Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Bodhran

The bodhrán (pronounced /ˈbɔːrɑːn/ or /ˈbaʊrɑːn/; plural bodhráns or bodhráin) is an Irish frame drum ranging from 25 to 65cm (10" to 26") in diameter, with most drums measuring 35 to 45cm (14" to 18"). The sides of the drum are 9 to 20cm (3½" to 8") deep. A goatskin head is tacked to one side (although nowadays, synthetic heads, or new materials like kangaroo skin, are sometimes used). The other side is open ended for one hand to be placed against the inside of the drum head to control the pitch and timbre. One or two crossbars, sometimes removable, may be inside the frame, but this is increasingly rare on professional instruments. Some professional modern bodhráns integrate mechanical tuning systems similar to those used on drums found in drum kits.


There is evidence that the bodhrán was used during the Irish rebellion of 1603, by the Irish forces as a battle drum, or that the use of the drum was to provide a cadence for the pipers and warriors to keep to, as well as announce the arrival of the army. This leads some to think that the bodhrán was derived from an old Celtic war drum.


Third-generation bodhrán maker Caramel Tobin asserts that the name bodhrán means "skin tray"; he also suggests a link with the Irish word bodhor, meaning soft, or dull sounding.[1] Another theory asserts its name is derived from the similar Irish word bodhar, meaning deaf. A relatively new introduction to Irish music, the bodhrán has largely replaced the role of the tambourine, suggesting another possible origin for bodhrán's name from the abbreviation "'bourine".

Possible Antecedents

The bodhrán is similar to the frame drums distributed widely across northern Africa from the Middle East, and has cognates in instruments used for Arabic music and the musical traditions of the Mediterranean region (see Music of North Africa, Music of Greece etc.). Traditional skin drums made by some Native Americans are very close in design to the bodhrán as well.[1]

There is a close similarity between the bodhrán and Spanish military drums of previous centuries, suggesting the instrument may have been introduced by Irish who had served in the Spanish military or acquired knowledge of the instrument from Spanish comrades aboard sailing ships.[2]

It has also been suggested that the origin of the instrument may be the skin trays used in Ireland for carrying peat; the earliest bodhrán may have simply been a skin stretched across a wood frame without any means of attachment.[1]

Peter Kennedy observed a similar instrument in Dorset and Wiltshire in the 1950s, where it was known as the "riddle drum", and suggested that this instrument may have originated in England.[who?]

Dorothea Hast has stated that until the mid-twentieth century the bodhrán was mainly used as a tray for separating chaff, in baking, as a food server, and for storing food or tools. She argues that its use as musical instrument was restricted to ritual use in rural areas. She claims that while the earliest evidence of its use beyond ritual occurs in 1842, its use as a general instrument did not become widespread until the 1960s, when Seán Ó Riada used it.


There are no known references to this particular name for a drum prior to the 17th century. Although various drums (played with either hands or sticks) have been used in Ireland since ancient times, the bodhrán itself did not gain wide recognition as a legitimate musical instrument until the Irish traditional music resurgence in the 1960s in which it became known through the music of Seán Ó Riada and others. Prior to this, it was primarily used for festival processions only in the southwestern part of Ireland.

The second wave roots revival of Irish Traditional music in the 1960s and 1970s brought virtuoso bodhrán playing to the forefront, when it was further popularized by bands such as Ceoltóirí Chualann and The Chieftains.

Growing interest led to internationally available LP recordings, at which time the bodhrán became a globally recognized instrument. In the 1970s, virtuoso players such as The Boys of the Lough's Robin Morton, The Chieftains' Peadar Mercier, Planxty's Christy Moore, and De Dannan's Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh further developed playing techniques.

International Use

Although most common in Ireland, the bodhrán has gained popularity throughout the Celtic music world, especially in Scotland, Cape Breton, North mainland Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The Canadian Maritime group Great Big Sea uses a bodhrán in many of their songs. In Cornwall, traditional music sometimes uses a version of the bodhrán called a crowdy crawn ,[4] the use of this instrument to store odds and ends led to the name also being used to mean 'miscellaneous'.

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