By Morwen Two Feathers
Asked to write in response to the question, "Why drum?", I take time to reflect. I have been drumming for over seven years, have organized my life around it, have embraced the sacred task of making drumming accessible to others. Why do I do it? Why do I think it is good for others? As I consider my own motivations I find myself wondering how this question would be answered by others whose lives are intertwined with the energy of the drum. And so I embark on a thoroughly unscientific research project, talking with friends and acquaintances about what it means to live with the spirit of the drum.
One thing is clear: drumming captures the heart of most who encounter it. In the last few years, the popularity of drumming has spread, so that one can hardly go to any festival or gathering without hearing the pulse of drums, even if drums are not "on the program". Drum circles have sprung up across the country, in cities and small towns, meeting monthly or weekly, for men only or women only or open to all. People from all walks of life have embraced the drum as a fixture in their lives; participants in a recent Earth Drum Council event represented such occupations as computer programmer, postal worker, artist, nurse, blacksmith, social worker, massage therapist, theater tech, lawyer, doctor, secretary, and more. What is it about the drum that inspires, energizes, brings people together?
There are many levels to consider. First there's the simple fact that drumming is FUN. What child has not discovered this, banging with joyful abandon upon pots and pans, or tapping with pencils on desk or table top? (Sometimes I think the reason so many of us are so captivated by drumming is that our parents and teachers told us so many times as children to "stop that racket!" and now we can make all the noise we want.) Fun is an essential part of the human experience. In play we connect to the child within, and gain access to openness, wonder, and innocence that allows us to see the world new. In that state of mind and heart, we may claim the prerogative of children, to continue to grow.
Drumming also has powerful physiological effects. Most obviously, sustained drumming increases the heart rate and blood flow, resulting in the "high" common to any aerobic exercise. There are also more subtle effects. In an article in the drum newsletter "Reach Into the Pulse", Layne Redmond discusses the effect of drumming on the synchronization of the brain's two hemispheres. The process of drumming engages both the linear, rational left brain (in the learning of polyrhythmic parts and the analysis of how rhythms fit together) and the creative, intuitive right brain (in the entrainment of rhythm in the body and the appreciation of the music). The two brain hemispheres often emanate different wave frequencies; drumming, like deep meditation, brings them into synchronization, which is experienced as an opening of consciousness. Redmond writes, "Synchronized brain wave activity with very high amplitude alpha waves can create feelings of euphoria with a sense of expanded mental powers and flowing creativity... This may be the neurophysiological basis of what are called 'higher states of consciousness'."
Tom Bickford of Spiritcraft Drums conveys a related idea when I ask him why he drums. A drum builder, healer, and shaman, Tom says that shamanic journey drumming directly links humans with the vibration of the Earth by slowing the brain waves to around 8 cycles per second, the same frequency as the planet. "Drumming heals the human energy field, exactly like the laying on of hands," he says. "It energizes and clears the chakras. If your intention is for healing to happen when drumming, it will. Immersing oneself in the energy field of shamanic journey drumming is tremendously healing to all aspects of human beingness, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual." The bottom line, he says, is that drumming "makes you feel good. It opens you up to the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Why do I drum? So I can hang out with Mom."
Although shamanic journey drumming is different from the polyrhythmic drumming that has its origins in African cultures, the energetic impact on humans is the same: it induces an altered state (sometimes called "trance", sometimes "ecstacy") that opens the way for healing or transformation. This altered state is the realm of the shaman, the one who seeks the guidance of spirits to effect change. When people are drawn to the drum they intuitively feel its potential to change them, though they do not always consciously understand it.
Jimi Two Feathers, co-founder of Earth Drum Council, believes that drumming and dancing around the fire is the original, primal consciousness altering experience for human beings. "The nightclub of modern times is an attempt to duplicate that primal feeling," he says, "but there is no substitute. Humans walk, breathe, have a heartbeat -- we are basically rhythmic beings, and drumming taps into that. When you create that magical space around the fire where everyone has the same information, the same understanding of how the circle of energy works, then people become more at one with each other, more whole. The junk falls away, people become more honest on a soul level, and can unfold and fly. The drum circle has elements of entertaining and being entertained, but it's also the original church. In that space people can experience real transformation."
The healing and transformation created by drumming can be quite striking. Bob Bloom describes himself as "a drummer guy who does it because of the people it leads me to meet." After years of studying and then teaching African drumming, Bob is now working with the Rhythm for Life Foundation, focusing on bringing drumming to people with illness and disabilities, the elderly, and the very young. Bob gets intense pleasure from seeing the effect that playing with drums and percussion instruments has on people. His voice is animated as he describes giving an egg shaker to a man with cerebral palsy, who began to play it instantly and giggle with delight. In cases like this, the healing is not abstract or ethereal, but immediately observable.
Not everyone loves drums, though few are neutral; people either love them or hate them. I suspect that when people are repelled by the drum, they are afraid of that aforementioned potential for personal transformation, that is, change. Michael Wingfield, teacher and performer of the Afro-Caribbean percussive arts and an extraordinary drummer, tells a story of drumming in the street with friends when he was approached by an earnest young man, who beseeched him to stop drumming "because there are demons all around, called by the drums." After verifying that his drummer friends saw no demons, Michael turned to the man and gently admonished him to pray like hell. The demons are real; they feed on fear. Each of us must face our own personal demons, moving through our fear of change to expand into the realm of Higher Self. Michael's suggestion for how to do this: "Drum and drum often."
I see some themes coming up again and again. Drumming is enjoyable, it's fun, it feels good, it's a valuable form of self-expression, a catalyst for personal healing and transformation. But there's something else as well. Bob begins to touch on it when he talks about the variety of interesting people he has met through the drum. "There's a universal quality to it -- any group of people can come together around drumming, and it can have a positive impact on their lives." Drumming is a communal activity, it brings people together. As a participative art, it both builds community and expresses culture. Drumming, and its closely associated activity, dance, create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. When people do it together, they tap into something much bigger than themselves, both as individuals and as a group.
The cultural aspect of drumming is important to Cornell Coley, an arts educator and consultant who promotes the arts in public education and produces performances of the traditional arts of the African diaspora. As a child, Cornell was attracted to drumming as a creative outlet, but the Western classical style of drumming he found in the public school system did not hold his interest for long, so he turned to dance. In college he spent his junior year in Ghana, and was exposed to a culture where music, drumming, dance, song, and instrument making were integrated into daily life. When he discovered Afro-Cuban and Brazilian dance, he came to recognize the creativity and complexity of the hand drumming that supports the dance, and began his journey of reintegrating the dance and drum that continues to this day. Now Cornell is committed to creating and producing work that combines folk art with modern performance art (especially dance), and sees drumming as an essential part of that process. The traditional folk arts, including traditional drumming, are a rich source of inspiration and creative material, and when these are combined with modern forms of expression such as modern dance, a new cultural milieu is created in which people have an opportunity to experience different aspects of themselves.
Earth Drum Council, too, was created with awareness of the web of community and culture that is formed when people drum and dance together. By providing a space where people learn rhythms, improvise and jam around the fire, and share from their hearts in council, EDC has fostered the creation of a new cultural community. This community values diversity, honesty, self-expression, and growth. Honoring the interconnection of all things, EDC consciously brings together many different drumming traditions with the intention of opening a space to experience the universal heartbeat. The drum becomes a tool to draw up the universal consciousness from deep within the soul. The energy that is raised in this space has the power to transform not only the participants but the world.
This transformation of the world through our individual and collective actions is essentially a shamanic undertaking. We recognize that when our actions are charged with the energy of ecstacy, their impact carries beyond the obvious or mundane effects that we can see. When we undertake the work of changing ourselves, understanding that we are woven into the web of all life, we enter the realm of the shaman, who travels between the worlds to heal the individual, the community, and the planet. What would the world be like if drumming were integrated into the everyday life of society? If the openness and intuitive knowing that are stimulated by the drum were the standard operating mode of our politicians, business people, teachers, bureaucrats? A glimpse of this potential is available to us now, as people from all walks of life join together to drum and dance their visions of a better world into reality.
Today, as more and more people are coming to understand the importance of transforming our culture's ways of being with each other and being on the planet, we are learning to value the power of ecstatic experience as a tool of transformation. Rhythm and movement, in the form of drumming and dance, are ancient technologies for raising energy, inducing the ecstatic experience, and weaving the web of community. These ancient ways are available to us right now. That's why I drum; how about you?
c. 1995, Morwen Two Feathers. A version of this article appeared in the September/October 1995 issue of Spirit of Change.
Morwen Two Feathers is a musician, teacher, writer, management consultant and mother who has been drumming for seven years. She is co-founder and director of Earth Drum Council, and since 1990 has worked to create opportunities for people from all walks of life to experience the power of the drum to build community and connect to spirit.