A solid sound

Ryan “Manito” Wendel carves a unique niche for himself in the drum-making world

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A solid sound

Photo by: Paul Efland

A solid shell conga drum, or a drum made out of one piece of wood, is something extraordinary, explains Ryan “Manito” Wendel.

Large sections of tree trunks—all harvested locally and sustainably—rest in piles outside of his Madison County wood shop, which forms the hub of Manito Percussion. Inside, a drum in progress sits on a lathe. As the outside is smoothed, unexpected colors emerge, caused by an early but undamaging stage of decomposition. The subtle blues, greens and red-oranges are beautiful, but it’s the never-seen hollow part that is the key to the drum’s sound.

Think of sound waves. A traditional wooden drum is made up of staves, or pieces, which are made up of layers of plywood. The glue connecting the staves is more dense than the wood, forming a hard line interrupting vibrations. With a solid piece of wood, “you can get the wood to really sing, and every wood sounds really different,” says Wendel (BA ’99).

Wendel is one of only two known artisans crafting drums in his exact way (which remains, for the most part, a trade secret), and he’s become known for intentionally shaping the inside of the drum to affect the sound—the importance of which he knows not only as a craftsman, but also as a musician himself. Wendel formed Manito Percussion in 2010 to meet a personal need—“There’s no store for conga making equipment,” he says—and has since made 150 drums, keeping a steady lineup of 30-50 drums in progress. He offers five sizes of congas with a starting price of around $900, as well as claves and sticks and custom-made hardware. Last February, he released a new line of bongo drums that promptly sold out. There is now a six-to-eight-month waiting time placed on new orders.

His personal intentions in drum making have grown with the business.

“When I first started, I was about making the best sound possible,” he says. “But then the visual side started appealing to me. I’m trying to make a unique piece of art that is of the highest possible quality.”

His woodworking skills are mostly self taught, borne out of years of repairing drums, reskinning them and experimentation. He keeps a separate metal shop, where he makes all of his own stainless steel fittings, and he sources his skins from around the world.

“I grew up around handy people so tools were never strange, but [making these drums] definitely came out of loving drums and not liking what was in stores,” he says.

“He’s being modest,” says his wife Annie Rutter Wendel (MA ’07), a UGA Spanish instructor. “I’ve seen him go from beautiful, lathe-turned bowls to these big drums… self taught is an understatement.”

Wendel traces his love of drumming to a childhood spent living in Brazil and listening to street musicians. Later, he’d study drumming with Arvin Scott, a lecturer in UGA’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music; Afro-Haitian folkloric drumming in Port au Prince, Haiti; and Afro-Cuban percussion at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and with master drummers in Cuba. (He got his nickname Manito in Haiti as a frequent buyer of home-roasted peanuts from child vendors—it’s a combination of mani, Spanish for peanut, and hermanito, or little brother.)

Even though keeping up with drum orders means he now has limited time to perform or teach music, it’s worth it, he says.

“Very early on, I think I realized that I may not be the best conga player in the world, but maybe I can build the best conga drum in the world,” he says. “I want to give something.”