Playing Drums with Nature

This is the 2nd of 3 pages devoted to musical instruments. Click the links, above or below, to view stringed instruments and sound systems.

In 1975, Jim Nollman was making wood drums in his own studio north of San Francisco, and just starting to get interested in communicating with cetaceans. Seeking an instrument to meet these beings halfway, he adapted his drums to float on the ocean while he played. What you see below are two examples of this juxtaposition of opportunity and challenge.

The Gray Whale Drum

Before Nollman founded Interspecies, he spent a year as a member of the San Francisco art collective known as the Ant Farm. In 1976, the Ant Farm directed a program for the State of California, to promote the gray whale migration along the Pacific coast. For three months during that winter, Nollman donned a dry suit, and entered the Pacific Ocean with this drum to attract the whales to various headlands where tourists gathered. The long tube in the photo on the right, is an FM radio transmitter, that allowed this interspecies music to be heard by the public, as it occurred.


In 1977, the California Arts Commission granted Jim Nollman the funds to build an improved drum to play live music with cetaceans on the open ocean. It was featured a year later in a Greenpeace Project Nollman directed, to expose the slaughter of dolphins by fishermen at Iki Island Japan. As the TV image on the right suggests, the media event succeeded to put both Nollman and his drum on the network news throughout Japan. The drum was featured again, in 1983, to attract spotted dolphins in one of's best known field projects, a collaboration with John Lilly in Careyes Mexico. It was stolen during the Careyes Project.

This drum was made eminently seaworthy by the addition of stabilizers as seen in the right hand photo. Nollman has joked that, with enough peanut butter and sunscreen, plus and an obliging current, he could float across the ocean playing the drum.

The Rain Drum

For Sale

In 1977, a severe drought struck the state of California. Having met governor Jerry Brown while working for the Ant Farm, Nollman proposed a rain drum for the governor's office. When people complained about the drought, Brown could respond by handing them drum sticks, encouraging them to play the drum to make it rain. This drum is made from a very resonant wood called padauk. The Mayan rain god, Chac Mool, is carved in high relief with a jade inlaid eye. The hieroglyphs along the top invoke a prayer for rain. All profits from the sale of this drum will be used to further our communication efforts with beluga whales. Write us with an offer.

The Problem with Drums

As an instrument built specifically to facilitate interspecies communication, the drums possessed an inherent flaw. Certainly the cetaceans could hear the drumming, and often drew close to investigate. But there was no easy way a player could hear their response. And without the possibility of a two-way exchange, there could be no interspecies communication.

After Interspecies was incorporated in 1978, and funds became available to develop audio technology to optimize this unique work, we gradually moved away from the drums' eminently shamanic approach, and began sponsoring audio engineers to build a proper underwater listening and transmit system. As the flow of sound began to manifest in both directions, Interspecies stopped using drums on the water, in favor of stringed instruments.

The Cachalot Drum

Today, Nollman still builds the occasional drum for ceremonial purposes and for the building of human community. The drum below was commissioned in 1998 by Japan's most active cetacean network, called ICERC (pronounced I- Search). It is 42 inches wide and 20 inches deep, constructed from padauk and birds eye maple, with a spruce bottom. The carving depicts a cachalot and its prey, the giant squid. Inlays include ebony, seashells and fossils. It can be played simultaneously by up to 4 people. It currently resides in a Tokyo Convention center.

Nollman Interview
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Sound System