Home World - India Udu or Ghatam - Pot Drum
Udu or Ghatam - Pot Drum

Not at all a membranophone but rather part idiophone, part percussion aerophone, The udu drum has been around for centuries, tempting subtle rhythms from the master drummers of Nigeria and modern day percussionists alike. Udu quite udu.jpg (41903 bytes)simply means ‘pot in the language of the Ibo tribe of Nigeria, and a pot it literally is. Pots and percussion seem to go together rather well.

Pop down to the garden centre and see for yourself. Tap a few and you will soon hear how some of them resonate. You’II probably get a few odd looks, maybe even get thrown out  but what the hell, if it’s all part of the educational experience of life then it must be of benefit.

Turn on to classical carnatic music from South India and you’ll hear a pot called the ghatam.  Listen to pot players such as T H Vinayakram with Shakti and you’ll be blown away. In a more Current Vein ,artists as Varied as Miles , Sting and Jan Garbarek have all used udus on some of their world tours and recordings. If pots have been used so effectively as drums for so long, and across so many continents, then there must be something in them, other than air.

Although both the Indian and the Nigerian pots are made of clay, the udu differs From the Indian ghatam in one very important feature~ the number of holes. The ghatam has only one opening on its top, like a normal water pot. The drum stands about 14” high, has no neck, and is round in shape apart from the flat playing surface which leads up to the hole on top. This opening is about 5” in diameter. Traditional players spend most of the time playing the outside of the pot with their fingers, wrists  and thumbs, and use the airy ‘whoof whoof’ sound - created by displacing air in the pot by hitting over the hole -very sparingly. sududetail.jpg (77682 bytes)

The udu on the other hand, is more of a side hole pot drum and has two holes about 3” in diameter — one on the top and one on the side. Having said this, I have seen pictures of ancient Nigerian pot drums which have looked radically different, some having very wide holes on top and tiny holes in the body of the drum. Traditionally it is more spherical in shape than the ghatam, and has a narrow neck which leads up to the hole on its top. The udu also comes in different sizes and traditionally would make up a family of four drums in the same way as many other sets of African drums . These four pots range in size from 18cm to 40cm in height. Each drum would have a different pitch, the largest being the bass voice and the smallest the treble voice. Some believe the deep haunting sound lured from the sound chamber by the bare hand, to be the voices of the ancestors, causing it to have significant involvement in religious ceremonies.

The origins of the drum have been traced back to Central and Southern Nigeria, and it has been Found that, although we’re using the term udu, the side hole pot drum is known by many different names, depending on the tribal areas and particular ceremonies in which it is used.The traditional method for making an udu is to pound a lump of soft earthen clay over a firm spherical form known as a lump mould. The lump of clay is placed on the mould and tempted into shape around it with a large flat stone. It is then carefully beaten to uniform thickness with handmade paddles a little like huge wooden spoons or ping pong bats. Following this it is cut down to a half sphere on the mould. This half sphere becomes the bottom half of the drum. The top half is then constructed using the coil method, which involves building up long lengths of clay, one upon another, before squeezing, paddling, and shaping them up and into the sides of the drum. The important thing during this process is to make sure that the sides are of uniform thickness — this is of vital importance to the quality of sound of the finished instrument. Building up the sides in this manner can be as slow as one and a half inches per day, and can take as long as fourteen days to complete.

After this, the side hole is cut and the drum is hand-rubbed with a smooth stone to seal the surface. This has the effect of giving the drum a deep lustre without using any type of glaze which might make it less resonant. The drum is then dried under strictly controlled conditions before it undergoes two firings — the first at a specific temperature for hardness and sound quality, and the second in an outdoor kiln. It is removed from this kiln whilst glowing hot and plunged into a container of combustible material. Once removed from the ashes it reveals its traditional black lustre finish. The whole process is said to take at least one month.

The work done during the early paddling construction work has one very interesting consequence to note, that is, the reformation of the tiny platelets which make up the clay. The continuous pounding compresses, aligns and interlocks the platelets into a strong, dense body which has similar properties to a hand-hammered cymbal. The end result is a strong, resonant pot with two holes. We could call it a single hollow sphere with a straight neck of calculated length and width relative to the volume of the chamber (Fig. 1). Helmholtz resonator is the general term used for resonators such as this with non-tubular air chambers communicating with the outside air through a single aperture (presupposing there is only one hole) UDU PICS002.JPG (110616 bytes) Since the early ‘80s the existence of the udu drum has been developed, transformed and made altogether more accessible thanks to the efforts of one man, Frank Giorgini. With a Bachelor of Industrial Design, a Bachelor in fine Arts in Education, and a Master of Fine Arts in Ceramics, along with his full time ceramic sculpture studio and gallery in Freehold, NY, Giorgini developed and once was solely responsible for supplying the whole percussion world with udu drums. (Now companies like LP have taken the torch where there once was risk)

Where is the divide between art and the instrument? Why shouldn’t one make an instrument into a work of art at the same time? Giorgini must he the only drum maker in the world to get two of his instruments taken on by one of the major art galleries in the world as permanent exhibits. Pop into the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, NY and see for yourselves. If you can’t get there then you can always try the Nassau County Museum of Fine Arts in Roslyn or the Art Awareness Gallery in Lexicon, NY. It certainly brings another dimension to drum making.

Since his involvement in 1985 with master Nigerian potter Ahbas Ahuwan, Giorgini has spent his time developing the udu drum. This has manifested in a number of ways. Besides making them stronger and more durable (apparently not one has broken under a player’s hand), he has introduced a whole new range of Udu designs. Some seem to look like bowling balls whilst others look like molten dumb bells. Others look quite simply like something you’ve never seen before.

The drum can be played in a number of ways; for example, by sitting cross legged on the floor, one can put the drum in one’s lap with one hand over each hole. The hand on the top controls the pitch while the other plays over the hole on the side. One can use the palms, finger tips, slap in the fashion of conga playing, or even play them with mallets or brushes. It is also possible to stand-mount Udu drums and play them standing up.

Some of the contraptions for this purpose are quite extraordinary in their own right and could probably find their way into an art gallery on merit of their obscurity. Anyway, most percussionists could immediately get a result on an udu drum, but particularly players who are used to intricate passages with their fingers, i.e. - tabla players or Middle Eastern percussionists. Udu drums have even been compared to tabla in as much as some of the glissandos that  can be produced are very similar to the speaking voice of the bass tabla.

Having spent years developing his drumming pots Frank Giorgini decided he wanted to increase his knowledge and went for some further field studies in Nigeria. “It was a bit like a scene from a National Geographic article,” said Mrs Giorgini about their journey from the States to Nigeria with a 15Ib udu pot in tow, to arrive and have an audience with an important person in a mud hut. “It really was a great honour for everyone.” Evidently the transfer of information went both ways; the master Nigerian potter was so fascinated by the shine on Frank’s drum that he got him to repeat his method several times over until he had memorised it.

Further developments are leading to even more elaborate looking drums. For example, it might he interesting to look at the transformation the kim kim clay drum underwent at the hands of Giorgini. These clay drums, along with a number of other side hole drums, shekere, a woodblock, and a large clay drum played with a leather paddle, provided the orchestral accompaniment to the women’s wing choir of the evangelical churches of West Africa. This drum was basically a double chambered pot which looked rather like a dumb bell. The drum had a hole in each chamber and was played vertically with one hand hitting the top hole whilst the other held the middle and changed the pitch by moving the bottom hole on and off the thigh. Giorgini experimented, making it larger and larger until it became too large to be played in the traditional manner and had to he played horizontally with a hand on each end like a double ended Indian drum. He also changed the shape of the chambers to make the bass and treble more distinct from one another, and curved the tubular middle section so the drum had both its playing surfaces upright. The result, as you can imagine, is far from the norm.

If you are thinking of checking out an udu drum for your percussion set up, now is a great time. There are plenty available at a very reasonable price and they are ideal to experiment on. Go for it!!  Let me know the results at on my email address there.

CDs of Pete's work are now available from his site

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