Read an Excerpt
From the Heart of the Drum Circle
By Patricia Telesco, Don Two Eagles Waterhawk
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2003 Patricia Telesco and Don Two Eagles Waterhawk
All rights reserved.
The History, Myth, Religion, and Lore of the Drum
Only the drum is confident, it thinks the world has not changed.
The Drum Spirit is alive, well, and thriving in our world. Time and transformation have not deterred it, nor has any amount of technological advance. To understand this amazing longevity, we must first turn back the pages of time and learn about the drum's history and its importance to humankind's tribe.
At least part of this importance is easily discerned by looking at the symbolic value of the drum around the world. Among Africans it represents magical power and the heart. In Buddhist tradition drums resonate with the voice of the law and with happy news. In China it bears the song of heaven, for the Hindus the drumbeat is the primordial sound of creation, in Japan it echoes as a token of prayer, and in India it is the drum of Shiva that magically beats out our universe's vital pulse.
Volumes could be written about any of these socio-philosophical views on drumming. It's undeniable that this instrument has reached deeply into the human soul and imbedded itself in our consciousness. Nonetheless, we have only this chapter in which to share snippets of the drum's past, so forgive our briefness. As you read, be asking yourself: How does all this tradition manifest in sacred drumming today, and how will we continue to honor this resounding legacy in the future?
TIME'S BEAT: A BRIEF HISTORY OF DRUMS
Before we launch a more detailed review, there is one "myth" about the drum that needs to be clarified. Many people think of the drum as a man's tool. However, the histories of the Egyptian, Semitic, Sumerian, and Wahinda people all tell us of women using these instruments. In Egypt, girls attended various gods by dancing with drums. In the Semitic tribes, women used drums somewhat exclusively for singing and dancing at moon rituals. Sumerian history gives us an account of a royal granddaughter drumming in the temple of the moon around 2280 B.C.E. Finally, among the Wahinda of East Africa, it's considered a death wish for a man to even look at a drum. They will only dare to carry it at night, and even better during the dark moon so it cannot be seen. Moreover, there are ancient statues of women holding what appears to be a cake, but is actually a drum (a cake held up like that would surely fall to the ground). With these examples in hand, we can see that women used drums just as men, and women are currently coming into the drum circle again as part of the renewal process.
With that myth out of the way, it is very safe to say that drums are the most widespread, sacred, and ritually significant of all musical instruments. They appeared all over the world as an integral part of religious ceremonies, combined with dancing, singing, marching, and other community work. Drums exorcised malevolent spirits, expelled evildoers, divined the future, signaled trouble, acted as a fertility charm, and became an earthly voice for the ancestors, spirits, and gods.
Why a drum of all things? Good question! There are several good theories to consider. First, and one of the most popular ideas to reemerge recently, is the theory of entrainment. Conceptualized by Christian Huygens in 1665, this theory basically states that two rhythms in close proximity to one another will slowly begin to mirror each other. They entrain. Rather than cycle apart from each other, which takes more energy, they move closer to oneness and eventually beat together. So by making and using drums, our ancestors were simply entraining to the beat of the universe itself, even as we are trying to do.
To understand entrainment better, consider that the drum very closely resembles the sound of our heartbeat, perhaps the most personal and intimate sound we know from before birth until death. Also consider the fact that our ancestors listened to the world around them, seeing the rhythms and patterns in everything. Crickets, the pitter-patter of rainfall, birds flying overhead, the sound of people harvesting, and all manner of other natural or social beats surrounding them daily. Each of these sounds comes together, entrains, in the drum.
A third viable possibility is that drums became popular because they could be made from just about anything. Beats could be tapped out on a hollow log, an upturned cup, a piece of bamboo, clamshells, and even a person's belly. Rhythm is an inescapable part of the human soul, and it was going to find expression somewhere! The drum represents a huge part of that expression.
With all this in mind, where exactly do we begin? Well, the drum's history is partially intertwined with the human love of music. Some creative soul way back in 15,000 B.C.E. carved a dancing shaman in a cave in what is now France. Historians tell us that the person portrayed wears skins and seems to be playing a concussion stick (a percussion instrument)! It's a reasonable assumption that even the earliest humans realized what an old African saying advises: a person or place without music is dead. Through music we express so much that cannot be expressed in words. Music, and specifically drumming, mirrors our dreams, our experiences, our cultural richness, and our very souls. It takes emotion and translates it into rhythm—into something someone else can hear and respond to no matter the language barriers.
To find early drums, we might begin in Moravia in central Europe. Here digs uncovered clay drums dating to about 6,000 B.C.E. Bulgarian artifacts imply that drums were used to honor a bird goddess around 4,500 B.C.E., and Mesopotamian sculptures illustrating a variety of drums date to 3,000 B.C.E. This is also true of the paintings depicting drums in Egypt, India, Assyria, Persia, and China. In each of these five settings, art testifies that drums served an important communal function too by pounding out work rhythms (such as for rowers in Egypt).
Another interesting archaeological dig in Russia indicates that these early people were using resonating chambers as community gathering spots where percussive instruments could echo loudly and more easily reach the heavens. Dated to the Paleolithic era, these caves included a well-fashioned mud hut filled with idiophones. These ancient depictions among so many diverse cultures make it impossible to determine a specific point of origin for drums. They just appear as if by magic.
The best estimate of when drums took on the configuration of a hollow vessel with an animal hide on top is around the eighth century B.C.E. We have Ethiopian cave paintings and carvings to thank for this information. Nonetheless, since these illustrations are pretty detailed (down to the twine wrappings) it's likely this design existed for quite a while prior to this date.
These early hide covers were rarely prepared properly for longevity. Other typical covers include fish, snake, and lizard skin. In times of war, drums made from the skins of rival humans were also quite common. While this might seem barbaric, to the tribal mind it was a very effective way to overcome your enemy through sympathetic magic (literally pounding the power out of them). In some settings, such as Peru, it also endowed the possessor with all of his or her enemies' attributes (like strength or cunning).
Speaking of covers, it's interesting to note that the nails that held drum hides in place also had significance. In both China and Aztec Mexico these bits of metal protected the drum's virtue. Similarly, the Araucanians added obsidian to the inside of their drums to boost its magical power. Corresponding techniques were being used in a variety of regions with the only difference being the augmentative medium, which ranged from shells to skulls and crystals.
Throughout these early years drums slowly moved more and more out of the temple and into daily life. One of the main places it appeared was on the battlefield. Here the amount of noise not only improved the troops' spirits, but intimidated the opponent. When one looks at the large drums in India, for example, there is no doubt they would sound LOUDLY! The mahabharata was a drum so powerful as to have gained the reputation of tearing the sky in two if played properly.
Around A.D. 1,000 something important took place that increased the variety of drums and their popularity. The Arabian and Turkish traders brought a completely different type of drum into Europe. Moors also contributed a style of their own. Over time and with increasing trade routes, these novelties probably influenced the tabor (a two-headed drum and snare with a skin head) and the nakers (two single-headed Turkish cavalry drums), both of which appeared in Europe in the thirteenth century. After a fashion, this would change the face of European music which was still struggling to include drums in musical catalogues as late as the 1500s!
Around the 1300s the first kettledrums appear in illustrations, ranging in size from between seventeen and twenty-eight inches wide. The screws on the kettledrum allowed the musician to subtly change its tone.
Come the 1400s we get side drums with snares. Then, leaping forward in time, by the late 1700s drums took part in the American Revolution where (as in other war settings) they stimulated soldiers and rang out with a sense of oneness. By the 1800s, the kettledrum was being revised and improved with a hand crank that allowed the drummer to tighten all the screws together (a great time saver). It was also during this century that we see the first timpani with foot pedals from German makers, and royal drummers being paid quite nicely in England (up to five shillings a day for their services).
From the 1800s forward all kinds of drums have appeared in a variety of settings, and over the years their role in society has continued to change. In Native American powwows, for example, women were allowed to dance in the drum circle for the first time around 1960 (whereas before they remained in outer circle).
Nowadays there are literally hundreds of types of drums from which to choose. Once a communication device and spiritual tool, drums have evolved into an instrument that is taking the forefront in modern music. In effect, the beating of drums accompanies us through our daily lives, and the rest—as they say—is history!
One of the most interesting places to explore the ways in which our ancestors perceived drums and how they honored them is by reading the myths and legends from around the world. Some stories have drums beating out the first sparks of creation. Others indicate their presence as a rhythmic midwife when Spirit designed the first human being.
Others still talk about how various types of drums came into human hands, as in a Fjort story where a created bird called a Nchonzo nkilla had a tail shaped like a drum, which it used to beat the ground. This creature's drum was so sacred that not even the Earth Mother dared to take it! This hallowed attitude was not unique. In the Pacific region people believed that a water god/dess made the slit drum, and no one but that being is allowed to use it. This drum was created to serve the divine.
No matter the setting, however, one truth rings loud and clear: drums are a very important part of our spiritual heritage and our heritage as the human tribe.
Apache: Fox Makes a Drum and Fire
In Apache stories, Fox was given goose wings so he could learn the song of this bird. Unfortunately he opened his eyes and fell from the sky right into the walls and tents of the fireflies. To appease them he gave them juniper berries and made a drum from cedar bark as a payment if they would agree to lead him past their walls and safely out of the brush.
Once the drum was made, he beat it, and the fireflies began to make merry. They gathered wood to make a fire and ignited it with their own glow. Alas, poor Fox grew weary and moved too close to the flame, catching his tail on fire. As he ran from the camp, sparks flew out and spread across the earth. So he reached down, grabbed a burning brand, and gave it to Hawk so that others could benefit from the gift.
West Africa: The First Wooden Drum
At the beginning of time God made the drum. He gave this first drum to a genie who lived in a desolate place. There the drum sat, in the middle of the sands, without so much as a sound, until a young boy wandered by and struck it. The genie came out from his hiding place and asked, "Who told you to beat that drum?"
"No one," the boy replied.
"Well, since you have started, keep playing so I can dance!" the genie commanded. "If I get tired you can kill me, but if your hands get tired, I shall kill you!"
Sadly the young man failed to keep up with the genie's strength and endurance. Many days later his brother arrived, wondering what had happened to the lad, only to find him dead. Next to his head there were two sticks, with which the brother began to play the beautiful drum (some families never learn!).
Again the genie appeared and issued the challenge. This young man was a little wiser, however, and followed the genie on his dance so the creature could not rest anywhere. Finally, the genie succumbed. Thus, the young man avenged his brother's death and brought god's first drum back to his people in victory.
Hawaii: The First Hula Drum
Hawaiian mythology tells us of Kupulupulu, who bears a drum and flute in his canoe. As he travels, passing Hawaii, Maui, and Molokai, his drummer, Kupa, beats his drum, allowing the beautiful sound to reach across the waters. Upon reaching Oahu, Haikamalama, sitting on the shore, begins to mirror the sound of Kupa's beat. Over and over he patterns the beat on his chest to bring the travelers to shore. When they arrive, he cleverly asks to look at the drum closely, pretending it's a well-known item in Oahu. Afterward, Haikamalama goes and makes a copy of this drum, which became the sacred drum of Hula.
Lakota: Soldiers Return the Drum to the People
During the 1800s Lakota drummers were playing just outside a fort filled with U.S. soldiers. The soldiers were very drunk and found the sound overwhelming. In an outburst of unreason, they went out and took away the drums and burned them. Some weeks later, when these same soldiers needed a native scout, the one they chose was one whose drum had been burned before. Those soldiers so mourned their previous actions that they gave a band drum to the Lakota scout, and drums of that style are used to this day.
Tibet, the Bon Tradition: Drums That Please the Gods
A teacher came to the Bon people by the name of Tiong Khapa. Tiong had a dear friend who often worked rituals with him named Chumbu Neljar. Their rituals honored Mahakala, a great god, and Chumbu seemed determined to use a drum in these rites even though many other regional priests did not. While Tiong loved his friend, he found this choice confusing and finally asked why he insisted on drumming for Mahakala. Chumbu's gentle and sincere reply was that he did it because it pleased god.
Tiong Khapa, being aware of the prevalent manners of shamans, suggested Chumbu stop playing the drum for a while. Tiong even went so far as to tell Chumbu that his belief in the drum was likely nothing more than superstition.
Wishing to honor his friend and teacher, Chumbu put down the drum for a while; unfortunately he found himself miserable. No matter what he did, Mahakala seemed nowhere to be found. He could not sense the god. Chumbu finally returned to Tiong and begged him to recant. He said, "I am sad; God is sad. Please let us use the drum again!" Tiong listened to his friend and reintegrated the drum into worship, where it continues to this day.
Native American: Drum of Life
Among Native American tribes it seems like every myth mentions the drum as being the heartbeat of those peoples. Additionally, nearly all the oral histories talk about the drum's importance in the Sacred Wheel. Specifically, such stories imply that should the people stop dancing, drumming, and singing, the tribe would cease, and perhaps so would even time itself.
Africa: Oshun Dances and Drums for Peace
This story tells of a group of women witches who gathered together and tried to use their power to dominate the world and everything in it. Many of the Orisha were angered and tried to put a stop to it. First they sent Ogun down to Earth as the spirit of war to overpower them. He failed. Next Obatala came down as the spirit of justice and pace to reason with the women. He also failed. Finally after all the other Orisha made efforts to appease the women, Oshun offered to help with her beauty, dance, and music. She picked up a drum and began to dance her way toward the women. At first all they heard was the divine beats of the drum, and then they saw Oshun. The women were completely enthralled by her divine grace and sensual prowess. From then on they became followers of Oshun, having learned that there is strength and virtue in womanhood.
Excerpted from Sacred Beat by Patricia Telesco, Don Two Eagles Waterhawk. Copyright © 2003 Patricia Telesco and Don Two Eagles Waterhawk. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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