Czech instrument maker Pavel Jasanský understands the healing power of drums
Pavel Jasanský is a musician, music therapist and instrument maker who specializes in drums: West African djembe drums, frame drums and powwow drums that are custom made for his clients. He loves the spiritual aspects of these musical instruments and is familiar with the legends and sacred rituals associated with them.
Pavel Jasanský lives in an isolated dwelling surrounded by forests and a small lake. He says the place captured his heart when he saw it by moonlight as a teenager and he promised himself that one day he would build a house there. At the age of thirty, he fulfilled that dream, creating a place that is perfect for his life-long passion.
“I was fifteen or sixteen when I fixed my first drum. I pulled it apart and studied how it was made. When I fixed it, I decided to make my own drum, soaking up all the information I could get my hands on on the art of drum making. I didn’t have money to buy a drum and I also really wanted to make it myself. I gradually mastered the craft, honing my skills with every next drum made, first for friends and then for others eventually reaching a point where I was making enough to support myself.”
With a strong belief in the power of music for healing the soul, Pavel was especially fascinated by the drums of ancient tribes –West African djembe drums and powwow drums with which the drummer seeks to connect with those around and with Nature.
“One of the people who taught me the most about drums was my friend Sapazi who is into Indian culture. He taught me how to make shaman drums that you play with sticks. You see them all over the world. In Arab countries they play them with their fingers. Those require thinner leather. “
Making a West African djembe drum is a craft packed with spiritual significance. Africans say that the drum contains three spirits - the spirit of the tree from which it was made, the spirit of the animal whose skin is played, and the spirit of the carver. When joined in harmony, the spirits make beautiful, powerful music.
Pavel needs to speak at length to every client in order to give them a perfect custom made instrument to suit their needs.
“I need to find out what exactly they are looking for. There are so many possibilities depending on the kind of leather used, its thickness, the shape of the base…all this determines the sound of the drum. I need to know whether they want to play it indoors or out, whether they want high notes or prefer bass sounds. I can influence all that and create exactly what they want.”
The West African djembe is used by tribes at marriages, baptisms, funerals, circumcisions and excisions. They also play songs during ploughing, sowing and harvesting, during courtship rituals and even to settle disputes among the men of a village. Pavel picks up one from his work desk.
“The base has the shape of a cup and it is made from a single piece of wood which I get from West Africa. It is currently one of the most popular instruments in the world. Here we have bass drums, bass drums were used in this part of the world in the Middle Ages. But this here is a collection of African bass drums Dundun, Sangban and Kenkeni, which are used by African bands.”
Pavel says one of the key skills he had to learn was how to process and work with leather.
“There are many types of leather and you need to look for the properties you need for a given type of drum - pliability, strength and toughness. For instance if you are making a drum that will be played directly with the fingers you need thinner leather. You usually use goat skin for that and there is a big difference between Czech goats and African goats in this respect. I use calf skins and deer rawhide a lot and usually do my own tanning, unless it is a bigger commission in which case I have it done.”
Pavel’s workshop is full of a vast assortment of different drums for different purposes and from different cultures. When people are interested he is even willing to help them make their own drum in his workshop.
“Just drums would not be enough to keep me in business and I love to play and experiment with musical instruments so I am willing to make unusual pieces for people –like this drum with another African musical instrument attached to it – the Kalimba. It has a tranquil sound and is good for music therapy.”
While most of his time is spent making custom-made pieces, occasionally Pavel is asked to fix a rare old drum. He says that is a huge treat.
“I have fixed some special pieces, for instance a couple of drums that were over half a century old, and I was amazed by the quality of the leather processing. I was also asked to fix some Japanese Taiko drums for the Dragoon Boat festival. These are smaller barrel-shaped drums with spikes and richly decorated with red and gold ornaments.”
Pavel says that the secret to making good drums is understanding the culture and traditions which they are part of.
“This here is a powwow drum made from a large base and covered with rawhide from deer. The pow wow drum can be played by eight or more men who form a circle around it and sing along to the beat. This one is 70 centimetres tall, but I have made some that were a metre high. It is important for me to understand the rituals that the drums are used for, how the instrument is supposed to sound and hear the songs that accompany the beat. I find all that immensely interesting.”
Pavel has two drums that he made for himself and won’t lend to anyone. He says there’s no better way to relax than drumming. Together with a couple of friends who share his interest in Indian culture he founded the band Detvan, with which they regularly appear at multi-genre festivals.