Welcome to "Secrets of the Bodhrán" a short but we hope a
rewarding journey through the mystery, history, lore, culture, techniques and principles
of this unique Irish musical instrument.
Malachy Kearns is one of the few people
producing the Bodhrán (pronounced Bow-Rawn) on a professional basis, and used by many
professional musicians both in Ireland and abroad.
Like most things in Ireland, the
origins of the Bodhrán have been lost in the mists of time. But the Irish love a good
argument, so there are various theories as to its origins, - and there are even some
people who argue that it should not be played as a musical instrument at all! - Thankfully
in a minority!
The arguments (theories) on the origin of the instrument basically fall into two
The drum was invented many years ago in
Ireland and metamorphosised from a work implement to its present state of art.
It arrived in Ireland from abroad, between
one and two thousand years ago.
The Bodhrán fails into the category of a 'Frame Drum', made from a circlet of
wood (e.g. ash) which is easily bent and upon which is stretched a treated skin of an
animal, usually, a sheep or a goat.
At first glance, it may remind
one of a skin tray or a sieve, such as is used on a building site to sift materials. And
it is this first glance upon which the first theory lies.
It is well known in the Celtic
World (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany etc.), that a 'skin tray' fitting the
above description was in universal use for over one thousand years, and in fact was still
being used in parts of Ireland during the 1950's. This tray was suitable for winnowing
(separating chaff from grain) a process still to be seen in third world countries such as
Africa or India. It could also be used as a sieve through the simple process of punching
holes in the skin.
This implement had various
names:- DALLAN,WECHT,WICHT, and interestingly enough BODHRÁN.
Now Wecht and Wicht translate
as 'sieve', but Wicht is also 'creature'. Wecht is close to the word Wecken (to wake tip).
Bodhrán translates as 'tray', but also as 'thundered', 'deafening' and 'dull sounding'!
So we instantly have a connection between the work instrument and the musical instrument.
But what is the secret of the Bodhrán. Was it a drum first, that became a useful work
instrument, or was it the other way round?
Was the Bodhrán a drum of purely Irish
origin, of Celtic origin, or did it arrive courtesy of other cultures? There is some
evidence to suggest that the prototype for the Bodhrán arrived here through the Roman
Empire or through Arabic traders. One can see Roman murals depicting musicians and dancers
using frame drums including the 'tambourine'! The frame drum is used today in Algeria,
Morocco, Basque country, Lapland, China, Russia, Mongolia, and many other countries. It's
also still used by the native American Indians and many other indigenous peoples
throughout the world. The author has in his possession a frame drum from Azerbejan, a
country situated on the Caspian Sea (North of Iran) and a Chinese tambourine.
The majority of these drums are used purely in
religious or cultural festivals, and it is only in countries such as Ireland, the Basque
country and Spain, where they are an integral part of musical entertainment. And it is
only in Ireland that the frame drum has reached a high degree of sophistication.
The very fact that so many races and cultures
make use of such a basic musical instrument can lead to two fundamental conclusions.
Each race and culture developed the drum
according to it's 'needs'.
The drum was handed down or across from race
to race, culture to culture.
So what is the real secret of the Bodhrán?