There is nothing quite like the sacred thunder created when a group of people gather to beat their bongos, drum their djembes or shake their shekeres. The community drum circle is universal and has been around for eons consisting of hand drums and small percussion instruments. Often accompanied by dancing or chant, it is a soul stirring experience that attracts people like moths to a flame with its mystery and simplicity. No experience is required and the simple act of gathering creates a sense of community that facilitates a unique kind of unspoken communication. The scientific community has proven the benefits of drumming to positively affect conditions related to stress, emotional disorders, hypertension, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s, stroke and even cancer. In his studies Dr. Barry Bittman found an increase in cancer killing cells and improved immune systems through drumming.
Jane Gossard got involved in drumming in an unusual way and was not something she was planning on. She found herself playing in her first drum circle with a friend and felt very connected. “It was as if, it was something I had done in another life,” says Jane. “When my husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas I told him a drum, a djembe.” She didn’t think David took her seriously. He was in London a few months before Christmas when he came upon an African Drumming Center about to open and saw some men playing on the sidewalk. He went into a nearby store and found “the one.” “This is Janey’s drum,” he said. They later attended a Kwanzaa Service together and she pointed out the djembe being played as the one she wanted. He played it cool, feigning disinterest. But he surprised her Christmas day and when she saw it; she cried, uncertain of what might lay ahead.
“That began a process for me. Hearing how he found it and how it made me feel, I knew this was something I was going to have to follow. I was 47 and I’m now 66. I just started following it. Every time an opportunity came up I did it. A catalog came to my house I’d never seen before. I usually throw these things out but I opened it up and Babatunde Olatunji, the granddaddy of African drumming was teaching a workshop at the Kripalu Institute in Western Massachusetts. I went out there and I was blown away. This event turned me into a storyteller and a drummer.”
She started telling her story about her drum and this started what would become nearly two decades of drumming and storytelling. She ended up at her local senior center sharing her story, inviting people to drum with her. She was asked to start a drum circle at the senior center. She had never thought about doing a drum circle. “For me drumming is like prayer,” says Jane who had been mostly drumming alone. So she did the program at the senior center but outgrew the space quickly and moved to the Andover town hall, as all ages appeared to learn more about the drum circle. She called it Drumming for Joy. This went on for several years.
As she began facilitating drum circles, more opportunities arose and she realized all people really needed was a drum. Through a storytelling gig at a church in Andover that closed with a drumming circle, the minister there, reached out to Larry Peacock, the director at Rolling Ridge Retreat and Conference Center (http://www.rollingridge.org) and he asked Jane to offer a drum circle program. That was eight years ago. She continues to offer the monthly program to regulars as well as those on retreat.
She also offers drum circles at an assisted living facility where she sees people transformed at the touch of a drum. “Drumming is a wonderful thing to do with people who have Alzheimer’s or dementia,” says Jane. “Especially people who are severely in end stage dementia. It was amazing to me, as I walked around with my drum; there were these moments where I could feel the entire room was present to what was going on. It’s also helpful to people who are severely handicapped and come with their caretakers. Their joy is just palpable.” In this setting people who struggle to communicate in any other way, find a way to connect.
She attended a drum circle once, where she heard the analogy that the drum is like a container. It is an instrument of spirit. “In the African tradition the drum holds the spirit of the goat because that’s the skin; holds the spirit of the tree that gave the body of the drum; it holds the spirit of the maker, the person who made the drum; and then it holds your spirit too when you play it. So drumming is inherently a spiritual activity. Whatever you are feeling, the drum will take that and hold it. The drum will take that feeling and channel it to the earth and remove it out of your body. It is a way of expressing joy and a way of connecting with the divine. Also when you are in a drum circle you connect with other people and you connect with yourself. Your own heart and your own body and all the people you are drumming with. It is always wonderful.”
She teaches a few simple rhythms that anyone can do and then they just play for an hour. Fast, slow, loud, soft and nobody is really in charge. Periodically different people take the lead. “This creates a wonderful experience of connecting with other people on a very basic, primal, rhythmic level.” Every circle is unique and Jane invites people to come to the center of the circle bringing their intention or prayer. They end sitting in silence which is very deep after playing for an hour. This is one format for a drum circle but not the only one. Other drum circles stop periodically after jamming where a leader holds a beat and everyone follows doing their own thing wrapping up after a short time. Other facilitators are heavy into teaching specific beats. Teaching styles vary but the outcome is the same.
“So people who are grieving or have suffered a loss, would find in drumming a kind of companionship,” says Jane. “Drumming alone or in a group is a place to take your feelings, your angst, your joy, your memories, and celebrate the person you loved as easily as grieving for them.”
The drum in African tradition is the center of life. They play when people are born and when people have died. Drumming is a bridge to another dimension as there is a sense of a person’s energy taking flight at times, according to Jane. The drum is an instrument of healing with specific rhythms for specific ailments, passing drums down for generations.
“As an instrument of healing it is no accident that after playing, you feel good. When you drum, it puts you in a meditative state, somehow shutting down your mind and opening your heart. It is basically a meditative practice.”
She considers her style, free form drumming and is the way that she first experienced the drumming circle. She just plays. “I love that organic process of just seeing where things go and how they go. It’s a wonderful experience. There is a feeling of deep connection with folks.”
Babatunde’s words used as a beginning or an ending to drumming together:
I am peace
I am light
I am beauty
I am one with my Mother the Earth
I am one with my Father and his creation
I am one with everyone within the reach of my voice.
And in this togetherness,
We ask the Divine Intelligence
To eradicate all negativity
From our hearts
From our minds
And from our actions.
And so be it.
Drumming Information and Resources
When the Drummers Were Women, A Spiritual History of Rhythm by Layne Redmond. Three Rivers Press, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc. N.Y., N.Y. ISBN 0-609-80128-7
Drumming at the Edge of Magic, A Journey into the Spirit of Drumming by Mickey Hart with Jay Stevens. HarperCollins Publishers, N.Y., N.Y. ISBN 0-06-250374-X
The Healing Drum, African Wisdom Teachings by Yaya Diallo and Mitchell Hall. Destiny Books, Rochester, Vermont (www.InnerTraditions.com) ISBN 0-89281-256-7
(There is a wonderful CD of him playing healing rhythms which can be ordered with the book, I believe – see 5th CD below)
Babatunde Olatunji – Drums of Passion: The Beat (and anything else he has done)
Mickey Hart – Drumming at the Edge; Planet Drum
Nurudafina Pili Abena (Nuru) – Ancient Mother, One Spirit, Drum Call, the Big Bang
Mondobeat, Masters of Percussion, Narada Productions, Inc.
Yaya Diallo – Dombaa Folee, Minianka Medicine Music of Mali. The Relaxation Company. ISBN 1-55961-501-x
Olaibo, African Percussion, Mary Lamenzo (see listing below), Box 126, Warner, NH 03278 (young children love this CD, great for beginners to play along, also great for dancing) (603-456-3272) Send $18.00 includes cost of CD and shipping.
Ashe, Ashe, Ashe (this word means “thank you”)