My atabaque was built with that neat feature from the start: a single piece of rope that can be easily undone to disconnect the tensioning ring and the ropework, allowing for easy skin replacement.
This re-heading method will work with a number of atabaques, depending on how the ropework was done.
Step 1: Get a skin and prepare it
I sourced mine from an African percussion group around where I live.
You will need to know the diameter at the top of the drum. Add minimum 20 cm (I recommend 30cm or more) to that size and you have the skin size you need to get.
It is important that you have enough extra on the sides (10 to 15 cm) so that you can properly loop the skin in the tensioning rings and still have enough slack to cover them neatly.
When selecting a skin,
- get the thickest one you can (for goat skin)
- avoid shaved skins (hair naturally wears off after you play for a while - it also gives a more authentic look)
- look for cut marks
- look for defects
You may draft a circle to decide on how the skin is going to be placed on the drum. In my case, I made sure the back line was going to be in the center, which is generally the way to do it.
Once you have sourced a skin, it must be soaked in water for a good 8 hours. This will make the skin much more flexible.
Step 2: Remove the old skin
Some (probably cheaper) atabaque come with a single tensioning ring at the top, with the rope passed through holes in the skin. That kind requires a complete ropework re-work.
In my case, and I hope many others, removing the old skin is a matter of
- removing tension by undoing the pegs
- removing the connecting rope
When removing the pegs, I advise to place them around in a sequence and number them in order to place them back the same way later on.
Next, before removing the connecting rope, I recommend using a different piece of rope (or strap) to keep the original rope work into place. It will help greatly when reconnecting.
At this stage, you can fix defects (IE wood sanding and adjustments) if needed.
Now is the time to remove the connecting rope. When it's done, the top tensioning ring should be free (apart maybe from the handle) and the old skin should come off easily.
Recover the bigger ring that was wrapped in the skin and you are good to go.
Step 3: Get the new skin ready for action
Think about placement. The hairy side should be at the top, and the back line should come to the center of the drum.
With that in mind, place the bigger tensioning ring on the skin then wrap the edges around it.
You should now have the flesh side up.
Place this assembly on top of the drum and place the smaller tensioning ring on top, making sure that skin is wrapped all around and and all edges coming out through the smaller ring.
At that stage, it is important to make sure that the skin is placed in its final position, both on the drum and through the rings.
Step 4: Connect the tension rings with the ropework
For instance, try to keep the tensioning rings horizontal and well distributed with the ropework
(In my case, I missed that step a bit, resulting in the tensioning rings being a bit on an angle.)
When the connecting rope is back in place and secured, loosely place the pegs the way they were.
Before we can go any further, we have to do some serious pre-tensioning.
Step 5: Tensioning
- pre-tensioning, without relying entirely on the pegs
- final tensioning, using only the pegs
Also note that the skin is still humid at that stage, and that it will shrink a bit, creating further tension, when drying.
Now, pre-tensioning will be achieved by pushing the ring down directly.
The reason why I decided to go that way is to save the staves from being exposed to too much pressure.
Explanation: when using the pegs, friction keeps them in place between the ring and the drum body (made of staves). Hammering down the pegs forces the ring down by applying pressure to the drum body at an angle. Staves don't like that much and can split or get pushed in (and it has happened in one place for me already).
Using the normal tensioning method (hammering the pegs) is fine when there is no other way, and when you want to pull only a centimeter or 2.
In our actual case, we need to pull a good 5 centimeters or more.
That's a lot of hammering, and would put unnecessary stress on the staves.
Instead, I recommend pushing the bottom tensioning ring by hammering it down firmly using a piece of wood, then locking the progress made by gently hammering down the pegs around it (friction is enough for the pegs to stay in place, no need to apply pressure just yet)
Work your way around the drum, hammering the ring down gradually and locking the progress made by pushing the surrounding pegs down. Keep going until you've pulled enough centimetres. and make sure the rings (top and bottom) are as parallel as can be.
When you have reached the level where the skin at the top is flat and the ropework is tense enough, you can then go on to finish tensioning the usual way.
Again, keep in mind that the skin will shrink when drying up, so don't put too much tension. At this stage you are not fine-tuning the drum yet.
Finish tensioning (again, not final, and not too tense) by hammering the pegs directly this time, working around the drum.
Step 6: Finishing touches
To give a good finish, I recommend pushing the skin edges around the drum so that they don't interfere with your hands when you play.
On congas, the skin at this stage is trimmed close to the tension hoop. For an atabaque with a more authentic look, I think it's better to not trim the skin and just push it flat against the sides of the drum.
I used an old bedsheet to achieve that result while the skin was still humid. It kept that shape upon drying.
Also, to further tension and get rid of the moisture in the skin, some sun exposure for a couple of hours will do the job.
Mind the sun intensity and length of exposure though.
The drum should sound better by the hour, as the skin dries and tension gets stronger.
A couple of hours later, you can unwrap the drum. The skin should be tense, flat around the drum, and sound fantastic.
Now is the time for fine tuning, if needed. Jam it away. Enjoy your new drum !