Friday, August 14, 2015

Hennaed Drums, Part Two: North Africa

In our last blogpost, we explored the possible evidence for hennaed drumheads in medieval Spain. In the end, while there are many images of decorated drums, the lack of any textual or material evidence makes it difficult to say whether these decorations were in fact done with henna or not.

As we move towards the modern period, however, we come across another chapter in the history of hennaed drums which is much clearer: North Africa.

Musician with hennaed drum (tbal), Algeria,
1880s. Photograph by William Tupper.

The practice of hennaing drums in North Africa is likely several centuries old at least, but the earliest evidence that I have seen for it comes from the late 19th century. Frederick Elworthy provides a description of the hennaed frame drums he saw at Tunis, noting that they typically were decorated with the symbol of a protective hand or khamsa (The Evil Eye, 1895):

Drawing of design on hennaed drums
from Tunis, 1890s, from Elworthy.
“In Tunis also may be seen many shallow drums, mere hoops of about two inches broad, having parchment stretched on both sides, just as if an ordinary tambourine had two diaphragms instead of one. Each of these drums has a hand upon it upon one side, and on the other a double triangle. 

Some of these have, besides the hand, a crescent and a double triangle, as in Fig. 108: in every case the crescent is placed above the index and middle finger, while the double triangle, which we believe to represent the sun, is always over the third and fourth finger. The drawing is so rude that it is difficult to tell whether the hand is right or left. On inquiry about the meaning of these things, they say the hand is that of the Prophet. 

Seeing, however, that these drums are all ornamented round the rings with cowrie shells, fixed as they always are with the opening in the shells outwards, one could but form a further opinion: cowries have always been distinct amulets against the evil eye, and it is but reasonable to assign the same purpose to the entire decorations.”

Records of hennaed drums, including different types of frame drums, goblet drums, and two-headed cylinder drums, can also be seen in colonial photographs of Maghrebi musicians. They appear to have been especially common among the musicians of Sufi brotherhoods like the Hamadsha or the Gnawa (which we previously met here). In her travelogue of Morocco, Edith Wharton recalls seeing Hamadsha musicians in Moulay Idriss “pounding frantically on long earthenware drums… painted in barbaric patterns” (1920). And drums are not the only instrument that is hennaed — henna designs are also drawn on the leather body of the sintir/guembri, a string instrument associated with Gnawa music.

Gnawa troupe with hennaed drum (note the stylized khamsas),
colonial postcard, Morocco, 1920s.

Photographs of Jewish musicians from the early 20th century also show them with hennaed drums. The earliest designs are fairly simple — mostly stripes and dots — and it seems that they were painted on with a stick or brush, or possibly even just fingers. The hand, as noted by Elworthy, also appears to have been a common element on North African hennaed drums from early on. 

Hennaed drums, mid-20th century, collected
in Morocco by Tod Donobedian. Notice the hand on the left
and the eye in the star on the right.
Although it sometimes appears as a stylized khamsa, in modern drums it more often appears as an actual hand — in both cases the intent is clearly protective. It can be a solid handprint or the outline of a hand filled with henna designs. 

The eye, another common element of protection in Moroccan henna, also appears on drums both inside hands and on its own.

While the earliest images of hennaed drums in Morocco show relatively simple patterns, it seems that by the mid-20th century, henna artists were applying henna to drums with the same facility as to people, including the intricate geometric patterns associated with the Imperial Cities (Fes, Meknes, and Marrakech). I suspect, in fact, that a careful study of (dated) hennaed drums might be able to shed light on the evolution of henna patterns in Morocco!

Hennaed drum with hand and stars, Morocco, 1993;
photo by Bruno Barbey.

Today hennaed drums are still made in Morocco and commonly sold to tourists, although the quality varies wildly and unfortunately is often particularly sloppy and in a fast ‘khaleeji’ style rather than with traditional patterns. Nonetheless it is easy to find beautifully hennaed drums, and merchants are happy to help you track down the perfect drum.

Decorated drums for sale, Marrakech, 2007; photo by Jill Rogers.
Unfortunately, most of what I can say about hennaed drums in North Africa comes from pictures — I know very little about how they are made, and I’d love to learn more. Are they hennaed by regular Moroccan neqashat [henna artists], or are there special artists for drums? Are they done at home? Or a workshop? InchaAllah one day I can do more research on this. Hennaed drums for tourists are usually sold with the paste on, but one can also find paste-off drums for sale.

Hennaed drums decorated with hands — left: paste-on, Fessi design, bought
in Fes in 2014; right: paste-off, khaleeji design, bought in Marrakech in 2010.

Hennaed drums are not only for tourists, though. Hennaed (paste-off) drums can also be seen in use, especially with the aforementioned mytical-musical groups still popular throughout North Africa. Hennaed drums are on display, for example, at the yearly Gnawa Music Festival in Essaouira, and appear in many tourists’ photographs. Many of the drums are of very high artistic quality and feature interesting circular or symmetrical designs.

Musicians at the Gnawa Festival, Essaouira, 2008; photo by
Vince Millett. Note the unusual mandala-like designs.

Musicians at the Gnawa Festival, Essaouira, 2008; photo by
Vince Millet. Note the difference in line quality between
the two drums.

Musician at the Gnawa Festival, Essaouira, 2008;
photo by Vince Millet. The text reads, "In the name
of Allah, the compassionate and merciful, we put
our trust in Allah
There's lots more to research, not only about how the drums are made, but about the patterns — are there specific designs used only on drums? Are there patterns particular to different Sufi groups, like the flags and chants? — and their history — how old is this tradition? How old are the hennaed drums currently being used? Hopefully a future trip to Morocco will be able to answer some of these questions.

It’s hard to say how much the tradition of drum henna sheds light on earlier sources like the medieval illustrations we saw in the last post — this shows that hennaed drums have been made and used in the western Mediterranean region, for at least the last two centuries. It’s possible that there is a connection between the Spanish drum illustrations and hennaed drums in North Africa, but there’s no direct link that I’ve found… Yet.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this exploration, and I’d love to hear if you have any more information. Our final post of the series will be a informational post full of how-to photos and instructions to help you create your very own hennaed drum! In the meantime, I'll leave you with the sounds of these hennaed drums in action:

1 comment:

Miriam said...

I bought a square frame drum with a henna hand on it in Morocco around 2004. And yes, paste on. I tried to remove it recently and oiled the drum, big mistake. Love your blog!