What's that sound? November is International Drum Month, a time to celebrate the huge diversity of percussion instruments from around the world. Percussion instruments are any instruments that produce sound through physical impact—drums beating, cymbals clanking, bells ringing and hands clapping. Along with our singing voices, they're the oldest type of instrument in humankind's musical history.
Through November 8th, Isango Ensemble
is on the New Victory stage presenting their jubilant adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream
, Benjamin Britten's Shakespearean opera. Voices raised in operatic song are accompanied by South African music and dance, elevated by percussion all around. The percussionists, many of them also performers, flank the stage and take turns playing multiple instruments. Keep reading to learn a bit about these instruments before you come to see the show!
The first instruments you'll notice onstage are marimbas. Not to be confused with xylophones, marimbas feature wooden bars mounted above tubular resonators, which make their sound more, well, resonant! If you peek under Isango Ensemble's marimbas from the front, you might see them. Nowadays the resonators are made of wood or aluminum, but traditionally they were made from hollowed gourds. Also, where traditional marimbas would have been tuned to play only notes from a specific melodic scale, modern marimbas are chromatic—they feature bars for every note, like keys on a piano.
Just as Isango Ensemble's different opera singers have different vocal ranges (Mezzo-soprano, Countertenor, Bass, etc.), the marimbas they use come in four sizes corresponding to their pitches. Highest to lowest, they are Piccolo, Soprano, Tenor and Baritone, and they're arranged in that order onstage with the Baritone farthest upstage (toward the back) and the Piccolo farthest downstage (toward the front). "What about huge Double-Bass marimbas?" you ask. Indeed! They are the deepest-sounding of all marimbas, but they didn't make the trip from South Africa this time.
You will also hear drums, but these aren't the snare, tom-tom or bass drums of your typical rock band—no. These are djembe drums. Carved from wood and covered with rawhide (often goatskin), djembe drums are quite loud—you won't see many of them on stage, but you'll definitely hear them. While it's the large interior cavity that resonates, the rawhide drumhead is tightened and tuned to a specific note using a series of ropes knotted all the way around. Djembes are a variety of goblet drum, carved with wider drumheads and narrower bases, and resembling a goblet. If you look closely, you may notice lively carvings around their bases—birds, crocodiles, geometric patterns.
When Puck, played by Noluthando Boqwana, shakes her feathery wand onstage, the sound you'll hear is actually coming from a cabasa just offstage. The clacking sound of this handheld percussion instrument comes from a series of ball chains wrapped around a corrugated metal cylinder. Traditionally, like the marimba resonators, cabasas were made from gourds. Just wrap a net tied with small beads or shells around the bulb of the gourd, and use the stem as a handle for shaking!
The fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream
all carry brooms, not just as instruments of magic, but as percussion instruments as well! The brooms sweep and glide across the stage, occasionally smacking it, and all these motions generate swooshes and thumps that add to the soundscape of the show.
The fairies also wear long, beaded necklaces, which softly click and rattle as they move. Puck's costume, though, takes the percussion cake. Her skirt is fashioned from strands of wooden beads, and hung among the strands are wooden kitchen implements—spoons and spatulas—that collide with the beads and give Puck's signature gait a signature percussive accompaniment!
Feet and hands
The oldest percussion instruments of all, and ones that Isango Ensemble puts to excellent use, are our hands and feet. During the show's many joyful dance sequences, the barefoot performers join the djembes in drumming and punctuating the rhythms of Britten's music onto the wooden stage. The stage is inclined and elevated, leaving space underneath for their stomps to resonate (like the resonators under the marimba bars or the cavity under the goatskin drumhead). Resonate they do, and the sound adds a rich vitality to the dancing. After all, dancing's no good without a decent beat!
As for hands, Isango Ensemble leaves that up to you. "Give me hands if we be friends," Puck says, inviting applause from the audience as the show ends. So put your hands together, percussionists, and clap out a celebratory rhythm of your own.
When you come to see A Midsummer Night's Dream
, pay attention to all the instruments you see and hear. The kudu horn and the corrugaphone (sometimes called a whirly tube) lend their unique sounds to the performance, too. They're not percussion instruments—they're winds—but keep an ear out for them anyway!