The Royal New Zealand Navy band’s newly-constructed drums are creating a wow flavour to their top-tier performances this year.

The five native timber drums, complete with wooden Navy and band crests and a unique Pacific logo, were revealed to the public during Waitangi Day commemorations last month.

Director of Music Lieutenant Commander Michael Dowrick came up with the idea of having a special set of drums for top-drawer ceremonial duties. A former Royal Marine musician, he says drums are deeply symbolic to a regiment or service, harking back to drums being draped with a regiment’s colours, creating a religious altar on the field of battle.

“They have a great deal of mana,” he says. “We wanted to create something unique, in native timber.”

Petty Officer Musician Seleni Sulusi took up the project during the first lockdown, coming up with a unique design to appear on the drums. “I created a Pacific-fusion style emblem, with Pacific and Maori patterns with a pūtātara – a Pacific conch shell – at the centre to represent the RNZN band.” Around the pūtātara, eleven other patterns represent concepts like good fortune, success, harmony and unity.

The band engaged drum maker Ben Klinkenberg, of Ben K Drums in New Lynn, a specialist in stave construction drums using native timber.

“I’ve never done parade drums before,” he says, speaking to Navy Today as he arrived at a Six60 gig in Christchurch. He had in fact made the drums for Six60’s Eli Paewai. “I got an email out of the blue from Leni, asking how we could go about it. We met and it went from there.”

Most drums are made of steel and aluminium, but top-level ones are timber, and that’s his niche, he says. “There are custom builds going on, but this is a very different approach to drum design.”

He looked at the project and decided it needed to go further than just one type of timber. “For these, the main body of the drums is rimu. The top and bottom rings are matai.” He then switched to kauri to create the RNZN band emblem, POMUS Sulusi’s design and Navy badge. Pam Allen-Baines from Platinum Laser NZ Ltd laser-cut the emblems for Mr Klinkenberg. It took hours to get the dimensions and detailing correct, and then another tricky procedure in steam-curving the emblems to match the curve of the drums.

“That was quite a mission, as lasers only work on a flat product. It was excruciatingly hard and you couldn’t rush it. You want this sort of thing to be perfect, so you take your time. It was really cool that they trusted me to have some freedom with it.”

Each drum has a different design carved into the matai rings. One drum has the tattoo for Courage, another for Commitment, and so on. The first drum, the bass, combines all four values.

POMUS Sulusi says the drums turned out a lot lighter than their regular drums – a big plus when you’ve got them strapped to your front. “They are definitely a talking point for the band. At Waitangi, people wanted to see them up close. They’re an amazing product.”

They will only be used for Category One ceremonial events, says LTCDR Dowrick. An idea they might pursue later is carving the names of the New Zealand sailors lost in HMS NEPTUNE during World War 2, a nod to a tradition of carving names in musical instruments.

“The next stage is getting some log drums and having them as part of the drum corps.”

Published in Navy Today - Issue 252(external link)

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