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The coffee maker is gurgling when I arrive at Pat and Joanne Jarvis’s home in Centreville, on Nova Scotia’s Digby Neck peninsula. On the wall, right near the old Enterprise stove, a chalkboard to-do list reads, “Make drums” and below it, “Play drums more.”

At 63, Pat’s been making African drums for nearly 20 years. He grew up in Weymouth Falls, and still owns the family property there. That’s where he cuts wood — birch, beech, spruce, fir, oak, maple, chestnut, hackmatack, and more — for his drums. He’s a constant experimenter, working with different materials and techniques. While I was there, he showed me a drum made with wood he’d left soaking in a swamp for six months, and a talking drum that incorporated tomato paste and pasta cans. Lately, he’s been making mini-drums as earrings and Christmas tree ornaments, partly as a way to cut down on waste.

Drumming came into Pat’s life in his 40s, and immediately captivated him. Today, he’s known for the instruments he makes under the name Ancient Hermit Drums. He enjoys doing school workshops, and he and Joanne — a musician and storyteller who works at the Digby library — are regularly called on to drum at events like community-college convocations. They met at the library in Weymouth, NS, 12 years ago, when Joanne invited Pat to do an African Heritage month presentation on drums: “Then we wound up doing another performance where I was drumming and she was doing storytelling, one thing led to another, and then we had a date and that was it.”

I started off by asking Pat how he first became interested in drums, and in making them.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

I’d have to say that was a spiritual awakening, because I’m a recovered alcoholic. Sept. 28, 2004, I came to in the morning—because you don’t wake up from being drunk, you just come to.
And for some reason, instead of taking a drink I poured the bottle out, and I went to the library in the afternoon to check my email, which I hadn’t done in about two weeks. And there was an invitation to go to a drum circle that night. That was my introduction to drums. They just spoke to me, you know, just looking at them, getting to play on them, hearing the sounds. And I decided I wanted a drum. But because of my life circumstances, I couldn’t afford to buy one.

Self taught as a child

I’ve got a long history as a woodcarver, and I went out and got myself a block of wood and tried carving a djembe (a rope-tuned, skin-covered goblet drum). It didn’t turn out too bad, but I thought, well, maybe I can do better. So I got another block of wood and started to work on another one, and then another one, and then another one. And it took on a life of its own. I’ve been making drums now for 18 years.

As a woodcarver, I’m self-taught too. My first carving was a trout about as long as a finger, when I was about 12 years old. I got into my father’s toolbox and took his quarter-inch chisel and his utility knife, and I was sitting out back of the barn, in the bush there, whittling and carving away, and made myself a little trout. I went to college, and for one of the courses I was taking there we had to do some actual time in a blacksmith shop. I learned how to properly heat steel and then shape it.
It took a while to find the right way to do it, but I started making my own carving tools. And then I got into drums, so I started making tools with longer handles and blades, experimenting with different steels. My father always collected all kinds of steel, and he didn’t call it the junk pile. That was “the spare parts department.” And I’m still using that spare parts department.

My father had a little shingle mill that he ran off the power he’d take off his tractor. And then after he sold the gear off, what was left of the building sat there for years. And then I decided, well, I’ll build a cabin out of it. And I lived there for probably close to 20 years. 

Ancient Hermit

I was working in a lumber mill, and I got hurt. I had a repetitive stress injury that fractured a vertebra in my upper middle spine. While I was healing, there wasn’t much I could do. I might
as well just carve.

And then in the last couple of years of my drinking, I had basically neglected the tools and the carving until the day after I put the bottle away. I picked them up, sharpened them up, and bought more tools. If I couldn’t buy them, I made them. I’ve been carving ever since.

About two weeks before I stopped drinking, a friend of mine asked me if I could ever quit, and I was thinking, “No, I can’t.” She told me, “I mean, just look at you.” I was living in the little cabin by myself, pretty much off-grid, and not really having a whole lot to do with the outside world. All the drinking was taking its toll on my appearance. I looked older then than I do now. And she told me, “You’re living like a hermit. You’re just a recluse, and you look really old. Ancient, even.” When I decided to give my company a name, those words stuck with me. So I chose Ancient Hermit Drums, because it reminds me of who I was, and where
I was, and why I don’t want to go back to that again.

After I was introduced to African drums, I started becoming a regular at the library, because at the time I didn’t have a computer. I did hours of research. Then I got my own computer and sat at home doing hours of research. The internet is a wonderful resource when used properly. I can go to YouTube and there are thousands and thousands and thousands of videos on African drumming from all over the place.

Pat Jarvis plays one of his djembes, handmade African drums. 

African drums made by hand

Djembes originate in Mali, Guinea, and now they’ve spread all over the world. I more or less go looking online for pictures of drums and go oh, that’s cool. I’ll try to make that one. One thing I have found is there is more or less a standard size and height range for djembes: 24, 26 inches (about 60 to 66 centimetres). I’m one of these what-if guys. What if I do this? What if I do that? I tried making some 27, 28 inches (68, 73 centimetres) tall, but I added most of that extra on the bottom, and it increased the strength of the bass note because you get a little more controlled resonance before it exits the drum.

I experimented with some of the different hardwoods, and I noticed there’s different sounds depending on the type of wood used. Beech, which is a really hard wood, makes a very bright sound. Cherry is softer. You still get that high note, but it’s a more mellow sound.

For the skin, I use mainly goatskin. Hunting season’s coming up, so I hope there’ll be a few hunters who pass over a few deer skins. The deerskin sounds pretty good, but the problem with it is it’s more stretchy than goat, so it takes longer to get it tuned up. I tried bearskin. Beautiful looking skin when it’s new on a drum, beautiful sound—but with all that tension they eventually just rip. I was sitting at my computer one night, and there was one sitting right behind me, and I hear what sounds like paper tearing, and it was the hide just tearing apart. Just slowly ripping. I had carved a picture of a bear on either side of the drum, so I put a second bearskin on, and a couple of months later it did the same thing. Bearkskin simply can’t handle that kind of tension.

I’ve tried North American cowskin, but that’s very thick. I think climate has something to do with it, because they can be a quarter-inch thick. Whereas a goatskin might be two, two and a half millimetres. Putting a North American cowskin on a djembe, no matter how tight you pull it, it’s still going to sound like a conga.

Drums are the original instrument. In African cultures it’s the instrument. Stringed instruments came along afterwards, but before that it was always percussion. I’ve also got Mi’kmaw ancestry, and with them, the hand drum is basically their number one instrument, and the main rhythm they play is always the heartbeat. The heartbeat is the very first rhythm we hear when we are in our mother’s womb.

I have found, in playing African rhythms, that if I pick it apart, I can find the heartbeat at the centre of it. The difference between African drumming and First Nations drumming is that First Nations drumming is the heartbeat.

In African drumming, the heartbeat is there, but the drummer dances around it.

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