This fall, Nen Daiko took on some major drum maintenance projects. This blog is about how we restretched the cow hide on one of our large drums, or o-daiko, to improve its sound. To read about the reheading process of our chu-daiko or medium drum, click here.
We removed the old head not because it was damaged, but because it had become loose and did not make a good sound anymore. Since the hide was thick and in otherwise good condition, we decided to reuse the head by stretching it tighter. There were stain marks from the old tacks or byo, but we thought it was worth it.
We soaked the old o-daiko head, but kept the “mimi” or the “ears” of the taiko head dry. The mimi is an area of reinforced hide around the rim where we put a lot of force during stretching, so keeping the area dry and strong is critical. We put the drum head in the baby swimming pool with a few inches of water, weighed down by a bucket.
We tried to scrub off the circular stains from the old byo, first with water, then with rubbing alcohol and a toothbrush, but that did nothing. Since it was only an aesthetic issue, we decided not to worry about it. Since the head was already in the right shape, it didn’t take long to thread the metal rods through the mimi, wrap the rope around the drum, and secure the head on the o-daiko. This is a very solemn and serious process, as you can see!
To start the stretching process, we increased the tension on the ropes by twisting in hardwood dowels that had been sanded smooth. Then, it was time to put even more pressure using four car jacks underneath the stand. Each pump of the car jack pushes the drum up into the hide, creating more tension on the rope and force on the mimi so the hide can stretch down. Everyone pumped with the same number of pumps at the same time to provide an even pull on the hide.
As you can imagine, the car jacks put a lot of tension on the mimi. The amount of force necessary to getting the drum hide stretched tightly enough is really quite remarkable.
Now comes the surprising part – we stood on the drum and massaged it with our bare feet! Feet sense where the hide is thicker and needs more stretching. You can step more on the thicker sections, and advise the group which ropes to pull tighter by pumping specific car jacks. Luckily, we were doing this work in a room with rafters which you can hold on to while standing on the drum.
After each stretch and foot massage, we listened to the drum head to see if we needed to tighten the car jacks more, checked to make sure the mimi and ropes were holding, and kept the top of the head damp and pliable by pouring water on towels.
Finally, when the tone of the drum head went up instead of down, we moved on to the next step where we secured the hide in its newly stretched position. We marked where the new byo, or tacks, would go with a large, compass made from a yardstick, clamp, and pencil. The makeshift compass wasn’t the most precise instrument in the world, and would sometimes slip as we were trying to scoot around the drum. But it was much better than marking freehand, and we did our best using our MacGyver-ed compass. We made some final adjustments by eye so the line marking the first row of byo and the distance between each byo would be fairly even.
Spending the time to mark the locations of the byo as evenly as we could didn’t necessarily mean the the pilot holes we drilled ended up where we intended. Despite our best efforts, the drill tip sometimes bounced in a little to the right or a little to the left. Sometimes the drill went in smoothly and sometimes there was more resistance in the wood and made the drill go in at an angle.
When we first started tapping in the byo in, we were nervous and tentative. This caused the byo to go in at an angle and sometimes break off as we tried to fix it. As we got practice and more confident, we could tap them in with three swift hits. We finally got into the rhythm of drilling and hammering. By the time we put in the second row, all the little imperfections --including the stain marks from the old byo we were trying to scrub off at the very beginning-- were not a big deal any more.
The re-stretching process for the odaiko head lasted until the evening, but with a lot of teamwork it turned out well and the head sounds wonderful!
We are not taiko-building professionals, so our drums do not have the beautiful craftsmanship of a professionally made taiko. But all the flaws and imperfections in each of our drums have a story and make them very endearing to us. When we make and maintain our own drums, it reminds us of the impermanent nature of our drums (like the hide becoming loose or developing a hole) and all the interdependencies that allow us to have a drum to play (like the tree and cow and metal that make up the drum and the teamwork needed to create it). These reminders and reflections deepen our appreciation for our instruments and each other.
What We Did While the Hide Was Stretching
Stretching drum heads is a practice of hurry up and wait. We did other great maintenance projects in the waiting times. For one project, we moved our drum storage shelves from one part of the Ekoji Buddhist Temple to another that was better suited. We added padded Hawaiian-print fabric to protect the drums when we put them on the shelves.
We tightened our shime daiko, or the drums tied with ropes. We use a bachi to pull on the ropes.
Dee says bare feet are the best to hold the drum while you pull the rope. Emily does double duty – tightening shime and entertaining our smallest re-heading team member.