Noh TriviaQuestion and Answer

Question49 Why do kotsuzumi players lick their finger on stage?


Horse skin is used on the drumhead of the kotsuzumi (small hand drum). The side that players hit is called omote-gawa (front skin); the other is called ura-gawa (rear skin). You may have seen a player licking his finger and touching the rear side of his instrument. He is actually dampening a piece of paper that is attached to the skin for modulation.

The sound of a kotsuzumi is beautiful in a moderately humid place. Kotsuzumi players prepare small pieces of Japanese paper, and attach one or more to the rear side to create moderate humidity. The number of pieces and the layout depend on the weather and the humidity of the venue. They also tune their instruments by adjusting the tension strings between the drumheads and the body-shells, as well as by dampening the pieces of paper. Even if they tune perfectly before appearing on stage, however, the sound may change during the performance due to drying. Therefore, the players continually tune the instruments by breathing on the skin or dampening the attached paper.

While the soft skin of a colt is used for a kotsuzumi, the tough and stiff skin of an adult horse is used for a ōtsuzumi (aka ōkawa, large hand drum). The ōtsuzumi sounds beautiful in dry air, so players warm and dry their instruments with charcoal fire before appearing on stage. A kotsuzumi has a soft sound, while an ōtsuzumi produces a dry and high-pitched tone. The difference in their sounds is created by the different characters of the skins and the different methods of manipulation.

(Jan 5, 2009)

illustration : Hiroko Sakaki

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