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Tama's Fat Spruce kit, a recent addition to its SLP Series.

Tama’s Bubinga Challenge...
(And Opportunity)

In the age of CITES, how a leading drum maker is navigating regulations and restrictions of a signature timber.


THE MUSIC INDUSTRY was rocked in 2017 when CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, imposed severe new trade restrictions and requirements on a number of wood types. Much of the concern was focused on dalbergia, a genus that includes African blackwood used to make many woodwind instruments and, of greater commercial consequence, Brazilian and Indian varieties of rosewood, staples of higher-end fretted instruments. Less noticed by much of the industry were new CITES restrictions on select species of guibourtia, whose bubinga wood had found considerable favor in the drum industry. Tama, the company that pioneered use of the wood and used it most extensively, is still navigating through the ruling’s ramifications.

Tama introduced bubinga drums in its then-flagship Starclassic series in 2006. A year later it debuted the Starclassic Performer Birch/Bubinga (B/B) line, which soon became one of the company’s top-selling lines as well as a widely recognized signature of its brand identity. The Star Series, which took over as Tama’s flagship in 2013, also includes an all-bubinga line alongside its maple and walnut options.

“We love creating new and exciting
sonic personalities.
Through rigorous research and development,
we were able to achieve a new
Starclassic Performer Series evolution
while retaining a familiar sounding voice.”

According to Tama Sales Strategist John Palmer, the B/B line was a huge hit because, in addition to its quality build, it offered distinctive sonic attributes that appealed to a wide swath of drummers looking for “something different.” It is telling that, although bubinga is an exceptionally attractive wood, it occupies the inner plies of the hybrid B/B shells because sound, not aesthetics, is always Tama’s priority. “Birch has a very lively attack and punchy sonic profile,” Palmer explains. “Putting the bubinga on the inside gave the shell a rich depth and lower-frequency component.”

Contemporary Sound
The Starclassic Series in general was popular because it was designed to produce a “contemporary” sound, and Tama admirably committed to marketing it as such. “They’re not ‘vintage’-sounding drums,” says Palmer, who describes the series’ sonic profile as “dynamic, loud, punchy, and front-of-mix,” with bubinga adding “low-end warmth.” As a bonus, among professional-level drums, the B/B line was also seen as a great value, with four-piece shell packs offered for around $1,500 street price.

Then came CITES. Even early on, adhering to the new CITES policies presented manageable operational challenges, Palmer explains. Tama has long bought its woods from a reputable supplier committed to sustainable sourcing and was able to present all required documentation. The hard part has been meeting the costly and time-sapping administrative requirements for the product being shipped from China. (For various reasons, Star Bubinga Series drums, made in Japan, present fewer administrative headaches.) When the shipments arrived at U.S. ports, their containers, flagged as CITES-sensitive, would be “quarantined” for up to ten days so they could be examined—sometimes including x-ray scanning—by U.S. Customs agents. Thanks to the Tama team’s diligence, the shipments were never rejected, but the unavoidable delays racked up additional costs in an industry sector whose margins are already challengingly thin.

Soon after the CITES crackdown, the guitar industry has been promoting different tonewoods to replace rosewood. Will drums made of bubinga remain in Tama’s lineup? Yes, at least in the near-term, Palmer says. “But R&D is incessant here, and we do a tremendous job of offering new products every year. B/B has had an 11-year run, which is very long for a ‘non-staple’ option. CITES or not, product lifecycles call for change and innovation, and we were already looking at new shell tonewoods; CITES just expedited our search.”

A new hybrid shell that will occupy a similar sonic space as the Birch/Bubinga line will be unveiled at the 2019 Winter NAMM Show. In the meantime, Tama has introduced numerous new products over the past 12 months covering a broad sonic spectrum and range of applications. Its new SLP (Sound Lab Project) Series, for example, includes a line featuring spruce shells, whose sound Palmer describes as “really warm with a beautifully pronounced midrange,” and another with shells made of kapur, a strong timber indigenous to the tropical rainforests of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia with a color and grain structure similar to mahogany and sonic traits described as “warm with an excellent attack and projection.” Of course, maple, with its exceptional balance and versatility, remains the industry benchmark, and Tama offers it as an option in many of its series.

Continued Possibilities
Tama remains committed to the Starclassic Series and is convinced that the new Starclassic Performer shell specification, to be announced at NAMM, will add to its popular legacy. “We love creating new and exciting sonic personalities,” says Palmer. “At the same time, we very much understand and value the unique sonic characteristics that made our Starclassic Performer Birch/Bubinga series so popular. Through rigorous research and development, we were able to achieve a new Starclassic Performer Series evolution while retaining a familiar sounding voice.”

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