Parai Musical Instrument (DRUM)
In Tamil, the word ‘Parai’ means to ’speak’ or to ‘tell’. Local histories describe the Parai as an ancient instrument performed in the courts of Sangam, Chola, and Pandiyan rulers. The drums were used to announce important messages and orders of the great Tamil Kings. Parai was also played at weddings, temples, functions and in farms for the labourers. Until the late nineties, the Parai folk drum is mostly associated with Dalit communities (formerly known as untouchables). Dalits are the lowest ranking members of the Hindu social order, outside the four classes of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. The two best-known Dalit drumming castes are the Paraiyars (named after the Parai drum) and the Telugu speaking Chakkiliyars. The former refers to this drum as a Parai, the latter as a ‘thappu’. In addition to performing music at their own temple festivals and religious celebrations, Dalits for the last several centuries have provided inauspicious ritual services for higher castes, most notable drumming for funerals. Because of its association with death, Dalit drummers and the Parai drum are considered both impure and degraded by upper castes. In recent years, some Dalit communities have reclaimed the Parai with pride to become a symbol of Dalit cultural identity and social freedom. Note: Caste system (based on occupation). Parai, at that time a Tamil cultural symbol, was banned from playing at any auspicious ceremonies. It was made “low class” music but the so called low class Dalits had preserved and improved the great music of the ancient Tamils.
The Parai is a frame drum about 35 cm in diameter. It consists of a shallow ring of wood, covered on one side with a stretched cow hide that is glued to the wooden frame. The preferred wood is neem wood although other types may be used. The shell is made up of three separate pieces of wood each in the shape of an arc. These pieces are held together by three metal plates. The Parai is played with two sticks: one long and thin flat bamboo stick (approx. 28 cm) and one short and thick stick that can be made from any variety of wood (approx. 18 cm).
The Parai is slung by a strap on the left shoulder and is held vertically against the left side of the performer’s body. This simple harness allows the drummer to play while standing, walking, or dancing. The Parai is played entirely with sticks. There are three fundamental strokes from which all of the rhythmic patterns derive: striking the center of the drum with the shorter stick held in the dominant hand, “slapping” the center of the drum with the long stick held in the off hand, and striking the drum with both sticks, the dominant immediately followed by the off (similar to a flam in western snare drum technique).The short stick is loosely held between the thumb and three other fingers: index, middle, and ring. It is held vertically upright, positioned near the lower rim of the drum. The off hand which holds the long stick rests on the upper part of the frame. This stick is positioned at a angle pointed downward. The base of the stick is gripped by the thumb and index fingers and balanced between the middle and ring fingers. Prior to every performance, Parai drummers will heat their instruments, holding them extremely close to a small bonfire. The heat from the fire absorbs the moisture in the drum heads tightening them considerably. After heating, the drums produce a high pitched loud cracking sound when struck.
As an aural tradition, Parai folk drumming does not have a codified system of written notation. Musicians learn through years of unconscious absorption, conscious listening, imitation, and practice. Drumming is also learned through the recitation of spoken syllables reminiscent of solkattu in Carnatic music. Each rhythm has a corresponding set of syllables. However, the correspondence of strokes to syllables is not absolutely fixed. A drummer’s choice of syllables depends upon the specific combination or permutation of drum strokes, the speed at which they are played, and his own personal aesthetic and lineage. Unlike the Carnatic system, rhythmic syllables in the Parai tradition are not recited in relationship to a tala cycle designated by prescribed hand gestures.