Music for pow-wow dance competitions and other activities is provided by a “Drum,” which is a closely knit group of singers who play a large, specially designed drum and sing traditional songs. They are also often called a Drum Group.
The number of members of a drum group may vary, but is usually at least three people, and can be as many as ten or more. Usually a drum group is made up of family members, extended family members, and close friends. For this reason, many drum groups name themselves after their family name or the community where they live.
Some members of the drum group may wear traditional regalia and dance as well as drum, other drummers simply wear street clothing. People of many ages may belong to a drum group, from small children just learning the songs, to the very elderly who have been singing them the same way for decades, and everyone in between.
It used to be taboo in most tribes for women to do the drumming, and there were many rules governing even when a woman could be in the vicinity of the drum. Many traditionalists still do not approve of woman drummers, but today there are a few drum groups made up of only women.
This has evolved mainly in urban Indian communities, where there may not be a male drummer available, but a woman still wants her children to learn the traditional values.
It is more traditional for women singers to sing backup melody on the second part of the song. Women singers usually sing one octave higher than the men.
The Host Drum
The Host Drum of the pow-wow is a drum group primarily responsible for providing music for the dancers. At an Intertribal pow-wow, two or more drums are often hired to be the host drums. It is an honor for the drum to be invited for this position. If they accept, they will usually receive some compensation for their services. The amount the Host Drum receives for their performance varies from pow wow to powwow.
In some places there is a Host Northern Drum and a Host Southern Drum. Depending on the size of the pow-wow and the region where it is held, there may be many drums, representing nearly every tribe or community attending the pow-wow.
Host drums are responsible for singing the songs at the beginning and end of a pow-wow session, generally a starting song, the grand entry song, a flag song, and a veterans or victory song to start the pow-wow, and a flag song, retreat song and closing song to end the pow-wow.
Additionally, if a pow-wow has gourd dancing, the Southern Host Drum is often the drum that sings all the gourd songs, though another drum can perform them. The host drums are often called upon to sing special songs during the pow-wow.
Only the Host Drum or Co-Host Drums are compensated by the Pow Wow organizers. Other drums may show up as they wish, and may receive donations from audience members who appreciate their songs, or from someone requesting an honor song for some purpose, but they are not guaranteed any payment. Many drums play just for enjoyment and to contribute to the community.
At some pow-wows, the drums are judged on the quality of their performances, with prize money awarded to the winners. Both Host Drums and Guest Drums may compete for the prize money.
The Lead Singer
Each drum has a Lead Singer who runs his or her drum and leads the singers while singing. The lead singer sings the first part of the song and is followed by the others in the second part of the song.
The beat of the drum is like a heartbeat, starting slowly and then beating more quickly as the singers get further into the song. The drum sticks connect the singers to the power of the drum as they sing.
The lead singer, the first the people hear, will sing alone a phrase or a tune called the lead or push-up. The rest of the group repeats the lead, this is called second. Then all the singers sing the melody (first part) and a repetition of the melody (second part) together.
One rendition of the song can also be called push-up, so if the announcer asks a drum for four push-ups they will sing the grouping of the lead, second, fourth part and second part four times.