Anthony Artis first got hooked on his craft during a 1992 visit to Ghana. “I saw the people there carving drums from solid logs,” he says. “I had never seen anything like it. I thought, I have to try something like that!”
It would be several years before the professional musician finally could. Thanks to a Creative Renewal Arts Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis in 1999, Artis was able to study African slat-style drum-making under a master craftsman from Ohio. He proved to be a natural.
Today, Artis combines carpentry, blacksmithing, leatherwork, and even macramé to create authentic ashiko, dùndún, kenkeni, and bata drums, which he sells online under the name Amoah’s African Drum Works. The instruments cost between $350 and $800, and sets are $1,200.
He prefers to tailor each drum to its recipient, and from the type of wood and leather selected to the drum’s size and style, every detail affects the sound. “Hardwoods like oak vibrate at a higher frequency because of the wood’s density,” he says. “It’s the same with the skins. Cow skin is thicker than goat skin, so it vibrates at a different rate.”
To start a drum, Artis cuts angled, wooden slats with a circular saw and then glues their long edges together to form the instrument’s body. Once they’re dry, he planes and sands the wood, then shapes and spot-welds steel rods to create the drum’s retaining rings. To form the drum’s head, Artis stretches a wet cow skin or goat skin over the wooden body. Once the skin is dry, he runs ropes through a series of rings above and below to tighten and tune it.
Each drum takes about two weeks to complete, and Artis admits it’s an arduous, unusual craft. “I’m pretty much the only person in Indiana doing this,” he says.