Musical Instruments of Antiquity as Illustrated in
The Adventures of Asterix the Gaul

Daniel A. Russell

Professor of Acoustics & Director of Distance Education
Graduate Program in Acoustics, The Pennsylvania State University

Part 7: Drums and Percussion

The most primitive percussion instruments were likely hollowed out tree trunks. Later hollow tree trunk shells were covered with animal skins for the membrane surface. When Asterix and Obelix travel to the New World in Asterix and the Great Crossing they encounter some "strange looking Romans" who use tree drums and skin drums to accompany their dance ceremonies.

Apparently this may be the historical origin of the modern "Tom-Tom" drum.
One of the first musical instrment experiences that many children discover is the pure joy of banging on kitchen pots and pans. Asterix and Obelix are not above banging on pots and pans, as shown in Asterix and the Laurel Wreath
In Asterix and the Secret Weapon both the familar Cacofonix and the new famale village bard use a gong (with its nonlinear properties?) to summon the village children to school.
In Asterix and the Secret Weapon the bard Bravura uses a skin covered drum to accompany herself on a vocal performance. It is not clear whether this is an open ended drum (name????) like the Conga or Djembe. However, the fact that this drum appears to produce only one sound - BONG! - suggests that this is not an open drum which is capable of producing multiple pitched tones.
Outside of musical performances and religious ceremonies, the primary use of skin-covered drums in the world of Asterix is to provide a rhythm to encourage slaves row in Roman galleys.

In these frames from Asterix the Gladiator and Asterix the Legionary the drummers are vigorously beating out a cadence for rowers. Notice the variety in the shape of the drum shell. Some drums are cylindrical with a possible open bottom (or a second skin). Other drums are kettle shaped, possibly with a closed metal bowl much like a tympani. Both types of drums may be tuned by tightening the ropes used to tie down the skin membrane.

Besides illustrating the differences in drum design, Uderzo and Goscinnny also showcase different playing styles. In Asteirx and the Olympic Games the galley drummer simply "bongs" out the beat for the rowers. However, in the much later album Asterix and Obelix All At Sea we see the historical origins of the modern jazz drummer with a complexity of rhythms.

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