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A Brief Introduction to Ojibway Musical Instruments

JoAnne is a minister of metaphysics, a lecturer, and a counselor at the University of Sedona.

Ojibway Music and Ritual

Every culture has a definition of the vibration they create and how their music functions within their social structure. The Ojibway people of Northeast Michigan value music for the personal and magical powers that are indispensable to their ceremonies and rituals. Music is a functional part of other, non-musical activities as well.

Songs are connected with the treatment of the sick, children's entertainment, or social events. Game songs, war songs, love songs, work songs, and those sung by storytellers are an important part of daily life. Drums, rattles, and flutes were made from raw materials and are used in rhythmic accompaniment to singing.

3 Types of “Dewe’igun” (Ojibway Drums)

  1. The Hand Drum
  2. The Mide Drum
  3. The Flat Drum

1. The Hand Drum

This instrument consists of a piece of rawhide stretched over one side of a hoop and is laced or tied together on the reverse side to form its handhold. Another form of the hand drum has two heads stretched over one hoop with the rawhide handhold stitched on the outer edge of the hoop. A cord is often attached, and the drum is used in the manner of a snare drum.

These percussion instruments are generally 2.5 inches thick and 18.5 inches wide. Pegs are attached to the rawhide cords within the drum and can be twisted to tighten the heads for timbre. These drums are often called “moccasin game drums” as they are used during that game. The heads of both types of handheld drums were decorated with dream symbols.

Drumming sticks were often five inches long, made of bone or wood, and were hooked at the striking end. Some said the drumming stick was more important than the drum as they represented the head and eyes of the “owl.” Before striking the drum the stick is raised toward the west to give the signal that the bird should respond to the drum call. Other sticks have padded deer hide on the striking end.

2. The Mide Drum

The Mide drum, water drum, or “mitig’wakik,” was a ceremonial drum. It is a wooden kettle drum made by hollowing out a sixteen-inch-long basswood log. The wood is charred and scraped until a cylinder is formed. A thin wooden disk with a hole plug is fitted into the lower end. Before each use, a few inches of water is poured into the drum and a wet 18 inch heavily tanned deerskin hide is stretched over the drum. A willow hoop secures the hide. The drum is placed by the fire to tighten the head.

This drum is used by a high-ranking member of the Midewiwin Grand Medicine Society and is decorated by the owner depending upon his rank within the lodge. These drums can be heard from long distances and are important messengers of the Mide hierarchy.

3. The Flat Drum

The flat drum has come into use in recent years. The Ojibway use a large flat drum, either placed on the ground or suspended from curved stakes. This drum is decorated with beaded velvet and is used for dances or during ceremonial events. It is a bass drum and can sometimes be made by stretching hide over a washtub.

Moccasin Dance Drum

Moccasin Dance Drum

The Ojibway Rattle

Rattles are usually used in rhythmic accompaniment to singing. They are made from birch bark strips with a cover of hide shaped into cylinders. Each is filled with small pebbles and shot, then sewn with sinew. They are then pierced with a stick and that formed the handle.

Some rattles are made by forming a hoop of willow, covering it with hide, and then filling it and sewing it in the same manner. Rattles are not richly decorated. A flat hoop rattle would probably be a “doctor’s rattle” and be used much like a tambourine. Rattles are used to “shoot life power” into an initiate during the Midewiwin rituals. Most rattles were made in sets to constitute the correct pitch.

Intertribal Drum Song

The Main Wind Instrument Is the Flute A Bec

The wind instrument of the Ojibway is a type of flute called an "a bec." It is played by blowing air into the chamber at the upper end. The flute has six finger holes with five holes around the end. Cedar, box elder, ash, and sumac are the favorite woods used and a raw piece is cut in a nineteen-inch section before construction.

A straight round section of wood is split into two equal parts. Each half-section was hallowed out, except near one end where the bridge is left. When the two pieces are glued together, a cylindrical tube forms with a solid area in which to carve the air hole. A square opening is cut through the side tube above the bridge to create a wind chamber, and one is cut below into the sounding tube.

Finger holes are created. Glue was created by frying the backbone of a fish. The residue in the pan is gathered on a stick and applied to the two pieces of wood. They are bound by thin strips of deer hide until they are firmly attached. The flute is only played by young men in courtship and as a way of sending signals of danger.

Flute A Bec

Flute A Bec

Ojibway Rhythms

Rhythms were fairly simple in Ojibway music. A steady beat with rattle tremolos is commonly played. Solo singing is for lovemaking, ridicule, boasting, lullabies, and medicine songs. There are no lyrics per se, but old words, phrases, loanwords, or special phonetic sounds are sung. Melody is absent except for an occurrence of drone.

Music is produced for pleasure, but most songs are functional, ceremonial, or part of other non-musical activities. The creation of instruments is considered a functional art form, and all instruments (except for drums) are not decorated. The functionality of the product was the word of the day.


Pentoth on April 12, 2012:

Chi Miigwetch Cabinwriter

jamila sahar on March 21, 2012:

very interesting, having studied ethnomusicology in grad school, i enjoy reading about and especially listening to music from all over the world, voted up and interesting !

eudociadavis on March 01, 2011:

Informative,thanx for sharing!

makwawai on December 12, 2010:

Megwetch Cabinwriter.

cabinwriter on December 12, 2010:

Very good article. Great work.