The Beat of Cree Music

The Cree are one of the largest Indigenous peoples in North America. They mostly live in Canada and parts of the United States. One important aspect of Cree culture is drumming. For the Cree, like for many other Indigenous peoples, drumming is a sacred activity. Drums are used in Cree ceremonies and rituals. Especially in certain Plains Cree rituals, drum beats symbolize the heartbeat of Earth and the circle of life.

The Cree use different kinds of drums for different purposes. One important kind of drum is the frame drum. Frame drums are small drums with one head, or drumming surface. These drums are used by one individual player in ceremonies and rituals. To make these drums, the Cree use birch wood to create a frame for the drum. Then, they stretch deer hide tightly around the frame. This creates a taut surface for drumming. One special feature of these types of Cree drums is their tuning strings. Cree drum-makers attach special twisted rawhide strings under the drum’s surface. These strings change the sounds that the drum can make. The drummer can vibrate these strings to create different sounds while drumming.

Another important type of drum used by Cree and other Plains Indigenous peoples is the powwow drum. Powwow drums are large. Sometimes, they are one very large surface that multiple people can drum on. Sometimes they have two heads, like a long tube with a drum head at each end. Powwow drums are often used in powwows and other ceremonies.

One important ritual of some Cree ceremonies is the Round Dance. In the past, the Round Dance was a way for Cree people to honor their deceased ancestors. Special songs were sung along with the drumming. People gave offerings to divine forces and prayed for their deceased ancestors. Today, the Round Dance has evolved into an important spiritual and social gathering. Many Indigenous peoples have their own versions of the Round Dance. At a modern Cree Round Dance, Cree people of all ages gather. There, they play the drums and listen to traditional Cree songs sung in the Cree language. These gatherings are important ways to keep celebrating Cree culture.

Some musical groups today are bringing Cree traditional drumming to the rest of the world. One musical group, called Northern Cree, is well known around the world for their drumming and singing. The musical group uses Cree traditional drumming to connect with a wider audience. They have performed at the Grammys and have been nominated for many awards. They also view traditional Cree songs as an important way to keep practicing the Cree language. In this way, Northern Cree has joined a long heritage of cultural expression through drumming.