Once, long ago, in the Black Land, lived a man named Ptahhotep. Ptahhotep had three fine sons, one of whom he hoped would succeed him in his position of Overseer of the Singers of the God in the temple of Ptah in Mennefer, city of the White Wall. Ptahhotep’s family had served the great god as overseers for tens of generations. There had never been a time when Ptah’s temple music had not been part of family life.
From an early age, Ptahhotep taught his sons to respect the instruments of his trade, and especially the drums used to announce the god’s presence on feast days. As Ptahhotep watched his sons grow, he began to despair that any would be inclined to the family legacy. In the hope that he might inspire them to continue the tradition, Ptahhotep decided that upon his death, he would leave each son a drum from the temple storehouse.
In time, Ptahhotep’s ka went to the horizon with the blessed spirits of his ancestors. And just as it had been provided for, on the day of Ptahhotep’s funeral, priests from Ptah’s temple presented each of Ptahhotep’s sons — Ankhmaat, Shai, and Nebnefer — with a sacred drum. The priests solemnly explained the drums’ purpose and their father’s final wish, then left the house and headed back to the temple.
Nebnefer, the youngest son, scooped up his drum and headed for the roof, so he could examine it more closely in the sunlight. After turning the drum over and over and looking at it from all angles, he was disappointed. The drum was old: worn in places by loving hands, painted but flaking, and its sound, while rich, spoke of years of use. Nebnefer immediately decided this silly old drum wasn’t going to be good enough, if he was going to play it. So he descended the house stairs and made for Ptahhotep’s workshop, where he picked up paints, pieces of wood and leather, and set to work.
After a few hours, Nebnefer proudly appraised his gift. In truth, it was difficult to tell that it was the same drum the priests had given him. It was shiny. All the parts of the drum one played were new, and Nebnefer had even replaced the lacings on the outside for carrying. Who needed beadwork, anyway, when there were colorful cords, like those he’d seen Nubians use on drums in the marketplace? Excited, Nebnefer centered his drum on his lap and began to pound.
Not much sound came out. For some reason, the drum seemed to have lost most of its voice. Nebnefer tightened the skin and made some modifications to the cords, but he couldn’t seem to achieve the same rich sound the drum had made as he’d carried it away from the funeral priests. Nebnefer was just about to throw his drum away and start constructing a completely new one when he heard interesting music coming from outside.
Shai, the middle son of Ptahhotep’s family, marched into the workshop with a proud grin, banging happily on his own drum. He glanced over at Nebnefer sitting quietly in the window and stopped. “What’s wrong, Neb?” Shai asked, raising an eyebrow as he took in the garish shell of the drum sitting silent in his brother’s lap.
Nebnefer shook his head, determined not to be outdone by his sibling once again. “Nothing at all, actually. I was deciding what else I should do to my drum. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Shai smirked. “What did you do? That doesn’t even look like a drum anymore.”
Nebnefer refused to be baited. “Sure it does! I painted it and replaced the old parts with new things from Father’s workshop,” he began. “It’s better now. It’s got Nubian lacing, and I painted it the colors Mother’s pots are, the ones from Keftiu — that blue is really popular. See?” Nebnefer tapped the drum head, and a sound unlike anything Shai had ever heard came out. “It even sounds like new. Isn’t it great?”
“Shame on you,” Shai admonished. “Father left us a wonderful gift and you took it apart and messed it up—”
“Father left me a piece of junk. It’s my responsibility to the god to make sure whatever He gets is the freshest and newest,” Nebnefer said. “If I were the god, I wouldn’t want to listen to the same old drum the same way for thousands of years! I’d be bored.”
“How do you know what the god wants and doesn’t want?” Shai shot back. “How do you know He’d be bored?”
“How do you?” snapped Nebnefer. “Is your drum that much better?”
“Of course it is,” Shai said proudly. “I asked the priests about our drums’ history. These drums have been in our family —our family alone — since they were made, by one of our ancestors,” Shai declared, running a protective hand across the top of the drum he held. “This drum is mine. It’s mine because my family made it, and I’m not going to let anyone else touch it as long as I live, unless they’re worthy.”
Nebnefer looked at Shai’s drum in a new light. “Can I play it?” he asked, reaching out.
“No,” Shai replied, pulling his drum away from Nebnefer’s inquisitive fingers. “I’m tired of being second in everything, so I’ve decided only second sons can play my drum,” Shai explained. “I’ll wait until my second son is born so I can teach him, and he’ll teach his second son, and….”
“That’s stupid,” Nebnefer interrupted. “What if you don’t have a first son, let alone a second son? What if it takes a long time, or you die first?”
“It is not stupid,” Shai argued. “I will make sure I have at least two sons. And my second son will keep my drum safe. Second sons are the only ones who should play drums, anyway. Your mess of a drum proves that.”
The discussion between the brothers degenerated into a vicious argument. They were nearly to blows over whose drum was superior, when suddenly, both stopped. Outside, carried on the balmy summer wind, came a soft and lovely music, being played on a single drum.
“What is that?” Nebnefer cried.
“Where is that music coming from?” Shai echoed. At once, both Shai and Nebnefer rushed out from the workshop door in search of the beautiful sound.
A little further down the path from the workshop, under one of the many trees in the family courtyard’s garden, their older brother Ankhmaat sat, with the third temple drum set lightly between his knees. A crowd had gathered: priests, family members, neighbors, and even strangers. Some knew how to play drums, others knew little or nothing of music at all, and still others had never even heard a drum, but had been walking by the house and felt compelled to stop and listen.
Shai and Nebnefer took a seat and watched as Ankhmaat shared his drum with everyone in the courtyard, passing it around until everyone had played a rhythm or two. While every pair of hands touching Ankhmaat’s drum created slightly different music, there was no doubt that the instrument they all held was a true instrument of the god: one of Ptah’s sacred drums, from Ptahhotep’s family tradition.
At dusk, the group broke up and left the three brothers to sit alone in a circle, their drums at their feet. Nebnefer and Shai could not take their eyes off their older brother’s drum, wondering what magic he had conjured that all of the village seemed caught up in it. Finally, Nebnefer spoke up, rubbing the side of Ankhmaat’s drum thoughtfully.
“How is it, brother, that your drum sounds more wonderful than mine, and you have drawn more of a crowd than Shai?” he asked. “Well, I know why Shai didn’t draw a crowd,” he added as an afterthought. “He has this silly idea that only second sons are allowed to play drums—”
“How about you, and your plan to change the drum into something else so it will be better?” said Shai, starting the argument afresh. “How can a drum be made to be anything more than a drum? As if it will even make music, now that you took all the pieces apart and—”
Ankhmaat began to laugh aloud.
“What’s so funny?” Shai snarled.
“Tell us,” Nebnefer agreed, glaring at Shai.
“You’ve both forgotten,” Ankhmaat began, tapping the drum at his feet, “that this is not just a musical instrument. It belongs to the god and is holy. And maybe even more important than its sacredness, it is more than a drum.”
At Shai and Nebnefer’s bewildered looks, Ankhmaat continued. “The music this drum makes is the legacy of our family and the history of our people. And more than just our family, or me, or either of you, it is a symbol of the god and the country our god calls home. It’s more than just an object. It is a being. You have to treat your drum with respect. Locking your drum up in a storehouse, until someone worthy enough comes to play it, silences its voice.” He glanced meaningfully at Shai and then looked to Nebnefer.
“But so will too new paint and flashy ornaments, if you replace too many of the original pieces of its body. A drum is what it is because it was made that way. But it remains that way only as long as you let it.”
Shai looked down at his drum. “So, I should share my drum with everyone?” he said.
Ankhmaat nodded. “The drum’s music doesn’t belong to either of us,” Ankhmaat reminded him. “It belongs to the gods, and to all Their children, no matter who they are.”
Nebnefer could not be consoled. “I thought I had a good drum by making it mine, but even with these new pieces, it cannot compare with yours, Ankhmaat,” he sobbed. “This is a nice drum, but it’s not the drum my father left me. What will I do?”
Ankhmaat smiled. “We can build another, like this one,” he offered, holding out his drum. “Come, Nebnefer, I will help. Shai, I will help you find people to play your music with. And the three of us shall make a family of drums to keep the gods’ music alive.”