The Teponaztli . . . not your grand-daddy’s hollowed out log
Log and bamboo drums are projects that you can make yourself or assign to students.
Throughout much of the Americas, hollow logs were important musical instruments. They were carefully carved from certain tree species to create clear sounds and tuned to produce certain musical notes. Mesoamerican civilizations and probably the more advanced cultures of the Southeastern United States, however, took the hollowed out log to a whole new level. The Mexica (Aztecs) called this important musical instrument, teponaztli. This word is derived from the Nahuatl word for log, tepontli. Other peoples in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean Basin called this instrument such names as mayohuacan and bongo bambu. Their tonal range is very diverse . . . ranging from deep bass thunder to a clicking or chirping sound.
Many of you are probably more familiar with the long, hollowed out logs or wide sections of bamboo used as drums by the Taino Arawaks and Polynesians. They are the primary percussion instrument for Polynesian dancing. The hollow log drums were beaten with sticks. Because the log had a greater diameter on one end than the other, multiple drummers could create distinctly different musical notes. These hollow log drums were either placed on the ground or held at angle, where only a tip of the bottom side touched the ground. Some were hollow on one or both ends. Others had closed ends, but a slit down the middle of one side. The second video below shows the drums used both by the people of the Caribbean and Polynesia. They were identical. In fact, their dances are very similar too.
The teponaztli takes log drums to a whole new level. They were mounted on wooden stands with rubber pads, which enabled the entire drum to resonate with a clear tone. They were played with drum sticks that had rubber balls on their ends . . . essentially the same rubber mallets, which are used to this day to play the marimba . . . another Mesoamerican instrument. The exception to the use of rubber mallets was when a tephonaztli was used to accompany a poem or some love songs. In such cases, the drummer used his or her hands. In the third video below, you will hear the difference between an Aztec log drum being played with hands, wood sticks or rubber mallets.
The primary difference between a teponaztli and your grand-daddy’s standard hollow log was created by carving wooden tongues of varying size and thickness. These tongues produce different musical notes. Mesoamerican teponaztli typically played four or six notes. However, modern teponaztli, fabricated from sawn boards can play up to sixteen notes.
The rectangular teponaztli are typically used by percussionists in orchestras and bands because they create more precisely tuned musical notes, which are more compatible with other musical instruments, when the music is being recorded. The drum song played in between scenes in the hit TV series, IZombie, is primarily the sounds of professional teponaztli’s.
Which kind of wood?
Teponaztli’s are traditionally carved out of avocado wood in Mexico. Avocado is available locally in southern Florida, southern Texas and California, but it MUST be carefully dried before carving. You can order kiln dried avocado boards online. The closes relatives to the avocado in remainder of the Southeast are the sassafras and magnolia trees. Black Cherry, Sugar Maple, Red Maple, Silver Maple, Sweet Gum and Black Gum (tupelo) are also suitable woods for drums, but again, they MUST be dried uniformly dried before carving. I am currently curing a section of a Sugar Maple that was knocked down by the tornado that hit my cabin in March in preparation for carving a large Teponaztli drum this winter.
Don’t have the time or interest to carve a traditional teponaztli or fabricate a modern rectangular teponaztli? Would you believe that they can be ordered online from Mexico. There is no import or sales tax, when ordering musical instruments from Mexico. I have found that the shipping time to the Southeast is no more than ordering from other parts of the United States. The reason is that the Atlanta Airport is the crossroads of the Americas.
The bamboo teponaztli’s cost from $5 to $30. The sawn board teponaztli’s cost from $10 to $50. Hand-crafted long teponazatli’s can cost $40 to $400. Board fabricated teponaztli’s are sold online in the United States by such companies as X8 Drums, Nino Percussion and Remo Percussion, but they are a little more expensive here, because they are actually made in Mexico. When wanting to buy indigenous percussion instruments from companies in the United States, use the search words, “Latin American percussion” or “Folk musical instruments.”
Below are videos of Taino-Arawak, Polynesian and Mesoamerican log drums. The sounds and style of music are surprisingly similar. There just may be a connection!
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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