Sri Lanka’s traditional musical instruments
The classical Sinhalese Orchestra consists of five categories of instruments. The drum is the king of local percussion instruments and without it, there will be no dance. The vibrant beat of the rhythm of the drums form the basic of the dance. The dances feet bounce off the floor and they leap and swirl in patterns that reflex the complex rhythms of the drum beat.
This drum beat may seem simple on the first hearing but it takes a long time to master the intricate rhythms and variations, which the drummer sometimes can bring to a crescendo of intensity.
The typical Sinhalese Dance is identified as the Kandyan dance and the Gatabera is indispensable to this dance. It is a long, double-headed drum with a bulge in the middle, worn around the player’s waist.
The Yak-bera is also known as “the demon drum,” or the drum used in low country dance, in which the dancers wear masks and perform devil dancing, which has become a highly developed form of art. This is a double-headed drum with a cylinderic wooden frame.
The Dawula is a barrel shaped drum indigenous to the Sabaragamuwa dance style. It is used as an accompanying drum in the past in order to keep strict time with the beat.
The Thammattama is a flat, two faced drum. The drummer strikes the drum on the two surfaces on top with sticks, unlike the other traditional Sri Lankan drums, which are played by striking the sides of the instrument. In the Hewisi Ensemble, this may be a companion drum to the aforementioned Dawula.
The Rabana is a flat faced circular drum and comes in several sizes. The largest of which has to be placed on the floor in order to be played – which is usually done by several people (normally the womenfolk) who sit around the instrument and beat it with both hands. This is used in festivals such as the Sinhalese New Year and ceremonies such as weddings. The resounding beat of the Rabana symbolizes the joyous moods of the occasion.
The small Rabana is a form of mobile drum beat – carried by the performer to produce accompanying drum rhythms for the pieces being performed.
The Thalampata are the metal percussion instruments that are almost always made up of cymbals and two small cymbals joined together by a string.
The Horanawa is an oboe-like instrument that is played during traditional ceremonies in Buddhist temples to accompany the percussive instruments and dance.
The Hakgediya is conch-shell and another form of a natural instrument. The instrument’s primary function is for the performer to play it (by blowing) to announce the opening of ceremonies of grandeur.
The wind section is dominant by a wind instrument, something akin to the clarinet. This instrument is not normally used for the dances mainly because the Sinhalese dance is not set to music as the western world knows it. Rather, the primary sense of rhythm, and patterns of man in motion, is the music that is beaten out by the drummer.
The flutes made of metals such as silver & brass produce shrill music to accompany Kandyan Dances, while the plaintive strains of music of the reed flute may pierce the air in devil-dancing.
According to the historical record available today, it is believed that several instruments originated within the tribal groups that once inhabited the island presently known as Sri Lanka. Among these, seven remain in use:
- Gáta Béra – Also referred to as the Kandyan Drum; it is a double-headed, barrel-shaped drum, that is played by hand).
- Thammátama – A twin-drum (similar to the bongo) that is played with two sticks instead of by hand.
- Yak Béra – Also referred to as the Low Country Drum; it is a double-headed, barrel-shaped drum, that is played by both hands (one in one side).
- Udákkiya – A small, hour-glass shaped drum, that is played with one hand while the other hand modifies the tension of a cloth wrapped around its centre (thereby changing the pitch of the drum-head).
- Hand Răbāna – A drum similar to the tambourine (except in that it does not possess metal jingles)
- Daŭla – A double-headed, barrel-shaped drum played by hand (on one side), and by a stick (on the opposite side).
- Bench Răbāna – Similar to the hand rabana, except larger (it is often played by three to eight individuals simultaneously).
In addition to these drums, a new drum was recently created (in 2000) by Sri Lankan musician Kalasoori Piyasāra Shilpadhipathi, referred to as the Gaŭla – it is a barrel-shaped instrument containing one head from the Gáta Béra, and one from the Daŭla. A set of rudiments (practice rhythms) were also created by him to accommodate the instrument’s unique tone.
Also in addition to these drums, the dhōlki is also used by many musicians – though this drum is believed to have descended from those brought to Sri Lanka from India – unlike the aforementioned instruments; which are believed to have existed in Sri Lanka prior to the arrival of the first Indian explorers (though this is difficult to verify due to the proximity of the two nations to one another – it is impossible to say, with any degree of certainty, that no cultural exchange occurred between the peoples of southern India and Sri Lanka prior to any particular date in history).
In 2011, an eBook and a small print book were published with basic playing technique for the Thammattama drum, using Western Notation as a basis. The title is “Sri Lankan Drumming: The Thammattama” published by BookBrewer (eBook) and CreateSpace (Print Book).
See also: Ravanahatha
The Ravanahatha is a crude violin made of coconut shell, bamboo and goat skin, with a natural fibre serving as the string. Goat and sheep gut and coconut wood are also used. It is believed to be the first stringed instrument to be played with a bow and is recognized as the world’s first violin.
The Ravanahatha or Ravana’s hand is mentioned in the ancient Indian epic ‘Ramayana‘. The Ravanahatha sounds like the north Indian instruments Sarangi and Esraj. Dinesh Subasinghe has re-introduced this instrument to Sri Lankan media in 2007 and launched the first CD using the instrument, Rawana Nada.