(a) Bronze drums’ specific arrangements
Inscriptions on bronze drums are always written in Chinese characters, of which:
+ Henri Parmentier (EFEO) mentioned (with doubt) one inscription on Heger I
(collection Touan-Fang) which referred to 30 bce date
+ The Victoria and Albert Museum (South Kensington, London) displays one Heger I
with an inscription below the protruding part of the mantle: “Made on the fifteen day
of the eight month of the Chian-an IV” (199 ce)
+ The Vienna Museum (Austria) displays an Heger IV bearing four Chinese characters in
the fourth band, interchanging with four dragons (no date)
+ The Vietnam National Museum of History (Hanoï) displays Ninh Hiep drum with
many Chinese inscripted characters (D53/H38 cm – Heger IV) etc.
All inscribed drums may be considered from Guangxi (China) or next provinces, not prior to ce. Dian and Dongson early drums were never inscribed except for rare ones afterwards.
Note: Before introducing “inscribed drums” there should be no doubt about their authenticity. They possibly were graved at a later date than original casting, may be to try to make the drum older or younger than if was for any reason.
Heger I early drums at time show the presence of spacers creating from origin a number of holes or perforations on their tympan and mantle, possibly resembling a circle (like on the “Vienna”drum) or spread over the surface (like on the “Moulié” drum). Spacers, (as sprues, gates, runners) were part of any bronze casting process and the resulting holes had not been filled. May be a few ones resulted from attempts to repair a crack or as a mean to slightly change the drum’s tonality - not excluding other magical or symbolical unknown reasons.
Note: No valid theories could be deducted from the number or the localisation or the format of such holes. In case of many holes has been proposed the term of “chaplet(s) of spacers”.
Average Bronze Drums dimensions (cm), weight (kg), and metal composition
(from F.Heger and A.J. Bernet Kempers)
H I H II
60 to 80
4 to 8 cm
40 to 60
3 to 6 cm
30 to 50
less than 1 kg
Note: Heger II are much more heavy than others of comparable size, often more rough. The lightest items are possibly the oldest.
Metal composition: Probably much depending on ores’ availability (and prices), no true correlation could be made by type but copper, lead, tin, zinc, were the basic components anyway. Ores average estimates: copper from 60 to 85%; lead from 14 to 26%; tin from 5 to 15%; zinc, under 5%; with sometimes traces of gold and/or silver.
Two drums from apparently the same origin and type could have very different chemical components: maybe produced in different times; maybe produced by distinct artists; maybe adapted to various budgets. Although tempted, it is difficult to make a historical classification based on chemical criteria. For Dongson Heger I drums only a vast enquiry was done in 1989 by Vietnamese Prof. Trinh Sinh on 555 samples: 35% were made of Cu Sn Pb; 25% of Cu Pb Sn; 20% of Pb Sn; 12% of only Cu; the rest with other alloys based on Cu. (no zinc - no phosphorus in Dong Son alloys)
(b) Bronze drums’ usages and customs
Contemporary small panorama
+ In meridional China, bronze drums were mostly placed (and played) in temples devoted to water and thunder divinities, they also used drums in case of epidemic or illness. Yi and few other chinese groups continue to play bronze drum during banquets.
+ In Burma, drums were played for kings but first for or against rains and also in ceremonies like marriages or funerals as attested nowadays, often inside christian churches...
+ In Siam and then Thailand, bronze drums remained part of the royal instruments to be played during king’s appearances together with a fanfare of trumpets. At home Heger III or miniatures can be part of family altars devoted to ancestors.
+ In Laos, Kmmu and Lamet people sprinkled the drums with animal blood before playing to ask for good crops, and sometimes lit candles on them before praying privately.
+ In Vietnam, last main uses concerned funeral ceremonies, often in the mountains borders where many “Nationalities” had immigrated.
+ In Indonesia, Moko drums are played and remain part of “social exchanges” in Alor island(s) only.
New perspectives had recently emerged, sometimes at Universities levels, with the creation of specific orchestras including bronze drums for part or in totality, with DVD or CD outputs in China. On the web (cf “Bronze drums festivals” and Youtube) are several examples of which can be cited in U.S.A. the patronage of Northern Illinois University where Burmese specialist Professor (em) Richard M. Cooler was teaching. There, an orchestra set up by Dr Gregory Beyer gave in its first performance (3/12/2012), a quintet of Karen bronze drums, as part of the closing ceremony of International Burma Studies Conference.
Ways to Play Bronze Drums
Bronze drums could be played differently according to their types or usages.
Heger I and Heger II which could weigh up more than 100 kg necessitated either an open socle either a wooden frame, if not a kind of palanquin, to permit stability and a good resonance. At least recently, these drums were played with one mallet striking the
center of the tympan, eventually with a second one.
For Heger III a big wooden mallet, covered or not with skin, was used to hit the centre
of the tympan, with a bamboo’s stem to strike the mantle. In Burma the drum to be kept more or less horizontal could be suspended with the help of its handles to trees or roofs for better acoustic results. In case of funerals “cold sounds” were emitted with the drum turned “up-down” and possibly supported by a wooden frame, Heger III weighting about 20 kg. Kmmu people in Laos suspended their drums rather close to the ground and a pomelo fruit fastened to a short stick was used at funerals to produce softer sounds. In Thailand Heger III are generally supported by a wooden frame.
Heger IV being low were often put on an open socle and played by seated musicians— when not suspended with handles like for Kmmu or Lamet in Laos.
Indonesian huge Pejeng was probably played horizontally with a stand or socle even if no old records exist. The giant “Moon of Pejeng” could emit thunder sounds far away (30km?) when played with a big mallet.
Small Moko is played during family ceremonies, first during marriages but not only. Nowadays it is said that young people in Alor use them to dance during private parties; a “tam.tam” mode apparently not so welcomed by the seniors
Miniature drums could not be played, too small by construction.
Note: These “noise-makers”, part of a great musical family, were functioning in much the same way as bells or gongs do in any religions, either only to claim the attention, either to formulate a particular petition to the skies.
In the Burmese traditions, the musician placed his big toe in the lower set of lugs to stabilize the drum while striking the tympanum with a big mallet on one hand, the other one made available to perform more softly on the cylinder.
(c) Rivers Trends Before and Nowadays
At times rivers basins and shorelines played a central role in the Bronze Drum odyssey when examined country by country from southern China to the tropical seas.
Himalaya’s rivers radiating to the East were keys for the Bronze Age. Of these, the northern main basins were respectively named Huanghe (Yellow river) and Yangzi (Long river) in the great plains of China, their tributaries being connected to the Yunnan/Guangxi Plateau; and the southern Mekong for (now) Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
To be added locally: the Irrawaddy for Myanmar (Burma); the Chao Praya for Thailand (Siam); the Red or Black or Ma rivers between (now) South China and North Vietnam.
In total a drum’s trip of about three months from (now) China to southern archipelagos via other basins of the Indochina peninsula according to the historical Chinese records.
Nowadays new asphalted roads and bridges are very rapidly “killing” the activities of the rivers which until recently were so important. Sadly, charters apart, no regular boat traffic exists anymore on the Mekong between China and Vietnam, contrasting so much with the verge of the present 21st century when the author personally could enjoy that trip of about three thousands kilometers in three weeks with ten different boats between Jinghong in Yunnan (China) down to the neighbourhood of Saigon (Vietnam).
By contrast, traffic continues year-round with cargo vessels along the eastern Red River between Yunnan and Hanoï, and along western Irrawaddy (Myanmar) or Chao Praya (Thailand) water highways - all recently tested but also possibly deserted in the near future except if cruising fleets are taking up the baton.