Monday, February 24, 2014

Making A Clapper Stick - A Native California Instrument

A recent project of mine has been to create my first elderberry clapper stick.  I finished making it just in time to demonstrate it’s use on a native plant tour I guided at the beautiful Rosemont Preserve.

Clapper sticks are an ancient Californian musical percussion instrument made from a split and hollowed out stalk of the Elderberry tree (Sambucus mexicana).  Native people in California didn't play drums to accompany them in song and dance as other cultures may have, but instead used this unique instrument, along with a traditional four-holed elderberry flute.  For this reason, the elderberry tree was known to native Californians as the Tree of Music.

A clapper stick is made by splitting a straight branch part way to it’s handle, and striking the split ends together against the palm to produce a rhythmic, clapping sound.  To make my clapper stick, I first selected and harvested a young, straight elderberry branch.  I then carved away the bark, save for a section I kept in place as the handle.

Once that was done, I used a saw to split the branch and then hollowed out the pith from the center of it.  Once the basic shape was complete, the carved portions were sanded down.

I painted four stripes onto my clapper stick with the red dye of the cochineal insect, which lives on the prickly pear cactus.  Cochineal has long been used as dye by native people throughout Central and North America, and became a sought-after commodity following the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521.  As a final decorative touch, I tied a hawk feather above the handle with deerskin, and added a strip of rabbit pelt below the handle for decoration.

I now have a wonderful way to demonstrate on my hikes how the Tree of Music has been used here in California for thousands of years.  The elderberry branch, cochineal dye, deerskin, hawk feather, and rabbit fur are all local materials which can be found throughout the area.

The author displaying a clapper stick.  Elderberry tree in the background.

Enjoy these videos below, and hear the sounds which have echoed across this land since time immemorial.

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