These bronze drums are found all over a vast territory covering Southeast Asia and southern China and coinciding with that of the Dong Son culture, a civilization which developed during the second half of the 1st millenium BC in the delta of the Yuan Jiang River (the Red River).
The large number of bronze drums discovered in dignataries' tombs suggests that they may have had symbolic significance connected to the exercise of political or religious power. As highly prestigious objects, they may have been exchanged or given as presents to foreign visitors, which would explain the fact they are sometimes found in places very far from where they are believed to have been made.
Bronze drums have been the subject of a large number of texts in which they are primarily studied as archaeological pieces. Little is known about their musical function, only that they are played in certain communities of Southeast Asia. The ethnomusicologist Véronique de Lavenère was able to study these instruments in Laos, among the Khmou' people. They are hidden in the forest where they are buried and only dug up very occasionally to accompany funeral rites or agrarian rituals.
The tympanum of these bronze drums bears in its centre a twelve-pointed shining star, surrounded by panels of different widths, some of which are decorated with tiny geometric shapes, fine intertwined motifs or stylized birds. On the edge of the tympanum, at the ends of two perpendicular diameters, are four groups of two frogs one on top of the other, facing anticlockwise.
The base is cylindrical and widens out towards the tympanum. It has many horizontal lines on it bordering certain panels of repeated designs and four prominent vertical ribs, the marks of the assembly sutures of the parts of the mould in which the instrument was cast. On one of these sutures, an elephant and three round knobs are reproduced in relief.
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In a study based on the MEG collection, published in 1919, the anthropologist and doctor Georges Montandon attempted to trace the origins and descent of musical instruments throughout the world. He grouped the instruments in ensembles, presented as plates of photographs and drawings. The study ends with a geographical sketch map showing the distribution of different types of instruments across the world.
As the study was read in scientific circles, the MEG’s instrument collection, classified in this manner, was widely quoted and used by researchers working on rational classification. The diffusionist approach was later abandoned to the benefit of comparative organology and contextual inventories.
This group is harder to name than the others and was long defined by default as the class of instruments that did not belong with the wind or string instruments but were not drums either.
More positively, instruments which produce sound when the rigid body of the instrument itself is made to vibrate (by knocking, striking, shaking, etc.) belong in this group.
The term “idiophone,” from the Greek and Latin word idios, “by itself”, has replaced the earlier term “autophone” for this family of musical instruments.
- Wen YuSelected ancient Bronze Drums found in China and Southeast Asia.As 870, Pl. LIII.
- Kunst, J.The Cultural Background of Indonesian Music.As 678 (2), Fig. 10 p 19. Texte p. 6.
- Yampolsky Philip. 1986. Review of Nordsumatra/Indonesien: Gondang Toba by Artur Simon. Ethnomusicology vol 30, No1, 150-152
- Cusinier, Jeanne. 1948. Les Mu'o'ng. Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie., 445-450
- Goudineau, Yves. 2000. Tambours de bronze et circumambulations cérémonielles. Bulletin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient Vol 87, No 2.
- Parmentier, Henri. 1918. Anciens tambours de bronze. Bulletin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient, Tome 18., 1-30
- Brüschweiler, Françoise. 1963. "Trois tambours de bronze du Musée d'ethnographie de Genève", in Archives suisses d'anthropologie générale, 1963, t. 28, no. 1-2, p. 30-80, 60-63