In the late 2010s, I owned and operated a bespoke drum-building company, and during that time, I was commissioned to build a frame drum by the partner of a musician who was also a magic practitioner. The commission was fitting despite my business not being related to magic or Paganism directly. I have been working with drum construction in all of my research projects during my academic career, a touring percussionist for decades, and the company focussed on making drums inspired by Lovecraftian narratives and Lovecraftian Futurist music. Due to the nature of Lovecraftian horror and science fiction being potentially supernatural-related, and given my performance experience and ethnomusicological background, I understood the details of the request and planned my construction in accordance with their interests. The decisions made regarding materials, style, and decorations with respect to the expected functionality, performance techniques, and desired aesthetics outlined a distinct relationship between the magical and musical qualities desired in the final product.
These decisions were informed by the values upheld by the commissioner of the drum – values that parallel those of the performers, makers, and audience that make up the joint musical and magical community. The ways in which these decisions were informed, then, regulate the interactions not only with the music involved but also with the musical instruments and their construction. Perhaps this is less evident in a situation where an instrument is mass-manufactured, but taking as an example the set of decisions associated with this bespoke commission, informed by values based on a belief system and the practices associated with that belief system, a network of maker, player, and expectations of the instrument’s function can be highlighted. In turn, this raises interesting considerations about the relationship between building instruments and magic-related practices.
Fig. 1: Commissioned drum that houses magical associations along with performative expectations. (Photo: Lisa Courtney)
Most of the discussion herein pertains to building frame drums and my client’s interest in Wicca and Paganism, but neither magic, nor this discussion in general, need to be restricted to Wiccan, Occult, or Pagan practices exclusively. Magic in the broad context of how it can influence and inspire creative, ritual, or sonically functional practices can fall under the umbrella of Shamanism, Satanism, Spiritualism, Theosophy, Voodoo/Vodun, Taoism, Shintoism, Druidism, or any area of perceived magic (even fictional or self-constructed belief systems). Magic in the context of being a highly valued concept and concern makes magic (using any definition) relevant and a vehicle for better understanding the complex relationships between creative production and cultural, religious, and/or social values and belief systems. Drums and magic (using this broad definition) simply form an excellent, clear example of this dialectic network.
Music and magic are inexorably linked together (Godwin; Connor, Sound and Musical). There are numerous accounts, both folkloric and academic, of how sonic qualities such as tempo, timbre, and pitch work in conjunction with hermetic powers, spiritual happenings, and theosophical practices through harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic means (Sharpe). Broad considerations of music and cosmology arise in Blavatsky’s esoteric instructions, functional use of music appears in the heterophonic improvisation supporting shamanic practices of Korean musok (Koudela and Yoo 94), and even the scientific explanations of Kepler link music to astronomy attempting to show the intertwined nature of music, spirituality, and the human soul. Lewis, in Witchcraft Today, cites multiple instances of music in relation to magic practice, from accompanying incantations to ritual dancing, to a long list of contemporary popular and folk music artists performing magic-related and -inspired material.
The human body is sometimes used to produce this sonic enhancement or connections (Eason), but musical instruments are also used for a variety of reasons. Drums are often one of those instruments, incorporating the textures, pulses, or simply the sheer volume they can provide. Drumming is an essential part of engaging with Zangbeto, the vodun guardians of Benin (Okunola and Ojo 204); playing damaru (sometimes made from human skulls: Cupchik 34) is a highly valued musical element of Tibetan Chöd magic practices (Cupchik 34); Druidic land healing ceremonies rely on frame drums to open magic channels between the practitioner and the Earth (O’Driscoll); the original function of Czech vozembouchy was to ward off dark energies and provide protection during rituals (Connor, Constructing the Sounds 25); Korean Mudang use drums (and music/noise) to allow deities and spirits to speak through them at Gut ceremonies (Wróblewski); similarly, Tlingit Ixt (shamans) employ frame drums to both represent and conjure the ancestors about whom they are singing (Olsen 212).
It probably cannot be said which came first – the intention to use percussion instruments for magical practices, then constructing them accordingly; or making percussion, then deciding these instruments are useful for magical purposes. However, recognising the influence that magic has on drum-making contemporaneously can be informative, unravelling how performance in magic-related contexts and the construction of percussive instruments designed to be used for such purposes, or those selected for their musical or magical properties, highlight a dialectic between drum-making and magic. Musical instruments are made, generally speaking, with a few common intentions in mind (Connor, Constructing Musical), then designed and built with specific performance expectations and functionalities informing the final construction (Connor, Constructing Musical). Frame drums follow this model; therefore, the commissioned drum mentioned above, where the magical element was considered a primary concern for the patron, can assist with outlining the design/maker-player-inspiration/beliefs/practice network that links them together.
When starting the dialogue between maker and patron to realise the drum being commissioned, which wood should be used was the initial consideration. They wanted something “powerful” and “meaningful” but did not know what was available or would exactly match their practice interests, so I suggested some wood I had recently been given that thought might suit: a neighbour had a black walnut tree on their property which had been struck by lightning and was no longer considered safe and it was chopped down due to compromised structural integrity. Pieces of it were given to me. After describing this wood, even though all they knew about the properties of the tree was that it had been struck by lightning, the choice to use it was made instantly, citing simply the fact that it was special, had potentially absorbed the element of electricity into the element of wood, and hinting at the notion that “it was meant to be” as the reasons for incorporating the black walnut into the drum.
Fig. 2: Black walnut wood from the tree struck by lightning. (Photo: author)
Next was the number of sides for the drum. Most frame drums are circles or something similar, so that would count as either one-sided (not a moebius strip, but rather a simple circle) or infinite-sided (if taken as a number of infinitesimally small mini sides). As a maker, I also offered various other ‘barrel-style’ frames including 5-, 7-, 8-, 11-, and 13-sided models, each with their own Lovecraftian or related association (many of these are prime numbers, but in this case, that is irrelevant). The patron chose the 13-sided version of the barrel frame construction. The skin for the drum was not discussed, simply for the reason that options other than goat skin were more difficult to obtain and there was a time frame placed on the order, as the drum was a gift for the patron’s partner. Once the basic elements were set, we chatted about how the drum would be played, given that the performance style and playing technique would heavily inform some of the construction decisions. We also briefly mulled over the desired tone/timbral qualities, and finally the decorative aspects that would wrap up the construction decisions being made, allowing me to move forward and realise the project in accordance with the commission parameters.
Each of these aspects held multiple considerations, akin to architectural design (Vitruvius; Pelletier), based on a triad of materials to be used, functionality expected, and aesthetics valued by the maker, player, and (in this case) the commissioner. The decisions made are consequential to the final design holistically and are therefore important, but of greater concern for this discussion is what informed these decisions and why. Effectively, only six decisions were made; each one was or would have been influenced by magic, affecting almost all aspects of the construction in some manner.
With regards to the first decision on wood type, the black walnut was chosen, but not for its density which would have slightly increased the drum’s sustain, its availability (abundant), or discouraged for the fact that black walnut is heavy, and therefore, depending on the primary performance technique expected, the wood may have repercussions due to its sheer weight. Instead, the decision was made based on the one fact that it was struck by lightning. This gave the now-owners a sense of magical injection into the wood, and therefore drum itself. The feeling expressed was that there existed a (great) possibility that the wood, being a primary magical element that represents a connection to the Earth, stability, and the specific properties of the black walnut (Teague), was enhanced by the lightning. Various wand makers suggest that a wood type may have powers it possesses or resonates (Maclir) or links to the magical lore associated with the wood (Beggetta, Gross, and Miller; Theodore). Here, the wood was merged with or infused with another magical element, lightning, sometimes considered representative of power, energy, or brightness/purity (Teague). Whether or not these qualities were something that the patron was seeking or simply a bonus is irrelevant; the fact that the tree had been struck with lightning translated to a specific decision based on magic-related traits valued by the commissioner.
The number of sides was actually suggested by me; however, to be clear, the final decision was confirmed by the patron. I offered the 13-sided barrel frame construction as a consideration based on the fact that I already offered these as part of my regular frame drum options, inspired by Lovecraftian horror narratives that include references to the number thirteen, the most recurring being “the thirteen gates of the Necronomicon” found in cosmic horror stories (Levenda; Tyson 13-21, 385-402). To be clear, although Lovecraft, Paganism, and magic are more than simply aligned (Price), Lovecraftian horror often implies magical practice diegetically, but the reader typically discovers the perceived magical elements to be something supranatural rather than supernatural, thus magic becomes explainable science, at least exegetically (Littmann). The number 13 still has relevance in the stories, where it shows up, which is why I often used the number 13 in my drum designs. However, it was another association of a 13-sided drum that aligned with the interests of the patron. In Pagan calendars, there are thirteen full moons per year—the final one serving as the mark of harvest and the new year celebrated during Samhain (Wittington). Acoustically speaking, 13 sides change the drum’s timbre (as compared to a circular frame), slightly reducing the midrange, and increasing some higher-end frequencies, but the acoustics of the instrument were of seemingly lower importance than the magical associations the 13 sides provided. For a Wiccan or Pagan, this choice of a number of sides was one of two that probably would not be ignored (the other being a 5-sided option).
Playing techniques expected to be used are often a primary consideration for making instruments in my personal experience, both during my time as a frame drum maker and during my internship with a drum builder in Germany as part of my PhD research. The playing techniques expected during creative/expressive performance definitely informed the construction of the drum, but magical expectations, meaning how the drum was expected to be played during magic-related practices, were also a consideration for the expected playing technique. Factors like playing with hands only, using a beater or stick only, a combination of the two, use of finger rolls, beater position (i.e. upright like a bodhran tipper, sideways like a shaman drum, or above like a trap set or pow-wow drum), and position of the drum itself (i.e. upright holding it from underneath, resting it on the player’s knee, held between the player’s legs while seated, or being held by handle) were discussed. How the drum is going to be played for a performance partially depends on the expectation of the drum’s function musically—is the player going to stand on stage, sit in a recording studio, or participate in a ritual, for instance. In this case, there was an expectation of all three, but given the nature of the commission, that being a patron commissioning the drum as a gift for her partner as a romantic and magic-based token of affection with added functionality, the magic-related expectation became the principal influence on her decisions. In the end, the patron opted to incorporate all the possibilities for performance techniques, giving her partner the most flexibility. This decision provided her partner with the capability to participate in ritual activities easily as well as giving him ergonomically sound means to perform (creatively) with the drum in a recording or live setting.
The tonal qualities of the drum were already partially decided, but one other important point was also discussed: one influenced by magic considerations. The leading edge of the drum (where the rim of the frame interacts with the skin stretched over the top of it) has several possible ways to be designed. For my drums, I offered two options that can be considered what equates to more or less the two timbral extremes: a flat leading edge similar to a typical shaman drum or bodhran, or a timpani-style leading edge that has a curved, quarter-circular rounded edge with a very small ledge underneath that. The flat edge makes the drum respond with an even set of frequencies when struck in the centre of the skin and often has a shorter sustain to the sound produced in comparison to a drum with a rounded or pointed edge (Crosby). The timpani-style edge gives an emphasis on lower frequencies, often complementing those with a highlight of high frequencies (giving the aural illusion of fewer midrange tones) and adds a fairly long sustain to the sound created (Crosby). For a creative performance-only commission, the decision would be almost entirely timbral, but for this patron, a consideration of ritual practices and magical context came into play: the lower tone expected to be provided by the timpani leading edge, combined with the longer sustain aligned with the patron’s sensibilities of how the human body may respond to those tonal qualities. Furthermore, the sheer volume was taken into account, as the loudness perceived when playing a lower-pitched drum with a greater sustain can assist with awakening spirits or deities as seen by a practitioner of Paganism (Gustafson), thereby making the timpani leading edge the appropriate choice for the commissioned drum.
Visual aspects of drum construction are often almost purely aesthetic. This, however, does not exclude them from being an integral part of the drum’s construction, and in fact, they may be the initial factor to which a player or audience member reacts when first interacting with the drum. The commissioned drum already holds some aesthetic distinction, given its shape and the material choices made. Beyond that, some other visual aspects were notably influenced by the drum's expected magical association. The black walnut being used had a greyish tint to it in an unfinished state, but the suggestion I made was to finish the wood, oiling the frame instead of staining it, giving it a more or less natural finish, but much darker in hue. As far as I can tell, that was entirely a personal taste choice and not based on anything magic-related, but the other visual choices, both decorative, were definitively inspired by Pagan or Wiccan beliefs. The outside of the frame was requested to be wood burned with designs that included various sigils and markings meaningful to the patron and her partner. The sigils have a direct relationship to magic, and it was/is expected that when the drum is played, the decorations would “speak to the universe,” emanating their messages through any given ritual or performance (akin to Tibetan lungta or wind horse flags; Adalakanzhu 13). The specific meaning of the sigils is being redacted on purpose due to the private nature of their meaning; let it suffice to say that they are simultaneously magical and romantic in nature, binding the couple in various ways. Parallel to the wood burning on the side and bottom of the drum was a design made from henna on the front of the skin. The design also presented sigil and sigil-like elements alongside magic or fantastical artwork serving as a sort of cultural flag that the instrument was not only an instrument of sound creation but also one of magical practice (see figure 3).
Figure 3: Decoration on the front of the commissioned drum's skin
Fig. 4: Wood-burning decorations on the bottom edge of the commissioned drum
This commissioned drum is not the only example of relationships between an instrument’s construction and the belief system upheld by the maker, player, and/or audience of the music made with it. Another drum I made recently was for a graduate student who obtained his master’s degree from my current university: as a congratulations gift, I built a drum for him. Upon his request, the drum was 11-sided, which aligned with some of the student’s Buddhist beliefs and practices, and also incorporated all expected playing techniques into the construction, with mainly shamanic and meditative performances in mind (see figure 5).
Fig. 5: 11-sided drum built for a graduate student who is also a practicing Buddhist
Another example is a 5-sided drum I created for a professional musician performing in a Neo-medievalist band with very strong Gothic and Pagan influences and aesthetics. The shape of the drum was selected for both its timbral qualities and the relation to Lovecraft and the occult, specifically a pentagram reference being made indirectly and directly (in the form of a Necronomicon symbol emblazoned on the goat-skin head; see figure 6).
Fig. 6: 5-sided drum in progress (finished in 2017)
Fig. 7: A commissioned 5-sided, Lovecraft and magic-inspired drum. (Note: this is not the drum mentioned above, but a different commission with similar traits)
Another 13-sided drum that was also commissioned to be a prize for a contest that was Pagan and Lovecraft-related, was also decorated with a large Necronomicon symbol and other rune and rune-like sigil images (see figure 8).
Fig. 8: Lovecraft-inspired drum for competition prize
Even the 7-sided drum I offered had a belief system inspiration: my aunt who wanted to learn to play the bodhran, and wanted a style that showed off her religious faith, commissioned a 7-sided drum as a Christian-based frame that was just as representative of beliefs as the magical or Lovecraftian-inspired frames. In all cases of barrel-style drum frames, especially those with an odd number of sides, the timbre is affected by the overall shape and ways in which the membrane vibrates, creating a series of interference patterns that often highlight some of the upper frequencies and dampen some of the midrange frequencies simultaneously (an enhancement of the bass comes from the leading edge of the drum, as mentioned above). The point to note here is that the number of sides does slightly have acoustic considerations, but more than the sound, the number of sides has strong semiotic and visual aesthetics (plus some ergonomic factors) that inject social and (sub)cultural values into the drums via their design, which is what makes the number of sides important.
Fig. 9: 7-sided drum for a Christian patron
Something to which I have already alluded is the notion that values upheld by the performers, makers, and audience of a community are entangled with both the music involved and the musical instruments played and their construction. Concepts of circles can represent reincarnation, protection, cycles of celestial bodies, or notions of regeneration, and translate to frame shape or ensemble performance configurations. Drum shapes as well as skin types can influence sonic qualities that in turn evoke magical properties or specific deities/demons. Beliefs can fuel trance-inducing rhythmic patterns played until an ecstatic state is achieved by the practitioner, which practically requires consideration for performance techniques employed, and therefore instrument design. Widening the lens that focusses on the relation between drum-building and magic practices, an undertaking of any creative or design endeavour comes to light in which a level of agency decides expected functionality, materials, and aesthetics. Examining how the makers, operators, and community members involved develop the network between themselves and what they produce can highlight the perception, value, and ways in which they incorporate the world around them physically and philosophically.
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs by the author.
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