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Ojibway Musical Instruments
Every culture has a definition of the vibration they create and how it’s music functions within their social structure. The Ojibway people of Northeast Michigan valued music for the personal and magical powers that were indispensible to their ceremonies and rituals. Music was a functional part of other, non musical activities as well. Songs were connected with the treatment of the sick, for the entertainment of children or at social events. Game songs, war songs, love songs, working songs and those sung by storytellers were an important part of daily life. Drums, rattles and flutes were made from raw materials and were used in rhythmic accompaniment to singing.
Three types of “dewe’igun” or drums were used by the Ojibway of Northeast Michigan, the hand drum, the Mide drum and the flat drum. The hand drum consists of a piece of rawhide stretched over one side of a hoop and is laced or tied together on the reversed side to form it’s handhold. Another form of the hand drum has two heads stretched over one hoop with the rawhide handhold stitched on the outer edge of the hoop. A cord is often attached and the drum is used in the manner of a snare drum. These percussion instruments are generally 2.5 inches thick and 18.5 inches wide. Pegs are attached to the rawhide cords within the drum and can be twisted to tighten the heads for timbre. These drums are often called, “moccasin game drums” as they are used during that game. The heads of both type of hand held drums were decorated with dream symbols. Drumming sticks were often 5 inches long, made of bone or wood and were hooked at the striking end. Some said the drumming stick was more important than the drum as they represented the head and eyes of the “owl.” Before striking the drum the stick is raised toward the west to give the signal that the bird should respond to the drum call. Other sticks have padded deer hide on the striking end.
The “mitig’wakik,” Mide or water drum, was a ceremonial drum. It is a wooden kettle drum made by hollowing out a 16 inch long basswood log. The wood is charred and scraped until a cylinder is formed. A thin wooden disk with a hole plug is fit into the lower end. Before each use a few inches of water is poured into the drum and a wet 18 inch heavily tanned deer skin hide is stretched over the drum. A willow hoop secures the hide. The drum was placed by the fire to tighten the head. This drum was used by a high ranking member of the Midewiwin Grand Medicine Society and was decorated by the owner depending upon his rank within the lodge. These drums can be heard from long distances and were important messengers of the Mide hierarchy.
In recent years the Ojibway have used a large flat drum, either placed on the ground or suspended from curved stakes. This drum is decorated with beaded velvet and is used for dances or during ceremonial events. It is a bass drum and can sometimes be made by stretching hide over a washtub.
Rattles were usually used in rhythmic accompaniment to singing. They were made from birch bark strips with a cover of hide shaped into cylinders. Each was filled with small pebbles or shot then sewn with sinew. They were pieced with a stick which formed the handle. Some rattles were made by forming a hoop of willow, covered with hide, filled and sewn in the same manner. Rattles were not richly decorated. A flat hoop rattle would probably be a “doctor’s rattle” and be used much like a tambourine. Rattles were used to “shoot life power” into an initiate during the Midewiwin rituals. Most rattles were made in sets to constitute the correct pitch.
The wind instrument of the Ojibway is the flute of the type flute a bec. It was played by blowing air into the chamber at the upper end. The flute has six finger holes with five holes around the end. Cedar, box elder, ash or sumac was the favorite wood used and a raw piece was cut in a nineteen inch section before construction. The straight round section of wood was split into two equal parts. Each half section was hallowed out, except near one end where the bridge is left. When the two pieces are glued together a cylindrical tube forms with a solid area in which to carve the air hole. A square opening is cut through the side tube above the bridge to create a wind chamber and one is cut below into the sounding tube. Finger holes are created. Glue was created by frying the backbone of a fish. The residue in the pan was gathered on a stick and applied to the two pieces of wood. They were bound by thin strips of deer hide until they were firmly attached. The flute was ONLY played by young men in courtship and a way of sending signals of danger.
Rhythms were fairly simple in Ojibway music. A steady beat with rattle tremolos were commonly played. Solo singing was for lovemaking, ridicule or boasting, lullabies or medicine songs. There were no lyrics per se, but were old words and phrases, loanwords or special phonetic sounds. Melody was absent except for an occurrence of drone. Music was produced for pleasure, but most was functional, ceremonial or part of other non musical activities. The creation of instruments was considered a functional art form and except for drums were not decorated. Functionality of product was the word of the day.
Sweet Grass Drummers
Line Drawings done by Author
Bibliography Available Upon Request
Excerpt from: WHAT WAS LOST 1998
Book Available from Author $8.95