gourds, then created designs in pencil. Next, they carefully burned the designs — ranging from their names or the names of their friends to intricate patterns of diamonds or squares — into the gourds before they fastened goatskins over the top.

Then it was time to start drumming.

Last week, the young people worked intently, knowing they’d perform with their creations on Wednesday, Nov. 20, at an all-school assembly on African musicology. The assembly featured lectures by Dayton artist Bing Davis on gourd history and Morgan on African musicology and a brief performance by the Ya-Ya Drum Band.

Steiger-Meister’s interest in gourds grew from a workshop she attended two years ago in Dayton.

“To me the universality of gourds is amazing,” she said. “In different cultures they’re used as musical instruments, or religious artifacts, as bird houses, or as storage containers. Every culture has its own use.”

Gourd drums are some of the world’s oldest instruments, said Steiger-Meister, who appreciates the drum-making workshop as an opportunity to focus on African culture.

“When you address a different culture it’s eye-opening for all the students, but it raises the self-esteem of those connected to that culture,” she said.

Making drums from gourds also offered her students an experiential experience of art, which, Steiger-Meister said, is the sort she prefers. Her students recently finished a lesson on action painting, during which students dropped and splattered paint on a cloth, a la Jackson Pollock, using “everything but a brush” to apply paint to canvas.

While she dreamed of offering her students an opportunity to create the gourd drums, Steiger-Meister was daunted by the cost — about $70 per student for all the gourds, hides and hardware. However, a grant from the Yellow Springs Endowment for Education picked up the bill.

“I can dream big dreams,” said Steiger-Meister. “But I have to have someone else to make them come true.”

An African musicologist for 20 years, Morgan said he values making drums from gourds because the drums have more resonance than wood drums. Plus, “you don’t have to cut down any trees,” he said.

The gourds’ versatility of shape also suits drum-making, as illustrated by the handmade instruments Morgan brought to class, including a hunter’s harp, a bow harp, a lyre and a lute. “The violins, all the string instruments come from this,” Morgan said of the lute, modeled on one of the world’s most ancient instruments.

Morgan said he began drum-making out of necessity.

“Whenever I decided I wanted an instrument and I couldn’t find it, I made it myself,” he said.

Now, he teaches drum-making classes and sells some of his handmade instruments at Gemini World Music & Art in Yellow Springs.

As the bell rang to announce the next class, several students moved out of the room, but others stayed put as they continued to work on their drums.

“I’ve noticed,” said Steiger-Meister, “that they’re reluctant to leave.”

—Diane Chiddister