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The Voice of the Drum

by George A. Parks, Ph.D.

The following article is an edited version of a chapter from Wingspan: Inside the Men's Movement edited by Chris Harding and published by St. Martin's Press, New York, l992.

Drumming has become an integral part of the mythopoetic men's movement. However, many men and women donít understand the purpose and meaning of drumming within the context of the ritual work that we do. I have read many articles about men's gatherings in which the reporter makes fun of the activity of drumming as if it were childish and foolish, and the image of grown men chanting, dancing, and beating drums has become one of the most common ways that the men's movement has been satirized. The purpose of this essay is to place the activity of drumming within its appropriate ritual context and to help those men interested in drumming to enjoy this age-old method of evoking deep emotions and creating ritual time and space through the pulsing rhythms of a community of drums.

My first experience with drumming at a men's gathering occurred about six years ago when the men attending the Menís Wisdom Council of Seattle asked Robert A. Carlson and me it they could start bringing drums to our meetings. The Menís Wisdom Council of Seattle is a monthly gathering of men that Robert and I started in April of l986. At first we had presenters who spoke to a group of men, with some questions and discussion following the talks, but we soon learned that the statements from the hearts of the men in the "audience" were far more powerful and honest than the prepared presentations of the speakers.

Gradually, our meetings evolved into a talking circle or council in which men simply spoke about a specific theme we had agreed to explore that day. These meetings were inspiring and meaningful, but when we began to drum, the energy of our gatherings increased and the quality of the personal statements seemed to deepen. The drumming also seemed t create a sense of brotherhood and community that made men feel more at home and members of the same tribe.

Soon, drumming was a routine event which opened every gathering. It was a gradual evolution of ritual process that occurred without specific direction from the facilitators or in response to any model of how to do it. However, it appears our experience here in Seattle is far from unique, as drumming has become a key element in almost every gathering of men across the United States and Canada. As Tom Daly writes in the Spring l99l edition of Wingspan, "In my own lodge nothing brings us together faster and more effectively than drumming. The drum is like having a magical being among us. When used by council brothers for sacred ritual, the drum takes us out of the cultural trance and connects us with the earth, our communities and our own hearts and souls."

As the number of men attending the Wisdom Council grew from about 40 to over 100, and is now approaching 300, the strength and power of the drumming has increased. More and more men are bringing conga drums, hand drums, snare drums, rattles, sticks, pots and pans, anything that can be used to make music together. We have never had any instruction in how to drum nor have we ever discussed why we drum. And yet, over time I have noticed how the drumming is a threshold forming a bridge between the ordinary space and time of the world outside of our gathering and the ritual space and time we seek to create for our sacred talking.

Even without instruction, as we begin to drum, the uneven sounds start to synchronize and within a few minutes, it sounds like a group of musicians who are playing a communal composition that no one person is conducting and that everyone feels a part of. The feedback that Robert Carlson, Roj Easterbrooks, and I are receiving as facilitators of the council is that men enjoy the drumming more and more as time goes on and for some of us, it has an amazing power to transport us into states of feeling that would be impossible without the vehicle of the drum. Of course, not every man drums and not every man appreciates or even likes the drumming, but most of us feel it is an essential part of our meetings.

As time passed, we in the Northwest were exposed to our first day for men featuring Michael Meade and Robert Bly and my experience with drumming took on a whole new dimension. The event was held in December of l987 in a large auditorium on the Seattle University campus. As I approached the building, I could hear the drums from a hundred yards away. It felt exciting and maybe even a little scary to hear the rhythmic pounding of drum as I registered for the event. I was directed to enter the auditorium through a door located to the left near the stage. The doorway was covered with evergreen tree boughs and in order to enter the room, I had to bend down and almost crawl. As I raised up to walk upright again, I was greeted by the sound of at least 25 conga drums being played by men who were seated on both sides of me forming a channel which extended the portal of tree boughs into the room. Several men had already arrived and were standing in front of their seats clapping their hands, swaying to the drum beat, or standing there, a little stiff, as if they might have been thinking, What the hell is this drumming all about?

Me, I was exhilarated! The beat was intense and the men who were drumming looked so confident and some of them seemed entranced by the rhythm and the shared experience of drumming. I watched as hundreds of men entered the room as I had done to the welcoming, even enticing sounds of the drumming. Before long there were over 700 of us facing the stage, which was decorated with tree boughs, some of which had masks hanging in the branches. It was a primal feeling of excitement, high energy, and a deep sense of community with my brothers that I had never felt before.

Soon, both Michael Meade and Robert Bly entered the room in the same way as the others had done. Robert took a seat among the drummers and began to play while Michael hit some Ago go bells with a stick, creating a counterpoint to the deep rhythm of the conga drums. After a few more minutes of drumming, Michael hit the bells to signal the drumming to stop and the men in the room responded with a loud and spontaneous cheer which broke into appreciative applause when Robert Bly said, "Letís thank the drummers!".

After the intensity of the drumming, I felt alert and alive and ready for the program ahead. I looked around the room and the community of men gathered there seemed particularly together, joyful, and eager to experience the activities that Michael and Robert had planned for us.

Michael was seated next to Robert on the stage and had a drum in front of him which resembled the congas, but which I later learned from its maker, Brad Davis of Vashon Island, was called a "tacked head storytelling drum." It was somewhat shorter that the congas and instead of a metal rim around the head with bolts used to adjust the tone, the drum head was tacked to the barrel with nails and its tone was dependent on temperature and moisture. Michael Meade explained that he was going to tell a story accompanying himself with the drum. He then told us a tale about a hunter and his son which he said originated in Africa. Michael is a master drummer and storyteller as well as a mythologist well versed in the mythic traditions of a variety of cultures. As he began to drum and to tell the story, the attention in the room was focused on his every word. Hundreds of men were transfixed by the rhythms of the drumming and the evocative images and plot of the story of a hunter, his son, and conflict between them. Eventually, the story came to an end with the dilemma of the son, which was given to every man in the audience: choose between loyalty to the father and loyalty to the king.

I had never heard the drum used in this way before. I was so taken with the story accompanied by the drumming that the boundary between imagination and reality began to melt. It seemed to me that nearly every man there was moved as much as I was by the power of the drum and the images in the story to take us to realms of consciousness beyond those that could be realized without the vehicle of the drumming.

Mickey Hart in his book, Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion, describes the ability of the drum to induce trance like states as "entrainment." Hart discusses how the repetitive sounds of drumming create rhythms which profoundly affect the body, especially the brain, to create altered states of consciousness. He says, "If the rhythm is right, you feel it with all your senses, itís in your mind, your body, in both places. Get a group of musicians vibrating harmoniously together and you have one of the most powerful emotional experiences on the planet, one that would be impossible if we hadn't evolved the conscious ability to entrain ourselves rhythmically." Drumming as an accompaniment to storytelling or drumming in a community of men seems to have this power to entrain, to connect us with deeper rhythms in our bodies and souls, and to create a certain musical magic that men seem to enjoy.

In the Winter following this day for men, the first Northwest Conference for Men was held. Michael Meade and Robert Bly were among the teachers for this gathering, which was held north of Seattle in the woods near a small lake. It was at this event that I had my first instruction in drumming and where I first experienced the power and beauty of a South American musical form called the samba. Michael Meade taught each clan of men within the conference to create a full spectrum of harmonious rhythms by combining three different beats with several men drumming in a organized, structured way. This was very different from the almost random drumming I was use to at the Men's Wisdom Council even though it always eventually settles into a synchronized rhythm. In the samba, each group of men plays a specific beat and when you combine these beats on time, the result is music.

The first beat of the samba forming the foundation of the rhythm is the grandfather beat, which consists of two strikes on a drum with bass tones. Michael asked us to imagine old men walking slowly down a path to keep this beat slow and steady. The second beat of the samba is more complex, involving several strikes of the hand on a conga drum with middle tones. Michael asked us to imagine a group of mature men working for the community. The third beat of the samba is the most complex of all, with more and faster strikes of the hand on a drum with high tones, creating the lead of the samba. For this beat, Michael asked us to imagine a group of youths in exuberant play. When a group of men play all three beats with the right timing, the rich and moving sound of the samba is created. Michael was an exceptional teacher, giving clear instructions and having the patience to practice again and again until I was amazed at our ability to make music together.

The purpose of learning to play the samba was to provide music for an event called Carnival, which occurred on the last night of the conference. We wore costumes and made masks and the atmosphere was similar to the festival of Mardi Gras. Groups of men took turns playing the samba as the rest of us listened or danced to the rhythm. It created a great sense of joy and revelry in our community of men, but as Michael often reminded us, the silence after the last beat of the samba and before the first beat begins again represents death and grief provides the foundation for the passion of the music and the dance.

The drums used in the samba are usually called conga drums, but I have learned that the conga is actually just one of a group of cone-shaped drums called tumba doras. There are three drums in the tumba dora family: the tumba, the conga, and the quinto. The tumba holds the bottom beat and has the largest head and the lowest pitch; the conga is in the middle and is the most common drum I have seen at menís gatherings except various types of hand drums; the quinto is used to play the lead and has the smallest head and the highest pitch.

Iím surprised by how many men own conga drums because they are relatively expensive, but they are powerful and a good investment if you want to drum on a long-term basis. However, many men own hand drums, which vary in type from the Arabic dumbek, which is usually made of clay with a goatskin heat, to the Moroccan bandir hoop drum made of wood with a goatskin head, to various round or octagonal drums often inspired by Native American designs and usually made of wood with cowhide or deerskin heads.

Personally, I own an octagonal hand drum made of cedar with a deerskin head which has a beautiful design of an eagle painted by Olin Lonning, a Tlingit artist from Alaska. Whatever type of drum appeals to you, nothing deepens oneís relationship to drumming like buying or making your own drum and using it alone and in groups of men or men and women. My own experience with drumming has convinced me that whether you buy a drum or make one at a drum-making workshop, get a drum somehow and join the community of drummers.

As African drummer Babatunde Olatunji said in a Seattle Times interview, "The evocative power of the drum can be compared to the Trinity; the drumís frame comes from the trunk of a tree, and that tree has a spirit. It is not dead wood. There is also spirit in the animal skin; if there wasnít, it would not produce sound. Those, plus the spirit of the person playing become an irresistible force." I believe the force of drumming is an important ritual tool for menís gatherings and the voice of the drum is a universal language that we in this culture are just learning to speak and to hear.

George A. Parks, Ph.D., is, with Robert A. Carlson, a co-founder of the Menís Wisdom Council of Seattle. He is a counselor in private practice working exclusively with male clients. George can be reached at (206) 685-7504.


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