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History of bubyns

A brief insight into the instrument’s history

The frame drum (or tambourine) is a percussion musical instrument that consists of a wooden frame and a drumhead – a membrane of leather or some other material stretched across that frame. The sound of the instrument is created by the membrane vibrating when hit by the player’s hand or a special drum stick. The diameter of a frame drum is usually larger than their body depth, while in the frame there may be metal jingles or zills, or inside the frame (in its back) – some jingles mounted on wires arranged in a cross pattern. Still there are frame drums without such jingles.

The frame drum is used in a wide range of ethnic music, namely: Irish, Belarus, Polish, Portuguese, Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Spanish, Finnish and others. In all these diverse traditions the drum may be fairly similar in its appearance the same as its playing technique, while still numerous nuances of the playing technique may differ.

There has been mention of this type of percussion instrument already in Ancient Greece, similar drum in the old days has been widespread in Europe, Asia and America. The travelling musicians of the 14th century spread the frame drum all over Europe. In the Western Europe of the 19th century it was already an integral part of the peasant folk musicianship. The English scholar, researcher of percussion instruments James Blades in his book Percussion Instruments and their History states that „…The popularity of the tambourine was maintained throughout the Middle Ages in all parts of Europe. The use of the frame drum – a drum with a single drumhead on a shallow frame – is widespread both in the sense of time and location, and also varied in detail, from shamans’ drums to the large modern orchestra bass drum with a single drumhead. The most common type in the Middle Ages was very close to the tambourine, as we know it today, and even closer to the Turkish instruments of the 19th centuries, displayed in numerous museums. …”

The ethnographer Īrisa Priedīte places the introduction of frame drum in the music making practice on the territory of Latvia in a comparatively recent period – according to her opinion it happened in the late 18th – early 19th century.

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The frame drum in Latvia

Though the frame drum has been used on the whole territory of modern-day Latvia, the largest amount of information on the frame drum originates from its eastern part - Latgale. The older generations of the folk musicians from this region have given this instrument the following names – bubyns (the most widespread version), bubna, mozou bundzeņa (the little drum), bunga, barabans, mozīs barabans, bubeneņš. The name bubyns may be a borrowing from the Eastern Slavs, who know a tambourine-type instrument with the name buben.

In order to achieve the accent of the sound and – to an extent – a visual effect, bubyns was sometimes played with the musician holding the instrument in his hand and then moving downward behind him in a fast movement, hitting the heel of the opposite foot.

In Latgale the stick used to play bubyns was also known as kalatuška or kūceņš. The name kalatuška bears a great resemblance to the name of the drum stick used by the Belarus musicians. The playing of bubyns was usually referred to by the musicians themselves using the terms dasišona (‘adding some rhythm’) or pīpaleidziešona (‘helping’), as it has never been used as a solo instrument. In some cases the frame drum in Latgale has also been referred to as barabans (coincides with Russian for ‘drum’).  The term barabans was used to designate different drums: kettle drum, cylindrical drum with a single drumhead, cylindrical drum with two drumheads. The oral tradition and colloquial speech used barabans and bubyns as synonymous.

The musician playing the bubyns is referred to by different names: bubynists, barabanščiks or bundzinīks. In the second half of the 20th century bubyns in Latgale was most frequently played as accompaniment of an accordion or harmonica, but also in bands using other instruments, at all kinds of family festivities, like weddings, etc.

In the central and western Latvia – Kurzeme and Zemgale – the frame drum was known by the name sietiņš (‘the little sieve’). The name of the instrument is connected to use of an actual sieve in the process of making the drum as the basis for it. The same name also appears in the “Latvju dainas” edited by Krišjānis Barons: a description of a wedding from the southern Kurzeme mentions that „[…] there also were musicians with fidles, sietiņš and clarinet […]”. The outstanding Latvian composer and ethnomusicologist Jurjānu Andrejs describes his field-work in Kurzeme as follows: “Besides we here transcribed a few dance tunes from Mr. Steinberģis, and had the chance to take a look at his percussion instrument sietiņš, which – though made by himself – resembled to a great extent the well known tambourine played by other nations, the Russian buben”. The ethnomusicologist Valdis Muktupāvels says of the sietiņš as follows„ […] It is said to have been introduced via travelling musicians at the end of the 18th century from the Polish and Belarus people. The frame of a sietiņš is made from a 4-7 cm wide strip of pine or fir wood, bending it into a circle. On one side of the frame there is placed a goat or dog skin, secured by a metal ring. The ring is held in place by metal hooks, secured using screws. In the wall of the frame there are 4-6 elongated openings, where little bells or pairs of round metal plates are attached. In some cases the backside of the frame has a crosswise attached wire with the bells. The sietiņš is played hitting it with a special wooden stick, fingers or the palm of one’s hand. The instrument can also be rhythmically shaken.”

The frame drum has been called bundziņas (‘a little drum’) in both Kurzeme and Latgale. The same name can also be found in some folk-songs, nevertheless the context provides no decisive indication whether the mentioned instrument is some particular type of drums. The mention of little bells could be the only feature of bundziņas as the frame drum.

At The beginning of the 21st century the functions of bubyns in folk music groups changed. It is perceived as a musical instrument, and playing it is viewed as a full-fledged performance not just some „addition of rhythm” or „helping”. The instrument can be played at the performance of music of various types and genres, not only the traditional one, and the name bubyns is now recognised all over Latvia. The stick is called bubyna vālīte, bubyna kociņš vai rundziņa by the musicians of the younger generation.

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