Traditional handcrafted drums by Carolyn Hillyer
STORY FROM THE DRUM ROAD
I have been making drums for nearly 30 years and teaching drum making for more than 25 of those. My intent has been to catch the spirit of the wild and the song of the ancients into these drums, anchoring the resonance of sacred land within the body of the drum. It has been a huge honour and great delight to birth and bear witness to the birthing of so many drums into the world and to be part of the drum journeys of so many people during this time.
All skins used in the making of my drums have been sourced and prepared with scrupulous attention to the integrity of the process involved. Everything has been created using old, and sometimes very ancient, techniques; nothing is machine-made or mass-produced. Dartmoor red deer skins come from a family-run deer forest on the moors, wild horse skins from the Dartmoor feral pony herds, reindeer skins from a traditional Swedish Arctic tannery, salmon skins from wild river fish. All skins used have been a bi-product of another sustainable purpose (killed for food or due to environmental pressures of overpopulation) and would otherwise be wasted; no animal was ever killed just to provide skin for a drum. I see drum making as a reparation, a way of returning some beauty and honouring to an animal whose life has already been taken.
The sourcing of skins for drum making with care has been a crucial aspect of my drum road journey. This has not always been an easy process but with tenacity and the help of a handful of dedicated people, it has been possible over many years to source and prepare the skins with prayerful tending. In 2021 I decided to finish tanning hides for drums; the work is heavy and I was ready to stop. This means I now have a finite resource of drum skins remaining. I would not want to make or teach drums with skins I have not personally prepared so, inevitably, I will now no longer teach drum making or accept drum commissions.
My drum road has been a wondrous and profoundly inspiring experience and will continue through the many drums I play in concert and in the recording studio, the offering of drum prayers in wild places, the sharing of drum circles and ceremonies, and in the drums that I will quietly craft until all the skins are used.
If you are seeking your own drum or looking for a teacher with whom to make one, I would like to offer you three contacts for drum makers whose work I deeply respect. From all my years of working with drum makers, these three women are the only teachers I would personally trust and recommend, either to make an instrument for you or to help you birth your own. Each maker has her own style and way of teaching – it is for you to seek out the maker or teacher who will be the best match for your drum vision. Two women originally honed their drum making with me but have gone on to develop and refine their own styles, creating very beautiful and unique instruments. The third maker I have known since my first journey to the Arctic north and she has been a cherished friend for nearly 20 years. Most recently we exhibited our drums together in the Ájtte Sámi Culture Museum in Jokkmokk, Sweden.
WHEN WOMEN DRUM TO THE NORTH
In 2018 I travelled to Arctic Sweden to participate in an exhibition at the Ájtte Sámi Culture Museum in the northern town of Jokkmokk, called TRUMMA FÖR TRÄD / Women Drum For Trees, with northern traditional drum maker Gun Hofgaard, curation and filming by Cedar Shaw, Sámi songs and music by Nina Nordvall Vahlberg. This exhibition, combining the work of four women from two cultures and landscapes, enabled our drums to honour trees as the foundation of life, crucial in our continued survival on this earth. The meeting of northern reindeer skin drums with the red deer and wild pony drums of Dartmoor celebrated the place where two ancient herding traditions, each born of their raw landscape and deep ancestry, found common ground and shared understanding. I created a special collection of drums for the exhibition which included: Weaver’s Drum, Copper Moon Drum, Wild Horse Drum, Grandmother Drum, Forest Drum, North Drum, White-Horse-Hill Woman Drum and the Drum Fish which is formed from a set of tiny salmon skin drums created from one fish. The exhibition sat at the heart of an international gathering of women, When Women Drum to the North, created and hosted by myself and Cedar Shaw, a week of workshops, presentations, experiences and ceremonies shared by forty women from Britain, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
TRIBUTE TO GUN HOFGAARD
My dear sister Gun has died, March 2023. She lived much of her life in the Sámi region of northern Sweden. She was our first friend when we arrived for the first time onto the Arctic winter ice in 2004. Her drum making process was infused by the northern landscape and I am honoured to have had the chance to braid some of my own drum journey into hers when we exhibited our drums together. She lived, taught and created her work in her lakeside forest studio and cabin.She was also a wise herbalist and wondrous gardener, tending an abundance in her garden under the Arctic midnight sun. She will be profoundly missed by her partner Stefan, her family, her many friends and all the women who have travelled on our northern journeys to spend time with her. Thank you sister, for everything that you gave to the earth.
Our daughter Cedar made this film about her drum making process, which formed part of our exhibition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaQAJ14Vu44&ab_channel=WhimsicalWoman
Cedar also filmed their mountain journey to gather herbs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yTJctzNMHk&ab_channel=CedarShaw
Here is a short clip of Gun drumming on the frozen lake by her home: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=As69pzfW4Aw&ab_channel=GunHofgaard
FINDING YOUR DRUM
You are invited to contact these drum makers if you wish to make or buy your own drum:
ROS SIMONS, based in Scotland, artisan and hearth keeper, makes bespoke drums to commission, teaches drum making and ritual rattle crafting in small groups and one-to-one as well as ‘birthing your spirit drum’ retreats. She has assisted on several of my drum making weekends and has been working with the drum teachings for over 20 years. Ros teaches in Scotland and occasionally travels around the UK to share sacred crafting workshops and to introduce the way of pilgrimage through the Celtic Tree Journey. She is able to create and arrange special drum making sessions for small groups on request. www.ros-simons.co.uk / firstname.lastname@example.org
DORRIE JOY, based in Somerset, artist, needlewoman, ceremonialist and writer, teaches individually designed ritual one-to-one drum making, as well as traditional craft and ancestral skills (including natural tanning, road kill handling, rattles and other totemic items). She makes drums to commission and paints individual drum skins on request. Dorrie has been teaching drums for 20 years, often now at her hand-build home, and offers drum making groups all around the UK and internationally. She offers ethically, locally, sustainably sourced materials for drum making, prepared with kindness and integrity. www.dorriejoy.co.uk / email@example.com
SUZI EDWARDS-GOOSE, based near London, skin weaver, ritual tattooist, artist, poet, paints Guardian Drums to order designed with archetypes, animals or whatever you require as a guardian or totem for your drum. All her drums are vegan Remo skins, which are ideal for use in all weathers. Dark background bases, with a colour-changing mica sheen added for extra magic. You are invited to contact Suzi to discuss your ideas. Facebook: Artwork of Suzi Edwards-Goose – Inkwitch) / Instagram inkwitch333) / firstname.lastname@example.org
GUN HOFGAARD, based in the Sámi region of northern Sweden, makes drums using locally sourced reindeer hides as well as many other rattles, bags, ritual items and traditional crafts. She teaches one-to-one drum making over several days; her process is infused by the northern landscape and finely detailed, including preparation of the birchwood hoop. Working with Gun will involve commitment (a flight or train journey to the Arctic Circle, followed by a long bus ride then a lift in a local taxi), financial resource, and respect for the polar environment and culture. She teaches in the forest studio she has built next to her cabin. Please be aware that reindeer skin drums flourish in the dry Arctic conditions but need special care in our damp British climate. For reasons of her privacy, if you are genuinely interested in making a drum with Gun and willing to go with light steps and self-sufficiency, please email me with your details and some words about why you want to make this journey, and I will pass these on to her.