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What is the Slit Drum?

The slit drum, also known as the slit gong, is a hollow percussion instrument. You may have seen it in classes teaching world rhythms. The slit drum is not a real drum despite its name. It’s more like an idiophone. The slits are at the top and most slit drums have one or two to three slits (shaped like the letter ‘H’). Slit drums are used throughout Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.

How is the Slit Drum Made?

The slit drum is most commonly found in three different shapes - cylindrical, the trapezoid, and the zoomorphic. You may also be able to find them in the form of a tulip, half-moon, and boat.

To cylindrical slit drums, a block of wood, usually the part of a tree trunk, is cut into the desired shape of a slit drum. It is then hollowed out through the slit in the upper side. The drum maker/woodcutter ensures that the two sides of the drum are unequal in thickness so that different pitches are produced when played with two rubber-headed drum sticks.

The creativity of the drum maker or the woodcutter is found in the way the upper side around the slit is decorated. They can simply make a simple cut for the slit or choose to decorate the area around the slit with geometric patterns. Two “sound holes” are made at each end.

Types of Slit Drums

Cylindrical slit drums can be found in the entire Congo and the names for this type of slit drums are the ‘mnodo’ or ‘kyondo’, although several other names are sporadically used based on ethnic groups.

There is a smaller cylindrical slit drum found in the lower Congo, characterised by its small size and by the anthropomorphic decoration that acts as a handle. This type of drum is often used by spiritual healers who summon protective spirits and communicate with them.

Larger slit drums are of the trapezoidal type. They are large and also monocyclic, taking the form of a trapezium. It is usually placed on the ground or carried around on the player’s shoulders by a strong rope while playing. The trapezoidal slit drum is often incorporated into ensembles for entertainment music where its deep tones make it ideal for a rhythmic bass.

The zoomorphic sit-drums are impressive in shape and occur in both large and small sizes. They are made from extremely large blocks of wood and are shaped into stylised animals such as buffalo or the antelope. They are distinguishable by a large trunk that serves as a soundbox. On one side is a sculpted stylised neck and head and on the other side is a tail. To add emphasis to the shape of an animal, the “trunk” of the zoomorphic slit drum usually stands on four wooden feet.

The Traditional Slit Drum Player

Playing the slit drum is the privilege of certain people in the village who are trained to do so. Not only must the drummer know how to play well but also know how to signal messages and this is a skill not everyone can acquire. The learner must be trained thoroughly by an established drummer, whose place he will usually take over. Although not everyone can play a slit drum, virtually everyone understands the signal language.

Keen to explore your knowledge of percussion instruments? Come for a trial lesson at Ritmo Music Studio, where we can introduce you to world rhythms.

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