Drum making in Uganda is one of those skills that many we wish they could have but few are gifted with. Drums are a cultural symbol and also a musical instrument for many tribes in the country.
Where can you get the best drums?
One place in Uganda where you are guaranteed to get a drum and a good one is a small town called Mpambire which is found on your way to Bwindi Impenetrable national park. It is a small town like many along the Kampala-Masaka highway and could easily be missed if you are not looking closely. This small town is home to the Buganda Royal Drum makers, families who are responsible for creating the distinct drums of Buganda. These families have carried on the drum making skills throughout generations; one could say it’s in their blood. Most of the drum makers found in this little town learnt their skill from their fathers who also learnt from their fathers and so on.
The sound and rhythm of the African drum found in Uganda is unforgettable and a number of tourists from all over the world have travelled to this small town to buy themselves a drum. It is one of the best things to take home with you as a reminder of your trip. And it is a piece of Uganda’s rich culture and history that has made its way across the world into many different homes.
Drum making in Mpambire started hundreds of years ago, but the process and product is still pretty much the same today as it was then. There are few modifications here and there, and a few modern tools but the drum is still a marvelous work of art and sound.
Mpambire is the place to go if you want to learn how to make the perfect African drum. Drum makers from all parts of Uganda travel to the small town to learn the skills and to apprentice hoping to go back to their hometowns with these new skills and keep the art of drum making alive in Uganda.
The one major limitation drum makers face is the availability of trees. Mpanga forest was an easy source of raw material but laws concerning the felling of trees even trees in private forests some of which are owned by drum makers have made it all difficult.
How is the perfect African drum made?
There are about 12 different species of trees used in the drum making process. These are sturdy trees that do not crack and are resistant to insects and weevils. Getting quality trees is not as easy as it used to be, there is a lot of bribery that goes around. Bribes are often paid to forest rangers, and logging is done in the night to ensure that no one is caught. But quality trees are worth all the effort. One large quality tree gives enough material to make up to 15 large drums.
There is some research being done to find out some other tree species that can be used to create drums with the same sound and resonance as the drums of old.
The perfect drum is made of more than just the wood. There are also cow hides used on the surface.
Why cow hides? Because bull hides are too thick and do not produce good sound.
The process of preparing the skins involves wetting, drying and stretching the skins. The skins are then woven and stretched around the drum to give it that ancient authentic African sound. During the dry season, the process of preparing the cow hides can take a few days.
What is the best drum to buy in Uganda?
Different parts of Africa add different twists to the African drum that makes it unique to that part. West Africa for example has Djembe and Bourgarabou drums. These are covered with goat skin rather than cow hide and use a lot less wood than the Ugandan drums.
In the 1990s, the Mpambire drum makers were introduced these two West African drums which are now quite popular with tourists especially the smaller djembe drum. The drum makers in Uganda however renamed them to Buzi or Kabalusi drums.
Even with these drums from other parts of Africa, the authenticity of the Ugandan drums such as the Engalabi drum is unmatched. The Engalabi drum is made from hollowed out tree, which is dried and covered with monitor lizard skin nailed into place with wooden pegs.
Some of these large drums can be used as coffee tables or end tables. Some people cover the top with glass to protect the skin.
Mpambire is arguably the best place to buy authentic African drums of all sizes. There are over 50 drum makers on either side of the main highway in this small town. So whether you are travelling to Bwindi impenetrable forest for gorilla trekking, or to Queen Elizabeth for a wildlife tour, be sure to make a stop in Mpambire and get yourself a drum and perhaps some drumming lessons.