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Bodhran Tutor :The Secrets of the Bodhrán and How to Play it

Welcome to "Secrets of the Bodhrán" a short but we hope a rewarding journey through the mystery, history, lore, culture, techniques and principles of this unique Irish musical instrument.

Malachy Kearns is one of the few people producing the Bodhrán (pronounced Bow-Rawn) on a professional basis, and used by many professional musicians both in Ireland and abroad.

History


Like most things in Ireland, the origins of the Bodhrán have been lost in the mists of time. But the Irish love a good argument, so there are various theories as to its origins, - and there are even some people who argue that it should not be played as a musical instrument at all! - Thankfully in a minority!
The arguments (theories) on the origin of the instrument basically fall into two categories:

  1. The drum was invented many years ago in Ireland and metamorphosised from a work implement to its present state of art.

  2. It arrived in Ireland from abroad, between one and two thousand years ago.

Theory No.1



The Bodhrán fails into the category of a 'Frame Drum', made from a circlet of wood (e.g. ash) which is easily bent and upon which is stretched a treated skin of an animal, usually, a sheep or a goat.

At first glance, it may remind one of a skin tray or a sieve, such as is used on a building site to sift materials. And it is this first glance upon which the first theory lies.

sketch of an eearly bodhran

It is well known in the Celtic World (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany etc.), that a 'skin tray' fitting the above description was in universal use for over one thousand years, and in fact was still being used in parts of Ireland during the 1950's. This tray was suitable for winnowing (separating chaff from grain) a process still to be seen in third world countries such as Africa or India. It could also be used as a sieve through the simple process of punching holes in the skin.

This implement had various names:- DALLAN,WECHT,WICHT, and interestingly enough BODHRÁN.

Now Wecht and Wicht translate as 'sieve', but Wicht is also 'creature'. Wecht is close to the word Wecken (to wake tip). Bodhrán translates as 'tray', but also as 'thundered', 'deafening' and 'dull sounding'! So we instantly have a connection between the work instrument and the musical instrument. But what is the secret of the Bodhrán. Was it a drum first, that became a useful work instrument, or was it the other way round?

Theory No.2


Was the Bodhrán a drum of purely Irish origin, of Celtic origin, or did it arrive courtesy of other cultures? There is some evidence to suggest that the prototype for the Bodhrán arrived here through the Roman Empire or through Arabic traders. One can see Roman murals depicting musicians and dancers using frame drums including the 'tambourine'! The frame drum is used today in Algeria, Morocco, Basque country, Lapland, China, Russia, Mongolia, and many other countries. It's also still used by the native American Indians and many other indigenous peoples throughout the world. The author has in his possession a frame drum from Azerbejan, a country situated on the Caspian Sea (North of Iran) and a Chinese tambourine.

The majority of these drums are used purely in religious or cultural festivals, and it is only in countries such as Ireland, the Basque country and Spain, where they are an integral part of musical entertainment. And it is only in Ireland that the frame drum has reached a high degree of sophistication.

The very fact that so many races and cultures make use of such a basic musical instrument can lead to two fundamental conclusions.

  1. Each race and culture developed the drum according to it's 'needs'.

  2. The drum was handed down or across from race to race, culture to culture.

So what is the real secret of the Bodhrán? 

 

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Roundstone Musical Instruments Ltd.
Malachy Kearns,
IDA Craft Centre,Roundstone,
Co. Galway, Ireland.

Tel:+353 95 35808
Fax:+353 95 35980
E-Mail: bodhran@iol.ie