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African Drumming vs. Community Drum Circles… Seriously??

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My friend Greg wrote me after reading a rant by an African-trained drumming teacher criticizing my community drum circles for failing to teach the history of the djembe and traditional African rhythms. Perhaps the teacher didn’t notice all the doumbeks and congas and cajon and frame drums in the community drum circle. He said we did “more harm than good” musically. Perhaps the California-based teacher thought that the best strategy to sell his teaching services in Maine was to criticize and belittle the only type of drumming 1000+ Mainers have come to know and love. If he was an Olympic Gold Medalist, he would be the one publicly poking fun at Special Olympics participants because, unlike him, they’re not ‘real athletes’.

African drumming is beautiful. But it requires a lot of physical skill and mental discipline to duplicate music that someone improvised hundreds of years ago. As such, it tends to attract certain types of people. People who prefer that things are spelled out very concretely so that they can play from memory. People who are less comfortable with chaos, disorganization, experimentation, and spontaneity. People who need everyone around them to do the right thing rightly.

I’m not putting them down. Traditional rhythms survive because those drummers have the desire, the mindset, and the skills to continue them.

It’s only worth discussing when they attempt to elevate themselves by dismissing others. “My drumming has value because it is rooted in a rich cultural tradition, while yours is just noise.” We’ve co-existed this long. We each love drumming. Recreational music is not a competitive sport. I’m frankly disappointed that a professional musician would attack novice musicians in an attempt to build up his teaching business. I remember another African drumming teacher in Maine criticizing my drum circles because all of our rhythms were in (novice-accessible) 4/4 or 6/8.

My youngest drummer was 13 months old. I call Gracie a drummer because she actually kept a simple 4/4 beat! My eldest drummer was Ann. Ann was 90 when her husband died and she started drumming regularly with us. She was 94 when we moved from Maine. In the four years Ann drummed with us she drummed so quietly I never heard her. But she told a fellow drummer, “There’s no age in that room.” One of my favorite drummers was 28-year-old Laura, who insisted on sitting beside me every circle so that we could play drumming games together. Laura was born with cerebral palsy as well as autism. Laura had difficulty speaking and crossing a room, but she loved community drumming! Her mother once told me that my drum circle was the only ‘normal’ activity in which Laura was welcomed to participate with ‘normal’ people.

If only traditional African drumming has any relevance or value, what would that teacher do if Gracie, Ann, and Laura showed up to his class? What would he teach them? How well would they ‘fit’ into his class?
You can argue that my freestyle drum circle is not as musically proficient as your African drumming class but my circle is inclusive. I give my drummers permission to be novices. I encourage them to take risks. I give them permission to make mistakes. How many times have I made my drum circle members laugh by telling newcomers, “We’re not auditioning for Santana.” or “The only ‘sin’ a novice can make is to be the loudest drummer in the room.”

I’ll never forget the woman who asked me, “What if I’m rhythmically challenged?”

I smiled and replied, “Play quietly.” 🙂

I give people permission to play badly… to risk… to find their own voice… to learn from (and even laugh at) their own mistakes… to tolerate the mistakes of others. All important and transferable life lessons.

I’ve had training in Middle-Eastern drumming, African drumming, and Taiko drumming. But I allow myself to improvise and play from my heart simply because I enjoy it more than playing from my head. It expresses more.

Buddy Rich was more technically proficient than Gene Krupa but Gene Krupa was having way more fun when he drummed. Watch a video of Buddy Rich and you’ll say “Wow!” Watch a video of Gene Krupa and you’ll bob your head and move your body. His grooves had a physical ‘feel’ that was unmistakable. What’s more, he invented the instrument (the drum set) that Buddy Rich played!

People trained in African drumming are focused on the proper way to recreate specific music. So, when they hear a freestyle drum circle we fall short.

But someone who is having a spiritual experience is sitting next to a musician being creative. A conservative corporate attorney is drumming beside a lesbian acupuncturist. A Pagan and a born-again Christian are dueting off each other. A middle-aged couple is drumming for the first time on their first date (They will marry two years later.) A couple has brought their children to the drum circle and, as a result, every Wednesday night they will turn off the TV and the computers and have their own family drum circle at home. A Vietnam veteran with a permanent disability in his left arm has discovered that hand-drumming is the most effective physical therapy he’s had in 50 years. An entire teen religious education class has joined us because they are exploring alternative ways that people gather to feed their souls. A recovering alcoholic is having fun with other people without drinking. An unemployed laborer found a fun family activity that doesn’t cost a cent (my drum circles are still free, after 20+ years). A woman who lost her husband has found another ‘family’ and a break from being alone. Depressed people are less depressed. Anxious people are relaxing. Shy people are making friends. People who may have nothing else in common are creating community.

…and you imagine that this is about the MUSIC?

It’s like a fish criticizing a bird because it can’t swim underwater.


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