Sri Lankan folk music is rhythmic, layered and lilting. It combines the beat of the drum with the chink of tiny cymbals, and the call of the flute with the crescendo of a strong pair of lungs. This pulsing music is made by a whole host of traditional instruments, which are in turn made with local materials using traditional methods.
Below we’ve featured ten of the instruments you’re less likely to encounter outside of the country, but Sri Lankan musicians also use interesting international sound-making contraptions like harmoniums and sitars.
Gata Bera and Yak Bera
The gata bera and the yak bera are two of Sri Lanka’s most important musical instruments, and are both played with the hands.
The gata bera, also known as the wedding drum, is usually about two feet in length. The trunk of the drum is made from asala, kohomba or kos timber, while different skins are used for the two membranes at either end, which are then bound with deer skin strings. Cow skin is tied to one end of the drum, which makes a different sound when hit with the hand from the monkey skin tied to the other.
The yak bera, also a two-ended drum, is made from the timber from the kithul tree and is about three feet in length. The part that’s hit is made from the stomach lining of a cow. It’s regularly used for low country dances involving masks and rituals.
The hak gediya is one of Sri Lanka’s most memorable musical instruments. It’s usually made from a conch shell, which performers blow into in a slow and dramatic way to announce the start of ceremonial dances or events. As the dancer expels air into the shell, he theatrically widens his chest, throwing his head back before the long note ends.
Much shorter than the yak bera described above, the dawula is a favourite in Buddhist ceremonies.
Usually crafted with kithul timber and cattle skin, the dawula is decorated with exquisite art and brass strips. At one end the player hits the drum with their hand, and at the other end they hit it with a stick called a ‘kaduppu’.
To learn to play this drum students must complete twelve elementary exercises (this is also the case for the yak bera).
To adhere to a strict time-sequence, the Dawula is often accompanied by the sound of a Thammattama, which is crafted from the root of a tree and also played with kadyppus.
Small though they are, the thalampata play a crucial role in Sri Lankan dance. These small cymbals, joined together with a string, beat out complex rhythms in traditional Kandyan dance. The thalampata typically makes two sounds – ‘thith’ and ‘thei’, which chime to the shake of a dancer’s body.
The raban is a one-sided drum played by hand, which comes in two varieties – the hand raban and the bench raban. Both are made from goat hide and jackfruit or vitex wood.
The hand raban functions as a visual as well as a musical tool, as the one-foot wide, flat, intricately decorated drum is revolved on the tip of performers’ fingers, or even spun in the air on special sticks. This raban is played with one hand, although talented players will use individual fingers to add variety to the beat.
In contrast, the bench raban is played with both hands by two or more people, often women, at once. The four-foot drum is placed on the floor, and friends and family sit around the drum during festival season, sharing in hitting out the rhythms.
Otherwise known as the ‘temple clarinet’, the horanawa is a beautiful little contraption. It’s actually more like an oboe than a clarinet, with a tiny mouthpiece that touches the tip of the teeth.
The instrument is traditionally made with the horn of a cow and brass. Underneath the brass mouthpiece there are seven tone holes interspersed regularly down the length of the horn, which flares out in brass at the end.
The horanawa is often used in Buddhist religious ceremonies as an accompaniment to percussion instruments.
This barrel shaped drum, made from jackfruit wood, originates from Tamil Nadu in India. Hindu devotees in Sri Lanka play the drum in rituals and festivals by wearing hard thumbcaps on the fingers of the weaker hand, and using a short, thick portia wood stick in the stronger hand.
The tavil usually measures about 18 inches in length, while the faces of the drum differ in size. Goat hide is used for both sides. The drum is hung to the player with a string called nada, which is connected with an iron ring.
This ancient bowed instrument, described by some as history’s first violin, is a real beauty. Popular in Western Indian and Sri Lanka, it’s made from the bowl of a coconut, goat hide and bamboo. Steel and horsehair is used for the string. The long bow is then given the delightful flourish of jingle bells. It’s imbued with a great deal of mythology, and many believe King Ravana brought it to the country from India via Tibet.
The Bummadiya is a small drum which resembles a water vessel or a clay pot. Its origins are similar as it’s made by clay, which is fired in a kiln. The body of the drum is then decorated in multi-coloured motifs, and played during paddy harvesting celebrations. The membrane is interestingly either made from goat, monitor lizard or monkey hide.
This unique ‘wood’ drum is carved from a bamboo trunk, and is used for a variety of ceremonies and more secular events. The drum is hit with two sticks, both 8 to 12 inches long, and played while tied to the waist of the player. What’s different about this drum from all of the others is it is not reliant on an animal hide membrane, instead the bamboo itself is used.