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Native American Drums & Songs. The drum is the heartbeat and central pulse of the Native American powwow. There are always one or several groups of singers who sing as they beat in unison a rhythm on a large drum. Each group of singers is called a drum (usually 5-10 members or entire families). Each drum has a lead singer and a “second” who repeats the lead line on a different or similar key (Roberts 192:125). The drum or drums are positioned around the edge (under the arbor when outdoors) of the dance arena. The singers are very important to the structure of the powwow because they must know several types of songs for all the different dances, honorings and events that take place. It is common for participants and visitors to cluster around a good Native American drum, sometimes recording the songs. Good drums are in demand for powwows and become quite popular. Many make professional recordings that are sold at powwows and other Indian venues (Ancona 1993:14).
Drums take turns and often a certain drum is requested for a particular song. People who make a request for a drum are expected to pay the drum group a small sum of money. Usually drummers are men, but women may also drum and sometimes an all women’s drum group is seen. Women are commonly seen standing behind the drum singing along with the group. Some tribal groups believe that the gift of drumming was only for men. Drums usually receive financial assistance from the powwow committees to help pay for traveling expenses for visiting drums. At a powwow the drums play when the emcee calls their name out. The host drum is number one and sits closest to the announcer’s stand (Braine 1995:26).
Drum groups play several different kinds of songs, some of which are very old and traditional. Each drum has it’s own style, such as Nothern or Southern. Northern singing is a higher pitch than Southern. Songs are sung four times, a sacred number in the Native American tradition. Most songs have no actual words but are syllables that carry the melody and the meaning of the song. These syllables are called vocables. Some songs are sung in English or Native languages or in a combination of both. (Braine 1995:28).
Often at powwows, during the dinner break, Aztec Dancers perform in the dance arbor. They bring their own drum, which is a different style than the powwow drums. One of the Aztec dancers beats the drum during their performance. The rhythm of the Azteca drum is also different than the powwow drums. Aztec dancers are considered natives, peoples indigenous to the Americas, and are very often an important and entertaining component of the powwow, their drum beat being very intense and distinct.