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Craftsmen and workshops manufacturing the instrument

The frame drum known by the name bubyns in the eastern Latvia – Latgale – resembles the frame drum played in the Belarus, Russian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and other folk music traditions, and as it can be expected, also the manufacturing process of the instrument is similar. The main materials necessary are as follows: skin, wood for the frame and the playing stick, metal plates. Sometimes also a set of wire-mounted is added in the inside of the drum to add the jingle when shaking the instrument, so one might also need the material for those.

The frame


Traditionally the most widespread is the frame drum with a diameter ca. 30 -50 cm and frame depth 7-12 cm. Various types of wood can be used for the frame, such as ash, oak, birch, pine or fir. A strip of a young tree is the best, so it can be easier to bend, the width of the strip is 7-12 cm. The wooden strip is carefully and slowly bent, joining the ends using either rivets or glue. After that the structure needs to be well dried, so it becomes rigid and stiff. In order for the wood to look good it has to be sandpapered from both sides. To protect it against humidity the wooden frame can be varnished with a waterproof lacquer. After 1950s the frame was made of veneer. 

The openings for the metal plates are then cut into the frame, in order to make the sound louder the openings can be arranged into two parallel rows. The sound of the metal should not be excessively shrill, brass is the nest material here.

The fastest way to make the drum frame was to use a flour sieve for it, as the frame of this implement is also round. This may have given the instrument the parallel name – sietiņš ‘a sieve’.

The leather

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For making a bubyns usually a processed goat or calf skin is used now, while until approximately the 1960s also dog and cat skins were used. Usually in a farm there were several dogs, and it was considered an honour to give the skin of an old dog to a musician so he could make a drum. There were also beliefs regarding this, e.g. near Auleja it was said that the louder and more the dog barked the better the drum sounded.

The fastest and most convenient way to treat the skin is removing the hair using hot ashes, but there are more sophisticated ways of treating it, also the skin will be more durable and look better. The first step in preparation of the skin is to soak it: the skin is placed in a bucket with water at 18- 22 degrees centigrade, and it remains there for 20- 24 hours, though every 4 hours it has to be kneaded somewhat and the water - changed. After that the skin must be cleaned of fat and tissue: it is placed on a wooden board, and then all of those have to be scraped off with a knife. It is a time-consuming process, and one must perform it with utmost care not to destroy the skin making it unusable. 

The hair can be removed using chemicals: calcium hydroxide Ca (OH)2 and  Na2S. A solution is prepared of 75 grams of sodium sulphide to a litre of water, when a homogeneous mass is formed, the skin is soaked in it, the side cleaned from fat and tissue facing down. The skin has to remain soaked for ca. 8 hours. It must be taken into account that the reaction releases an unpleasant odour – hydrogen sulphide. Still, when everything is done correctly, the hair should be removed from the skin easily. Finally the skin is rinsed with water.

There is another method applying tanning of the skin adding much wood bark (hazel, alder) and rye flour to the water. Soaking the skin in this preparation for at least 10 days should remove hair without any additional effort.

The skin must stretched over the previously built frame while it is still soft, then it is secured using a metal ring which is locked in place with screws or iron pins. The skin is allowed to dry like this. In order for the bubyns to be durable and serve longer the skin must be well stretched and thick. Using iron pins the skin can be stretched additionally before each performance. The skin can also be secured to the frame using wire. The instrument’s skin must sound low. Sometimes it has been said that before playing bubyns water or ale must be poured onto it to achieve that correct, low sound.

It has been pointed out that in 1950s – 60s sometimes the tambourines bought in music stores were used, adding the wire and bells on their inside.

The playing stick


The playing stick for the frame drum is either turned or cut from wood, with one end usually being larger than the other. Sticks with a ball on one end are quite widespread, adding to the weight of the respective end which is then used to hit the membrane. The diameter of the stick (usually ca. 16 cm) and its length also change the overall sound. The stick must be heavy, so it is made from birch or even oak wood.

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