16 April 2011

Music out of Mud: Nigerian Pot Drums in Upstate New York

The workshop took place at the upstate New York pottery studio of Frank Giorgini. He and Abbas Ahuwan instructed 12 students in the finer points of pottery drum making. The workshop proper was held on consecutive weekends, and I had the opportunity to stay the week between as an impromptu apprentice. Abbas began on Saturday with a slide show of traditional Nigerian pottery making. Abbas is a professor of ceramics at Ahmed Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria and has a Ph.D from the University of Georgia. He shared scenes from his workshop in Zaria as well from rural areas. I initially sensed an “African” sensibility in the works he depicted. Designs and methods that might otherwise be labeled primitive by some observers appeared to come alive with a rhythm in the context of culture, albeit objectified through slides. I had later several discussions with Abbas about this - the differing sensibilities of Westerners and Africans. For me, it came down to a McLuhanoid viewpoint of oral and visual sensibilities. The African peoples can be considered orally oriented, I argued, and this sensibility shows in the work, the design. One does not see the obsession with formalization, quantization and uniformity. The works are shaped with an oral sensibility, the perfection being in the unperfected form. Abbas thought about this for a few moments, then replied, “There are no bad curves in nature.”

Frank Giorgini is trained as a designer and ceramicist. He has perfected the technique of pottery drum construction. He formulates clay according to specific and secret formulas, his drums are very consistent in size, density, thickness and color. He is aware of this himself, and of the differences between his approach and Abbas’ approach. Frank was trained in the visual arts, via visual media. I laid McLuhanoid vibes on him as well and he agreed to the differences between African and Western sensibilities. But he had developed into a perfectionist quite well without the mess of perception that I imposed on the situation.

The videographers present at the workshop were less than sensitive, and at times appeared to be propping Abbas up as the “Nigerian Potter” who was exchanging, or perhaps improving, his traditional (primitive?) methods for Frank’s modern ones. Perhaps exchanging is a bad word, because the bent of their video documentary work was the trading of ideas between Frank and Abbas. But they may have been putting something there that was not as strong as they would like us to believe. The securing of a grant to go to Nigeria to make a feature documentary as the ultimate goal leads one to believe that they will make the story as exciting as possible. Sounds all too familiar. I wondered what would be left out or superimposed or re-contexted toward that end after Abbas returned to Zaria and the videographers pondered their footage.

Participants in the workshop observed some traditional ways of making drums according to Abbas, with some (modern?) modifications. The drum begins life as a slimy blob of clay - some potters just call it mud. It is kneaded and folded and wedged and pushed to remove air bubbles and achieve a smooth consistency. The clay is then pressed into a layer of grog (ground up potsherds), which acts as separator between clay and mold. The clay is shaped over the bottom half of a broken pot in a traditional Nigerian setting, but Frank has devised pre-formed molds to replace the broken pot bottoms. The clay is pressed onto the mold with the hands and later patted with a flat rock obtained from a nearby riverbed. One works from the top of the mold down, pressing the clay into a uniform thickness.

Frank devised a poking tool to measure the thickness, which he has refined to .8 cm. Abbas says he knows the thickness “by feel,” but also measures with a poker - he readily accepted some of Frank’s methods and innovations. Once the clay is molded to relatively uniform thickness around the mold, the undercut area is cut away with a pin. Frank then uses a wooden paddle to further shape the clay, but Abbas does not use the paddle at this point, preferring to continue patting the clay with the dry flat rock. The traditional way of working would be on the ground, and one would revolve around the stationary pot, bending at the waist to work. Frank uses a workbench and a rotating stand to facilitate turning, and Abbas worked this way too. He acknowledged that the bent over position was hard on his back. He did demonstrate the traditional ways for the workshop, but worked with modern methods in the studio during the week.

After the bottom half of the drum is formed over the mold, it is smoothed with wet hands. Using both hands with interlocked thumbs and swaying ones hips back and forth, a smoothing technique is used to remove any lumps or ridges and other protrusions. Almost like dancing, I thought to myself. After smoothing, the clay is left to dry in the sun. The pot must be watched carefully at this point, for if it dries too much it begins to contract and eventually will crack. When judged to be dried sufficiently, the bottom of the pot is demolded and set to rest on its bottom in a bed of sand. This is if one intends to work on the ground and revolve around the stationary drum. In the studio, it would be placed in a foam padded concave dish atop a rotating stand.

The rest of the drum is built upon the bottom half using the coil method. A piece of clay is carefully kneaded - this is essential for air bubbles spell sure disaster in the firing process - and rolled into a coil. The rim of the pot is scored with a sharp object, as are the inside and outside surfaces. The scoring is essential in providing the rough surface needed for a proper fit between the existing structure and the newly added coils. After scoring, the areas are wet with a sponge dipped in water until the surfaces to be joined become “mushy”, as Frank put it. The two prepared surfaces are pressed firmly together with the fingers. The body of the drum is at its widest point when demolded, so the shape can now tend inwards to form the upper half.

The coil is shaped with fingers first, working across the pot to encourage an in-bending curve. The two tools used at this stage are the rib and the paddle. The rib is made of either sheet metal or plastic, and is cut with one side curved and the other straight. The curved edge of this flexible rib is used to scrape the inner and outer surfaces of the drum. This action removes excess clay and has a smoothing effect on the surfaces. The second tool is a wooden paddle. It is used to shape the drum and the paddling motion is usually downward. This tends to drive the coils together. By alternating between paddling and ribbing, one can build up a smooth and uniform two inch section of the drum from a single coil. After this is achieved, the top edge is cut straight with a pin, and the drum is covered with plastic and left to stiffen a bit. Both Abbas and Frank work on several pots at once: the waiting period for one drum tends to leave gaps in time.

When the first coil has dried to sufficient hardness, the plastic bag is peeled down only to the original molded bottom shell. This tends to keep that part moist while one works on the new parts and prevents uneven drying of the drum. A second coil is added atop the first, using the same method. Care must be taken to shape the curve inwards, and at this point it becomes more difficult to smooth the inside as the mouth of the drum narrows with each coil. Frank devised a tool with a rib attached to a handle for narrow area smoothing, but I did not see Abbas using it.

Gradually one approaches the neck of the instrument. When Frank learned pot drum making from Abbas in 1974 at a workshop in Maine, he saw necks protruding from the pots. He made them for a few years like that, but then decided that a long neck hindered the sound. His drums of the late seventies and early eighties had short, stubby necks that protruded about an inch straight up from the otherwise spherical drum. After visiting Abbas in Nigeria in 1985, Frank again came into contact with long-necked drums, and upon his return proceeded to make drums with necks. He also adds rims on the top of the necks. The rims have recently widened to accommodate requests from drummers who want more surface area for tabla-like finger techniques. In turn, Abbas picked up this style from Frank, and some of his new drums have rather wide rims.

One of Abbas’ large pots with a wide rim and 116 “devil’s spikes” (to ward off evil spirits, he said, “the devil will not pick up something covered with spikes”) was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for $1500. Pot drums as art drums. Frank began making drums as an extension of his ceramic tile making. The first drums were intended as artifacts rather than practical instruments. Frank’s drums have since evolved from aesthetic art objects to practical musical instruments. He has let the sound and tone quality, as well as playing techniques, dictate his design and construction. Nigerian uses of the drum are not as stringent and virtuosic as those required by percussionist customers like Alex Acuña, Emil Richards, Mike Fisher, Mino Cinélu and George Jinda. The Nigerian traditional rhythms that Abbas demonstrated are simple and straight forward and usually the drums are used for vocal accompaniment.

I soon noticed that Abbas was more flexible than Frank in assimilating new ideas. Frank seemed somewhat set in his ways and slow to change. He has gradually evolved a precise methodology after a long period of research and development. He is customer oriented.  Abbas saw many new ideas and did not hesitate to try them out. This is perhaps for him not so much improving his technique and “advancing” himself, as much as it is trying something new. This is the African sensibility at work again. Each work is a new entity, subject to the feeling of the artist at that time, subject to an underlying groove. Like music. It is not necessary to construct according to precisely calculated norms and formulas. Neither is better than the either, it is simply interesting to point out the differing aesthetic perceptions.

As the process continues, the drum is carefully built up in the aforementioned manner, and the top rim added to the neck. There is a direct correlation between the length of the neck and the sound of the drum, but exact measurements have not been conducted. Rather, the potter tests his drum sound by puffing are with his mouth into the drum mouth, and listening to the sound as he builds up the neck. This gives a fairly accurate idea of how the drum will sound when completed. When satisfied, the top rim is added to the drum. The same scoring technique is used to prepare the two parts to be joined. A few of Abbas’ drums had very wide rims, but Frank preferred smaller ones because he said they are apt to break if the drum tips over. I got the impression that Abbas was just having fun with new forms and ideas, but may or may not permanently incorporate some of the new techniques into his style. But it will remain his because of the flexibility coupled with a keen sense of form and sonority in the creation of sculptures in sound.

I did not see Frank try any of Abbas’ techniques. If he did use any, they were not as apparent as Abbas trying Frank’s techniques. Franks drums have become valuable and expensive commodities. He spends a great deal of time on the very precisely made instruments, and they are greatly valued. But much of the time seems to spent catering to the perfectionist’s way of doing things. The degree to which all this measured perfection really improves the sound is problematic.

After the drum is completely formed, it is subjected to a final smoothing. This is an area where Frank spends a great deal of time. I tended to do the same on my drums - paddling and rubbing the hardening clay, shaping it toward a perfect sphere. I could not help but do this. Frank does very much of this. Abbas tends to leave imperfections in his work that ultimately impart a great deal of character into his forms.

When the drum reaches what is known as the leather hard stage, the sound hole can be cut and any inscriptions or designs can be etched into the body. Finding the optimum placement of the hole involves surveying the form and holding the drum in playing position. It should be on a fairly flat area, with no abruptly angled curves and it should allow covering with the entire hand without obstruction by the neck. A circular object, like a glass, is traced and the hole cut with an Exacto knife. The edge is smoothed and the hole shaped with a knife or burnishing tool. Inscriptions and designs are etched into the clay at this point, using a variety of sharp tools including those used by dentists.

Burnishing is the process of smoothing the leather hard clay. There is a tool for the process, but I saw both Frank and Abbas using the back of a spoon. Frank expressed dislike of the burnishing process, but Abbas said it was his favorite part. I tended to enjoy burnishing and alternately rubbing the pot with my hands. I think this is when you really impart your cosmic energy into the drum. The final shaping and smoothing is a meditative ritual. Why would Abbas enjoy this and not Frank? Abbas says it is when the drum is really finished, and you can continue burnishing for long periods, depending on how smooth and shiny you want the drum to end up. Again a differing set of sensibilities.

The drum is air dried, sometimes near the kiln if others are being fired, to what is known as the bone dry stage. The next step is to bisque the drum, or low fire it in a kiln. In the traditional Nigerian method where kilns are not always used, the pot is put directly into a bonfire with other pots and fired one time only. In the controlled environment of the studio situation, all of the pots were bisqued. After the kiln is loaded, the heat is gradually turned up with the lid left slightly open. When the proper temperature is reached, the lid is closed. The pots are left in the kiln for several hours. When firing is complete, the pots must be cooled slowly. Eventually the kiln is opened a bit to further the cooling process, but any abrupt change may crack a pot. The pots come out of the kiln pink. Terra sidulatta, a clay based reddish pigment, is painted on some areas. Abbas never used this before, and seemed to really enjoy putting it on various geometric designs on his pots. The drums are then left out to further cool in the air.

The last step is the raku process. Raku gets its name from an ancient Japanese process of making tea sets. The tea cups were formed and fired and then immediately immersed in water. The water quick hardened or tempered the clay, and it was later used to make tea. Raku in America has come to mean immersing the pottery in some type of substance while it is very hot. Frank designed an outdoor kiln to do his raku work. The bisqued pots are placed on a stone platform and covered with a cage lined with a thick fireproof substance. Propane fuelled flame is fed into the chamber, and the pots are heated for about 2 hours. The cage is lifted and the red hot pots are immediately plunged into a combustible medium- usually sawdust or hay. If the pots are completely smothered and covered in a can, reduction results. This is the complete carbonization of the surface and results in the deep black tones characteristic of Frank’s pots. If air hits the surface, then a white oxidized area appears. Terra sidulatta areas must not be completely smothered, for the earthy red color will simply turn black.

After witnessing my first raku session, I came to realize that these pots are borne of fire. I was perched ready with my camera to photograph the process. I had watched the pots take shape in a long arduous process with lots of slow work and waiting. One pot evolved over a periods of several days. Many hours of meditative work, carefully forming each detail and waiting for the next stage of workability. I was not ready for what was to transpire at that raku session. Frank casually announced to me “get ready for some action, Joe” as he and Abbas lifted the fireproof cage covering the pots. They were red hot and glowing in the cool night air. Wearing thick fireproof gloves, Frank lifted each drum and plunged it into to a metal can or drum that was previously filled with sawdust or hay. Abbas quickly covered each with more sawdust or hay and then put the lid on each can. The entire scene of transferring 5 red hot drums to their smothering chambers took maybe a minute and half. I blindly snapped pictures, and stumbled about amid the fiery spectacle.

After each lid was put in place, we had a moment to rest. Smoke seeped out of the cans. It is the smoke without flame that causes the pots to turn jet black. Occasionally Abbas would open a lid to add more material or turn a pot and inspect its progress. When he removed the lid of one can, the hay burst into flames upon contact with air. Abbas was engulfed with flame and smoke for a second before jumping away gasping. That explains why Frank wears a jacket, hat, gloves and glasses for this stage. It is potentially dangerous. So the drums are borne of fire in one fell swoop - a direct contrast to the slow gestation period of forming and waiting. Some pots are left in the raku cans longer than others, depending on the degree of blackness desired.

Abbas later demonstrated the construction of a traditional bonfire. In Nigeria, in cases when a kiln is not available, pots are fired in a bonfire. In the case of the workshop, the bonfire was used after bisquing the pots in a kiln and served the function of imparting aesthetic and ceremonial vibrations. First, a shallow pit was dug about 10 foot square with the edges tapered up to ground level and a depth of 6-8 inches. A layer of scrap wood was laid down and the pots arranged in close proximity to one another on top of the wood. The larger pots were put down first, and the smaller ones inserted in between. Things were packed together and tactfully arranged. Abbas placed all the pots himself, and imparted a feeling that the setting up of the fire, the layout, was very important. He asked for different sized pots to fill different areas, and eventually all the intended pots were placed. He showed a caring manner while doing this, a sort of respect for the process that he had done many times before.

Earlier in the day we visited a nearby farm and gathered a quantity of dried hay and a bit of horse manure (cow manure is more preferable and highly regarded as a fine fuel source for pot drum bonfires). After the bed of wood and pots was laid down, Abbas covered everything with a layer of hay. Then another layer of wood was added followed by another layer of hay. Several layers were alternated in similar fashion until the bonfire reached about five feet high. The horse manure was lovingly interspersed amid one of the first few layers. All was silence and we all watched Abbas for a clue as to what to do next. He said this is the end, and everyone should now add a bit of hay. Workshop participants were invited to each add a final handful of hay as good luck.  Lastly, pieces of scrap metal were leaned up against the pile to form four walls which were to serve the purpose of containing the heat.

As the videographers tried to set up the camera in the optimum position to capture the lighting of the fire, Abbas instructed that water be sprinkled over the top layer of hay. This was to cause more smoke and to keep the fire burning inside before outside. Everyone eagerly threw a handful of water onto the heap. Finally, the pile was ready for lighting. Abbas had a bit of difficulty with unruly matches, and as he asked for a butane lighter there was a few “ohs” of disappointment from the spectators: the mere thought of a traditional method being capped off with a butane lighter! The delay actually served to heighten anticipation. He lit a clump of hay and touched it to the bottom of the pile between two pieces of sheet metal. He quickly scrambled a quarter turn around the pile to light again. The cameraman fumbled to catch the shot, but before he could get set up, Abbas moved and lit the next spot. The flames quickly spread among the dried wood and hay. As he lit the last spot, the video director asked him to wait so they could get a better shot. Abbas replied, “One cannot make fire wait!”

Within minutes, the fire had enveloped the pile and licked ten feet into the air. Thick smoke poured forth and the clearing in the woods was rapidly heating up. We all stared into the fire. It would be several hours before we could examine the results of our labors which were now buried deep beneath the inferno.

During the long hours of waiting, I had time to acquaint myself with Abbas’ family. He brought his wife Martha and two of his four children. Martha spent time doing tie-dying and cooking Nigerian food. She joined in a few impromptu jam sessions and demonstrated her playing technique of the dumbbell shaped pot drum. The children, 6 year old Baba and 4 year old Bishara, were full of life and wonderment. I recall one day when I was working alone on burnishing my first pot. Baba and Bishara both spent several hours with me, each building their own pots. And they also built masks of clay. They proudly displayed their works to me and relished in my approval. It struck me that their attention span was longer than many American children I had been in contact with, although this may just be ethnocentrism at work, and perhaps wishful thinking with a touch of romance. But they did seem able to occupy themselves with simple objects, and the few toys they had were very special. They didn’t seem to be inundated with objects to occupy their attention, and although they did watch TV, it was really just watching videos.

Baba was enamored with Michael Jackson (he also cited Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles but barely acknowledged the High Life and Juju artists I mentioned), and he watched “Thriller” several times while I was there. But there didn’t appear to be any zombie like obsession with the TV image. He had just as much fun playing with the controls as he had watching the program. I sensed that he was having an audile-tactile experience with the VCR remote control device, and that this was as much fun and as alluring as the video images themselves. I tried in vain to ask him to use fast rewind to get to a point at the beginning of the tape - he already broke one control box using visual search rewind - but he insisted on watching the images flash by in reverse order as he looked for the spot he wanted. He seemed to revel in the feeling of deconstructing and reconstructing the program at will. This was an entirely different kind of interaction with the TV image that I had seen with American kids his age, and may again have its roots in the differing perceptions of oral and literal sensibilities.

Both children were fascinated by my kora. They strummed it every time I was playing, and I tried to show Baba some konkon tapping patterns. He was able to grasp the idea, felt a groove and was eventually able to play the konkon I was singing. Bishara strummed the strings along with me and she always had a wide grin when I played. My instrument was too big for either of them to play or even hold properly- their fingers couldn’t reach the strings - and I somehow wished I had a miniature kora to instruct them the way traditional Gambian kora jalis instruct their young apprentices - through observation and mutual participation (see Echology #3). They may have done quite while, I suspect. Baba was often found curiously poking around inside the kora for the loyo or yeyenyo. He was amazed at the “magic” of the yeyenyo, which vibrated sympathetically with each strum and pluck of the strings. They had never seen a kora before, but seemed very at home with it. Baba learned the name, as he learned many words while I was there. Bishara too picked up words quickly.

Later that evening, the bonfire had burned out and stood in the clearing as a pile of ashes and rubble. We helped Abbas remove the rubble, and revealed variously blackened pots. Many of the potters were, however, disappointed with the results. They expected the pots to come out with the shiny uniform blackness characteristic of Frank’s pots, which resulted from the controlled raku process. The bonfired pots came out with different degrees of blackness. The pots at the bottom had areas of rich black contrasted against areas of grey and pink with earthy tones interspersed. Pots on the outside had less black, but still ended up being imparted with a sense of natural beauty. Nevertheless, between the videographers’ complaints of a rushed fire and the dissatisfied potters, Abbas reluctantly agreed to a second bonfire. Those who wanted to re-fire their pots were free to do so, with an increased risk of breakage. I chose to keep mine as is, relishing in the chance patterns that were etched onto it by the unruly fire. The second bonfire was smaller and less spectacular and utilized greener grass to increase the smoke and the blackening effect. But the twice fired pots just ended up looking kind of brown and sooty.

[This article originally appeared in the M.U.S.E. Letter (1990, pp. 47-56), an occasional publication of Musicians United for Superior Education, a Buffalo New York based NGO co-founded by Charlie Keil and dedicated to applied socio-musicology for participatory consciousness through drumming. It's based on my field journal from the pot drum workshop I attended at the home and studio of Frank Giorgini in the summer of 1989, where Frank and Abbas taught a number of participants the fine art of making musical instruments from clay. I arrived on the bus from Buffalo with my kora in tow, which I used to entertain the participants as we crafted our drums. Special thanks are extended to Frank, who graciously let me stay in his home during the week between the two weekend workshops, and to Abbas for sharing his art with us all. Frank has since produced an educational DVD detailing and demonstrating the process of building and playing udu drums, a preview of which is on YouTube.]

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this article! I made an Udu drum in my ceramics class and I found it very interesting to see the different techniques and approaches to their construction.