Rhythm & The Drum
Rhythm & The Drum
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
I’ve always been a drummer. Throughout the years of creating artwork for a living, the decades of writing articles for books and magazines, and now giving most of my hours to creating events and Plant Healer Magazine. I cannot walk from one end of the room to the other without tapping on various objects to hear their different tones, and my family has to tell me to calm my tapping foot when we try to watch a movie.
The hourglass shaped djembe that Joe Wheeler made doesn’t get picked up much, but it is a treasured reminder of the value of rhythm, of the hundreds of concerts I put on as benefits for different causes. A six person bluegrass band couldn’t make people get up and dance as well as I could with a single guitar playing singer and this lion-hearted drum. And in keeping with the tone of the concert rap, many of those same folks would get up the following morning and follow the beat of the drum to important protests against the cutting of the last giant Redwoods, poisonous gold leeching operations, the world bank and the world’s corrupt bankers. Rhythm is a propellent that can propel troops forward in battle or contribute to someone’s physical and spiritual healing, a powerful element in product advertisements but also the driving element in many cultures of resistance.
At its most basic, rhythm is simply a repeating pattern of beats marking the passage of time. It’s embodied in the very cycles of nature: of life and death, evaporation and rain, the sequencing of ocean waves and tides, the inhalation and exhalation of animal breath, the donning and shedding of leaves. Earth is a planet heavily influenced by the recurrent phases of an orbiting moon, dependent upon and defined by its steady pace around the sun. The consistent heartbeat of the mother is the first sound a fetus hears afloat in the womb, and a child is born into a rhythmic world. In a sense, the health of an individual or ecosystem is the result not only of its diversity, but the polyrhythmic interaction of its constituent parts. Taking this metaphor a step further, it’s as though through its practiced separativeness civilized humanity has gotten “off beat,” out of synch with the overall composition of greater creation.
Rhythm can be also an aide to reconnection, with the drum as an instrument of rhythm. Drumming has the potential to lead both the player and the engaged audience into deep sensory and emotional contact with their natural selves, each other, and the natural world they are an integral part of. Played rhythms can reflect and at times entrain with the rhythms of the body, suspending normal cognition and intellection and leading to an expansive feeling of connection or oneness. The result may be not only be musical but magical.
The word “religion” comes from the Latin for “binding together.” By this measure, a religion is a system of perception binding together all the fundamental rhythms that each of us experiences: the personal rhythm of the human body, the larger social rhythm of the family, tribe, or nation, and the enveloping cosmic rhythms of the planet and universe. The everyday, and the miraculous and unexplained. When spirituality “works,” its practitioners experience a sacred dimension of rhythm and time. For “primitive” indigenous peoples, the drum is a vehicle for this experience. The medicine elders of many tribes and traditions — such as the Inuit of Canada, the Hourani of Ecuador and the Siberian Buriat – employ distinct mesmerizing rhythms for the purpose of encouraging an altered, hyper-intuitive state that can lead to sacred visions, heroic spiritual assignments or miraculous cures.
Drums produce the low frequency “steep fronted” sonic impulses that most strongly affect the auditory cortex. Interestingly, experiments in the field of biofeedback have determined that the psychically aroused “alpha/theta border” occurs when the electric brain waves are pulsing at a rate of six to eight cycles per second— the predominate tempo of Haitian Voodoo music and African trance dancing. The theta state occurs after sex and right before sleep, the twilight phase when linear thought succumbs to free form images, and awareness of the narrowly defined self is supplanted by identification with the shifting fields of an organic whole.
“What if we took the drum out of Rock? Well, suh, I don’ know… it just wouldn’t roll!”
The drum’s purported ability to provoke personal religious experience was understandably threatening to various state churches and their far flung missionaries, as was its tendency to excite behavior the Christianized Roman Empire ruled “licentious” and “mischievous.” Portuguese colonizers in Brazil in the 16th and 17th centuries enforced laws against the percussive music of their African slaves. The sound of Native American drums was sometimes enough to trigger a violent response from the U.S. Cavalry during the messianic religious revival of the late 1870’s known to historians as the Ghost Dance. Preachers in the U.S. railed against the influence of “rhythm and blues” in the post-WWII period, accusing hip-shakin’ Elvis of being an agent of the devil. Since the 1960’s drums have been a regular feature of protests throughout the world, from efforts to save the Daintree Forest in New South Wales, Australia, to “drum-ins” at the Nevada nuclear test site.
The styles of drums range from tiny Asian finger drums to the giant hanging barrel drums found in various Buddhist temples in Japan. Some have one head, others are covered at both ends. Hand held open-frame styles were popular with Siberian shamans as well as the Druidic priests of ancient Great Britain. The most popular handmade drums in America today are designs that originated in Africa: the narrow bottomed ashiko, and the aforementioned djembe. Until the introduction of the first plastic heads in the 1950’s, drums were built entirely of natural materials. Their womb-like shells were usually constructed of wood or clay, with animal skin heads stretched tight with the help of iron bolts and rings, or with cord laced at the sides.
The carvers of ceremonial drums take into account the religious symbolism of the materials they are made with. The bodies of the instruments may be sculpted into the shapes of animal spirits, dyed with sacred minerals or shed blood, or hung with fur and feather. In Cuba as late as the 1860’s priests of the Abakua brotherhood are said to have used drums made out of human skulls during their funeral rites, alongside symbols of resurrection. In ritual terms, the impermanence of life is made more bearable through the apparent impermanence of death.
Other traditional percussion instruments employed for ceremonial and spiritual purposes include rattles, shakers, gongs, bells, claves (wood blocks), the African m’bira (thumb piano), and the Brazilian berimbau— a wire affixed to a wooden bow, struck with a painted stick, and with a coin eased against the wire to affect a haunting vibrato. In the creation of rhythms the player becomes a part of a process that goes back to the very beginnings of time.
“A sound precipitates air, then fire, then water and earth,” Joseph Campbell wrote, “and that’s how the world becomes. The whole universe is included in this first sound, this vibration….”
I won’t be stopping my work today to play my drums, but I’ll damn sure play my Mac keyboard. As I lay out the pages of the magazine, I will be dancing the illustrations into place in a set of patterns not unlike a musical composition. The words will come tumbling out in a steady rhythm, tapped out my laptop computer with fingers that – like irrepressible kids – can’t seem to stay still in their seats. Writing, breathing, and walking with a rhythm. Rhythms of resistance. Rhythms of sex and play and laughter. Rhythms of restoration and healing.
Both our fullest enjoyment of our finite years, and the very survival of the human species may hinge on this one thing: our purposeful re-entrainment with the rhythms, cycles, processes and needs of the greater living world. So gather the drums! With every shake of ones rattle we can be embedded deeper – in the Gaian composition, the music and the magic, the direction and the dance. The drum calls us to loosen up, to get out of our busy heads, to feel deeply, and above all to move… to be transformed, and to bring about change.
Forward, then. Forward in the rhythm.
Categories: Jesse Wolf Hardin – Essays & Tales, Practicing Animá Lifeways, The Shaman Path