Saturday, August 09, 2008

Rhythm Animals: Spirit Drumming and Sacred Beats

If you watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in China last night you were probably blown away as I was by the drumming that opened the show. Among the images that will remain with me from this event were the thousands of powerful drummers brilliantly playing replicas of ancient Fou drums in syncopated harmony. As Philip Hersh wrote for the Chicago Tribune:

The rumble began slowly, softly, as the 2,008 drummers in silvery robes worked their hands on the bronze surface of a Fou, the oldest Chinese percussion instrument.

And then the noise increased, rattling the National Stadium, waves of sound soon punctuated by fireworks as the lights on the surfaces of the drums and the rhythmic movements of the percussionists turned the countdown to Friday's start of the 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony into a blend of technology and tradition.

Whatever your feelings about the politics (not to mention the environmental and human rights issues surrounding these Olympics) it was an amazing, often moving ceremony (1) and that opening portion of it thrilled and delighted every drummer I know.

As most of you know, drumming has found a new popularity in the last two decades. especially in the earthwise community. Maclean's Magazine noted in 1996 that:

In a wired world, where communication has been reduced to the nibbling cadence of the computer keyboard, there is a spirited revival of drum culture - the original Internet. Among North American native people, drum groups are proliferating. And, while rekindling a sacred tradition, they are also reaching a global audience...Mickey Hart, former drummer for the Grateful Dead, told Maclean's last week. "Non-musicians are taking up drums for fun, but also for power - to contact their inner selves." ....."Rhythm," says Hart, "is the one common denominator we have. We're rhythm animals."
Sacred Beats

The video I've posted today features Don Two Eagles Waterhawk. In this short we hear him talk about drumming and drum circles. Don is a respected elder and teacher in the Neo-Pagan community and co-author of Sacred Beat: From the Heart of the Drum Circle. (2)

In A Drum Is A Voice David Pleasant writes that

The drum is and always has been a voice, a voice that speaks in prayer, celebration, and battle... Pitch variation, polyrhythm, syncopation, improvisation, and call-and-response (which are the domain of drums) offer an open palate for expression. Within that dynamic lie options for the percussionist to speak in as many languages, moods, and dialects as are available.
Pagans and others have long used drumming in ritual. In an article titled Tools of the Ancient Bee Priestess, Layne Redmond writes:

Chanting, overtone singing and humming sacred sounds to the rhythms of the frame drum is an ancient technique for directly synchronizing the mind/body, creating conditions for psychological, physical, and spiritual healing. The ancient Bee Priestesses, called the Melissa in Greek or the Deborahs in Hebrew, served the Bee Goddesses: Aphrodite, Artemis, Cybele, Demeter, Persephone, Rhea, Ariadne, Neith, even the Virgin Mary and all are associated with the frame drum and often with the sistrum...

Drums and Gender:

Brian Jones writes that:

In most traditional African and native cultures, drums have been played exclusively by men. But now women are breaking that taboo. And gender certainly does not stop Takadja's Francine Martel from conjuring a thunderous range of tones from her African djembe. "It's a bit like a martial art," she explains. "I'm physically small, but my drum master taught me the right technique. I've learned to play from my elbows down."

....For some women, drumming serves as a source of empowerment. Helen Zador, a former Bell Canada manager in Toronto, was referred to drum teacher Doug Sole by her therapist Gary Diggins four years ago. Drumming, she says, helped her recover from a history of abuse, which includes a violent gang rape in her 20s. "At first just looking at the drums aroused a fear," Zador recalls. "They're phallic in shape, especially the African drums, and the sound is primal, deep in your body." Her first attempts to play reduced her to tears. "When I started drumming, I felt traumatized. It would bring back body memories." But confronting her fear helped her overcome it. Now, she works as a massage therapist - at a massage table surrounded by percussion instruments.

Those of you who are interested in subject of women and drumming will want to visit Layne Redmond's website and check out her book titled When The Drummers Were Women

Drums and Healing

Whether through therapy or music, drums are circling back to one of their traditional roles - as medicine. For native peoples, the drum has a sacred healing power and must be treated with reverence. Jerry Alfred, a Tutchone Indian, leads a Yukon band called The Medicine Beat,,,The group has no drum kit. Replacing the foot-pedal thump of a standard bass drum is the soft-stroked beat of a frame drum, handmade from goat and maple. "It represents the heartbeat," says Alfred. "The drum is alive. You have to respect it and treat it like a person."

I will leave you with this quote

Life is the sacred mystery singing to itself, dancing to its drum,
telling tales, improvising, playing.

Here's to the dance, and the rhythm that moves us all,


Nation Wide Drum Circles
Click here to see a list of drum circles in the U.S. or to list your own.


Spirit Drumming, Part I by Don Waterhawk

Spirit Drumming, Part II
His talk here on drumming, ego, learning and community are well worth hearing. Check it out.

Photo: The Grafton Drum Co-Op Circle in Grafton, MA. For more information on this group, please visit their website.


(1) Some moments were disturbing, especially when one considers the many children lost in the quake and the heavy handedness of the government in quashing dissent. Given the events of this year, who's bright idea was it to have a group of beautiful children hand the Chinese flag over to a bunch of goose-stepping soldiers?

He is also a Vietnam veteran and a Red Feather Brother and member of the Wolf Clan of the Seneca Nation. This was recorded at the Starwood Festival in Western New York in July of 2004 as part of an ongoing Anthropological study by Heather Kyle. Don is also the owner of Waterhawk Creations and has posted many articles for the Witches Voice website on Pagan festivals, Veterans Day, and other issues of interest to the earthwise community.

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