Wood from the Jack fruit tree or neem and coconut trees are widely used in the making of traditional drums. The drums are carved to a specific shape depending on the type of drum being made. The outer layer is then smoothed and the wood is hollowed out to form a cavity. It is then polished with varnish to protect the wood and give it colour. Cattle and goat skins are cut and tightly bound onto the drum.
Nimal Wickramasiri is an artist. He is not a musician, but the drums he makes are sought after by musicians all over Sri Lanka. Nimal has been making drums all his life. His father, awarded by three Presidents, had done the same, as had his grandfather, and for generations before. Nimal’s son, Kasun, is a skilled drum-maker in his own right.
Originally, the bodies of drums were made of a variety of forest trees, but increasing legislation against deforestation has forced drum-makers to restrict themselves to the more easily available coconut and jack wood. Raw logs are brought to a workshop at Nimal’s ancestral home, where the bodies of the drums are crafted by his son, Kasun.
Traditionally, logs were shaped on manual pulley-operated lathes and then hollowed out with a hammer and chisel, a process that could take over a day for a large drum like the double-tapered Geta Bera. Today, an electric lathe allows them to finish a drum body in a couple of hours. While many drum-makers today retain the skills needed to carve a drum body by hand, it is a skill no longer used.
Once the drum bodies are finished, smoothed, varnished and, in some cases, decoratively carved, Kasun transports them to the outskirts of Colombo, where his father will proceed with the next steps in the drum-making process. An accomplished drummer as well as drum-maker, Kasun is often called on by his father to try out drums that are made to order for special customers, and one of these occasionally accompanies him back to Alavala for tuning and adjustment.
As with the bodies, conservation laws no longer allow the use of many traditional materials, and goat- and cowhide have replaced them; the drum-makers cleverly use various thicknesses to mimic the distinct sounds of different wild animal skins.
Thin, sundried hides, are soaked in water to avoid tearing, and then stretched over the drum openings in varying layers to form the drumhead. Raw hide cords are laced through the drumhead and fastened with rings and pegs that can be tightened and loosened to tune the drums.
The cords are first adjusted on a Geta Bera, and then a Dawula. Various beats are tried out with his palms, his fingers, and the kadippuwa – a drumstick.