Traditional handcrafted drums by Carolyn Hillyer

The story at the heart of these drums...

Carolyn has been making traditional frame drums for nearly 25 years, using materials sourced from Dartmoor. Her intent has been to catch the spirit of the wild and the song of the ancients into her drums, anchoring the resonance of sacred land within the body of the drum.

All skins used in the making of the drums are sourced and prepared with scrupulous attention to the integrity of the process involved. Everything is created using old, and sometimes very ancient, techniques; nothing is machine-made or mass-produced. Dartmoor red deer skins come from a family-run smallholding and 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 are a bi-product of another sustainable purpose (killed for food or due to environmental pressures of overpopulation) and would otherwise be wasted; no animal is ever killed just to provide skin for a drum. We see drum making as a reparation, a way of returning some beauty and honouring to an animal whose life has already been taken.

Creating the drums…

The hides are prepared by hand in our small tannery shed with a process which can take to 3-6 weeks depending on the weather conditions. The gathering of the skins is seasonal and the number of drums or leathers that we make in any year is limited. The skins are washed and soaked in water from a spring-fed well. Nearly all of the preparation is done by hand; the final stages of drying the rawhide or finishing the leather are carried out in a small traditional sheepskin tannery on the edge of Dartmoor. The drums are created using traditional techniques and each skin has its own unique character in colouring and texture, undecorated and beautiful in its raw simplicity. This careful process contributes significantly to awakening the song and animal spirit of the drum. The drum hoop is made from northern birch wood, the tension ring is wrought by a Dartmoor blacksmith and the ring and handle are trimmed with red deer or wild horse leather prepared in our tannery. The drum beater is made using branchwood cut on our farm (usually hazel, willow or ash), leather and animal hair or sheep fleece. A small Dartmoor totem is hung from the back of the drum (antler bead, horse hair, river stone) to honour both the drum and the drummer. The drums are made in a medieval stone barn, dried slowly over several days, then blessed over fire in our ceremonial roundhouse.

When women drum to the north…

In 2018 Carolyn 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. Carolyn 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 Carolyn and Cedar Shaw, a week of workshops, presentations, experiences and ceremonies shared by forty women from the UK, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. See women’s workshop page for the archive of this journey.

Finding your drum…

Carolyn is not currently making any drums to commission or holding any for sale.

She offers drum making workshops each year on Dartmoor, as well as for occasional other groups in Britain and elsewhere. For more details and bookings please see the instrument making workshops page.

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