Pow Wow Now:The Drums

By John Curl
Monday September 27, 2010 - 08:26:00 PM

Pow wows often have two host drums, one Southern and one Northern. All other drums are invited, and some often show up unannounced. At this year’s Berkeley pow wow the Host Southern Drum is Rockin Horse, with lead singer Rick Leroy, and the Host Northern Drum is All Nations, with lead singer Michael Bellanger. The drums usually take turns, unless the MC or arena director specifically asks one drum to play a particular song.  

Many drums travel from powwow to powwow each week and are in high demand. Many have recording contracts, and each year drum groups are nominated for Grammy awards in the Native American category. 

The drum is heartbeat of the pow wow.  

Each drum has a lead singer and a second lead. The lead singer is responsible for knowing any kind of song requested by the MC or arena director. When the lead singer sings a line, the second lead usually repeats it in a variant key. 

There are two basic styles of pow wow drumming and singing, Southern and Northern. These are not geographical locations so much as different styles and arrangements. Southern singing is in a lower pitch and slower than Northern, which is often in a high fast falsetto. Songs are usually in Native languages. Sometimes the songs are not in words at all, but in vocables, “meaningless” syllables carrying the melody and meaning.  

A pow wow drum is considered a sacred instrument. In many traditions it is never left unattended, nothing is ever placed on top of it, and no one can reach across it. It is constructed with a wooden shell covered on both ends by the stretched hide of a deer, buffalo, elk, or steer. The tension on the drum heads tune it, determining pitch and voice. Usually about 26 – 32 inches across, standing off the ground, it is large enough for five to ten people to sit around. There are usually at least four drummers, one for each of the directions. The drummers beat it in unison with hide-covered sticks. They are also singers, and their song arises from their unique blend of voices and drumming. Each group of singers is called “a drum.” Most drums are all men, but some have women members and some are all women. Drummers usually dress in ordinary clothes. Most drum carriers and singers have studied many years learning the traditions and the songs. Many of the songs have been passed down for unknown generations, while some are recent. During a song, there will be occasional “honor” beats, louder and in a slower tempo, which are said to be done out of respect for the drum. A single drum beat supposedly represents Mother Earth and a double drum beat represents human beings. Every pow wow drum is said to contain its own spirit, so the singers must comport themselves with traditional dignity around it. 

Numerous stories are told about pow wow drums, that a woman’s spirit lives inside them, that they place the people in touch with their heart, bringing balance, life, and spirituality, that they channel ancestral voices to heal the people and the earth, that the drum carries its beat down into the heart of the planet, and returns carrying the earth’s heartbeat up into the pow wow, summoning the people together and harmonizing them.  


This year Berkeley Indigenous Peoples Day Pow Wow and Indian Market will be held in Civic Center Park on Saturday, October 9, 10am to 6pm. Sponsored by the City, it is always free.