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Exploring Percussion with Tambuco Ensemble, Part Two: Hand Percussion

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This is a guest post by Finn Smith, a 2021 Junior Fellow at the Library. He is a student at Vassar College studying philosophy and studio art, and is rumored to play (and sometimes teach) music of all sorts. In October 2020, the Library hosted the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble for a virtual concert and a series of five educational videos about percussion. Together, these videos serve as a lively and informative demonstration of how varied and versatile percussion is—while it can be formalized, it is most fundamentally a way of engaging with one’s environment musically, and is accessible to everyone. What follows are some supporting materials and questions to consider while viewing these five educational videos with kids. Part 2 of 5.

The second video in this series is on hand percussion, and it is a demonstration of how a broad range of drums and other instruments can be played with one’s hands. Hand percussion is an accessible, intuitive way to engage with music and rhythmic exploration, and it can be performed using anything from drums and percussion instruments to tabletops or other informal musical items.

A whole array of instruments are played in this video, including the djembe, which is a large, skin-covered drum with origins in West African music, and the Cajon, which is a unique box-shaped instrument originally from Peru that is sat atop while played.

a set of simple materials used as instruments, including an antique washboard
Folk musical instruments including homemade horns, homemade drum, and washboard, created between 1934 and 1950, Prints and Photographs Division

As you watch together, pay attention to the different sounds that come from each instrument depending on how it is struck. Notice that the larger drums and percussion instruments make deeper sounds while the smaller ones make higher pitched ones. The material of each instrument also affects its sound, as well as where and how hard it’s hit. You might ask kids to consider how the sound of a hand hitting a cardboard box would differ from the sound of a hand hitting the side of a water bottle. Can they think of other objects that could be used for hand percussion? What kind of sound might those objects make, based on their sizes and shapes?

Part of the beauty of hand percussion is in its ability to exist very naturally outside of formal musical constraints. So, collect some household items and see how they sound in their percussive debuts. You can use this photo of an assembled handful of makeshift percussion instruments for inspiration—it is included in the Library’s Lomax Collection (part of the expansive American Folklife Center), which documents life and culture in the southern United States in the 1930s and contains a number of photos of folk musicians playing all sorts of instruments. Notice the washboard in this image—initially just a common household item, the washboard became a standard percussion instrument in American folk music, in large part due to the talents of enslaved people of African descent who did not have access to other instruments but adapted and improvised with the materials available to them.

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