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J. Richard Haefer

(Apache: ísal, ‘pot’ or ‘bucket’; ‘bucket bound around’)

Water drum of the Apache people of Arizona and New Mexico. A large iron pot or kettle with the handle removed is partially filled with water and sacred materials (corn pollen and ash). A buckskin head (or nowadays sometimes rubber from a truck tire inner tube) is lashed tightly over the opening with buckskin thongs or strips of cloth or inner-tube rubber, with the excess skin or rubber draped around the pot. Historically a large pottery vessel was used; there is no evidence for use of a wooden vessel. The drumstick, of pine, is wrapped in buckskin at the distal end.

The drum accompanies singing, secular and religious (na-i-es, girl’s puberty ceremony; edotal, diagnostic; gojital, curing). It is usually played in groups of four with the performers standing and holding the drums under the left elbow, but in the curing rites it is held in the lap of a seated player. The earliest representation of the drum is a painting by George Catlin of ...


David P. McAllester

revised by J. Richard Haefer

Water drum used in meetings of the Native American (or Peyote) Church. The standard drum consists of a well-soaked buckskin head stretched over an iron kettle about 25 cm deep. The best skins are said to be ‘brain tanned’. The head symbolizes the former war shield, now a spiritual shield. It is attached by an intricate tying method that has symbolic import. Symbolism and rules may vary from fireplace to fireplace with some ideas common throughout the religion. Seven stones or marbles indicating the seven days, the seven sisters (constellations), the seven senses (orifices) of the face, or, for the Sioux, the seven council fires, are tied to the head. The rope tying the head represents the rope used to tie enemies, the reins of war horses, or blood veins. The kettle is half-filled with water, which represents rain or the water of the earth; the sound of the drum represents thunder. Live coals (four to 12 depending on the fireplace) symbolizing lightning are put in the water before the head is attached. The skin is kept moist during meetings by vigorously shaking the kettle between songs or by a quick shake during a song when the sound begins to change. At some fireplaces the drummer will suck or blow on the edge of the drum to force water onto the head, while at others this is prohibited....