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Video: How to make a Maya/Creek drum

Video:   How to make a Maya/Creek drum

The most common Creek drum is a narrower diameter and was about twice the height.  It was the ancestor of the conga drum.  However, this size drum also appears in drawings of Maya and Creek musicians.    There is no mention of the broad Plains Indians drums that one now sees at all pow wows.

The Muskogeans did not play slow boom-boom-boom drum music until they moved out to Oklahoma and made contacts with the Plains Indians.  Their traditional music in Georgia was described as being very fast and syncopated.  The De Soto Chronicles state that an orchestra, playing 32 wind and percussion instruments, accompanied the King of Cusa, when he came out to meet Hernando de Soto. 


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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.



    I love knowing that was written about the greeting of De Soto. I never pictured them doing that!


      Thanks for mentioning us Richard we’re going to need to consult you on the build of the next drums. We’re currently using live oak and white oak. Do you know what tree they used in the southeast before the Creek? Thanks! – Joe Layden

      • I believe that their favorite wood for drums was basswood, because it had a fine grain and was not inclined to crack.


          Excellent I will try to find some. We plan on using cow, bison, or elk hide for the next one so that we don’t have to use taiko tacks.
          I’m also interested in making some of the little known string instruments from the Americas. The Apache Fiddle is pretty easy…but I can’t find any pictures or diagrams of the board zither used by some Amazonian tribes or the tube zither used by the Arawak or Taino. If you know of these or any others please pass them on, we’d sure appreciate it!

          • Keep on googling with different key words! Use the Spanish names for these instruments. I use Spanish search words so much that Google and AOL think that I am a Latin American! LOL


          some people hollow out drums (&canoes etc.) by burning out the core with coals of fire. not being a drum maker, but I suspect the heat from the fire really dried and hardened the wood which would also avoid the cracking. seems it is cottonwood the southern plains use for drums.


            Currently we’re working on five more drums made of white oak. The cores were already hollow but we caught them sooner so there is no cracking and the “walls” are 7 inches thick. They were pre-cut, and one is long enough to be the taller version used in the southeast. The others will have to be played sitting like the rarer version depicted in Incan art.
            There’s no spalting on these, so once I get the walls to about 3″ I’ll turn them over to my friend Kenny, who is of indigenous Panamanian descent and the best woodcarver I’ve ever seen. I hope he’ll let me keep one of them for the farm!
            In the meantime I’ll be keeping an eye out for basswood and cottonwood.
            Thanks Richard!


    some of the folks’ drum was a piece of rawhide on the ground and beaten with a stick, accompany by voice chant. (you know who you are…:o)


      Yes the Spanish seem to have done a better job chronicling a lot of the South-Eastern/ Mesoamerican cultures, probably because they lived there earlier and maybe because they cared more about preserving the history of the people they invaded than the English did. It took me forever to find a proper name for the giant song-bow; there’s no name or even much history of it in English though they were supposedly ubiquitous in the Americans. There IS a name for it in Spanish – the Qijongo or Quijongo.
      Those are interesting observations of the difference between plains and mesoamerican drums.
      Like the Tibetans, Mongolians, and Celts of the northern hemisphere, the North American plains peoples seemed to use only tambourine-like hand drums. whereas the mesoamerican, South-Eastern. and South Americans had huge drums similar to African, East Asian, Polynesian, and South Asian drums (made from hollowed out logs instead of a small, thin wood frame).
      I think the reason for this is two-fold. The aforementioned northern hemi people have a traceable common ancestor through genetics and cultural artifacts; they’re partly descended from late cro-magnon big game hunters who followed mammoth or buffalo across the Berring Straight.
      The Southern Hemi peoples also have a traceable genetic ancestor, and arrived in the Americas much earlier. You can see their unique ancestry in historic bone structure, in the LM3 introgression of certain Amazonian and Cuban tribes, as well as in several mtDNA clusters and Denisovan introgression loci.
      I don’t think the cultural differences are solely because of genetic heritage though. It is also highly impractical to lug an 80 pound huehuetle across the plains chasing buffalo and mammoth. In more sedentary cultures, musical instruments flourish.


    Richard, you mentioned the large drums of modern powows aren’t mentioned in historic records. Are the octagon shaped wood frame drums of the Sioux and Lakota a recent development as well? Thanks.

    • I can’t speak for the Lakota, but such drums were not used in the Southeast. The ancestors of the Creeks played all the instruments that you see today in the Andes and Maya lands . . . except of course, the guitar and harp. The main Maya and Creek drum was similar to a conga, except a cylinder rather than having curved sides.


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