Saturday, July 26, 2008


I have been replacing the skins on some African drums lately. This is a painstaking process to learn. You start with a whole goat hide. In my case, the hides I am working with are from Mali. It comforts me to think that the goats were enjoyed as stew by a family in Africa.

The first step in the process is to soak the skin in warm water. I set it in a plastic bin in the bathtub. After a few hours it is pliable and soft.

Then I trim the skin to the size of the ring that will hold it onto the drum. The ring is being reused, so it is rusty and old, usually made of rebar that has been welded into a circle. I try to position the backbone skin of the goat down the center of the ring because it is the thickest part of the skin and you want the sound to be even.

Once the skin is on the drum, I try to tighten it evenly all the way around, pulling a rope here and there until the rings are centered. I have yet to master the art of keeping the bottom ring of the drum centered. There must be a trick to it that I don't know.

And then, the shaving. It is safer to do this while the skin is still wet because it is less dusty. African goats have been known to pick up anthrax spores, which grow naturally in the wild. There has been at least one case of an American catching anthrax from a goatskin he was working with. (Actually, he was an African living in Brooklyn.)

So I shave the skin on the drum while it is damp. I use a double edged razor blade, holding it carefully in one hand, bending it slightly with my thumb so that I have a curved blade to work with, which is less likely to nick the skin. Slowly, gently, I draw the blade towards me, working from the head end of the goat along the sides. It is hardest to shave the backbone, where the fur is very thick. The first time I did this, I was left with a bunch of nicks and little mistakes. Luckily I didn't have to scrap the whole thing. Yesterday, though, my technique had improved and the skin was beautiful afterwards.

Shaving is the slowest and most demanding part of the process, even if it isn't the most physical. It requires incredible concentration. It is easy to mess up, and if you mess it up badly enough, you have to start from scratch with another skin.

But it is also, for me, the most intimate part of the process. I get to know the goat. I come across a little scratch from a thorny bush, or a bug bite scar. I take off a tiny bit of fur at a time, getting to know it's spots and patterns. It's smell. It's texture. Yesterday I noticed a tiny swirl of fur that made me smile. I remember those swirls on the withers of the goats I have known in the past. This goat is long dead, but it lives as an organic part of something that will become joy, music, love.

At the end, when I am vaccuuming up the fur from my patio, when my hands are stuck with brown and white hair, when I find stray bits in my water glass (or wine glass!) I give a little prayer of thanks for the goat, the tree, and the spirit of the one who built the drum.

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