Monday, April 30, 2012

Drumming, Sound and information - it's in our DNA

I had the distinct pleasure of co-facilitating a drum play shop (because let's face it, drumming is too much fun to call a workshop). My co-creator, Alphonsus, is an amazing, organic, intuitive drummer and musician. He's one of those rare individuals that sees, hears, smells and tastes music long before it ever moves through his body to his hands. While we were planning this class, we talked extensively about sound, music, consciousness and dreaming.

Our human ancestors understood that sound carried information and that information, learned over a hundred thousand years ago, is still encoded into our DNA. "Louder" and "Closer" might mean danger. Animal sounds that were repetitive, like frog song or bird song, might signal calmness and an "all is well" message. An interruption in that repetition sent updated information that could be acted upon, and action meant survival.

For the majority of us living in a city or suburban setting, listening to our environment seems like an alien idea. We hear music in our cars and as background noise in the office. We hear the sounds of cards, sirens, airplanes, chatter but, for most of us, that just becomes the white noise of our life and doesn't hold much information for us.

However, the ability to listen to our surroundings and to have those sounds impact our conscious and unconscious mind is still within us. It is a skill that we can learn and practice and it doesn't take much work to shift into a place where we listen with our bodies not just those little flappy things mounted on the sides of our head.

This weekend, we practiced walking blindfolded. We were guided by a partner that had us stand in the sun, in the shade, reach down and touch the earth, a tree, whatever was around. Similarly, we were instructed to listen. In just those few short moments, the exercise lasted about 15 minutes per partner, folks reported that they could identify all sorts of sounds that they wouldn't have heard if they were not thinking about it. Everything from buzzing insects to the sound of the grass below their feet, to birds chattering, even the sound of the wind moving through the trees.

Take an experiment like this out to a remote place, and you'll be amazed at how well you can begin to identify not only more sounds, but how those seemingly distinct noises begin to form a larger conversation. I have found that certain places have a rhythm all of their own and I can identify the place by the sounds I hear there and, perhaps importantly, I can tell when something is "off" about the place by the sounds that are present (or not).

And this is the skill my teaching partner has developed to an incredible degree. He knows instinctively how to join that conversation. That deep-wisdom that he knows how to listen to, I believe, is what makes his music so engaging. It simply  and effortlessly fits with the environment.

As an aside to all of this - If this intrigues you, I might suggest picking up "The Spell of the Sensuous" and "Becoming Animal" by David Abram.

Happy listening and happy drumming.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Drumming at Pantheacon

Pagan Sounds went to Pantheacon this past weekend. We didn't go as vendors or presenters, but we did take our drums so that we could make some noise with 2400 of our favourite pagan people!

There's a drum circle that happens about 11pm on Saturday night. Everyone is welcomed to drum, clap, sing, dance, shake shakers, ring bells and generally add to the magick. The circle usually goes until the wee hours or until the hotel staff can't take it any more. Crystal Coyote of "A Different Drum" is the organizing force behind this offering. You can pick him out pretty easily; he's the one sitting behind the huge drum on the middle of the stage playing the Mother Rhythm.

This past Pcon there were about 8 of us on the stage, djembe players, conga players, doumbek players, mother drummers and a good friend of mine brought a rack full of gongs - Yes! I said a rack full of gongs! There were another 20 or so drummers that sat in at one point or another throughout the evening and probably a hundred or so people dancing, writhing and generally getting downright funky with themselves.

We explored Middle Eastern riffs, Afro-Caribbean jams, and good ol' fashioned African-inspired beats. We went fast. We slowed it down. We went really fast. We got sexy. We got sweaty. We had a blast. We left it all on the stage.

What made this so special? Each of the drummers on stage took their turn in the spotlight. Each drummer had that sense of when to hang back and when to just take the lead and let it go. And for me, that is pure musical magic. Everyone doing their own thing, listening to each other, perfectly together.

Highlight for me? Crystal Coyote and I riffing off of each other. Him, impossibly matching each beat I pounded out on the Djembe. I bow to Him of the Lightening Hands!

Check out his site if you are in the market for an exceptional handmade frame drum.

Drum often and with passion!


The Pagan in Pagan Sounds

I've written many posts about the sounds created by the drums we play here at Pagan Sounds. There are articles about drum history, drum making and drum circles. I realized, however, that I haven't talked much about the Pagan part of Pagan Sounds.

I'm a Pagan and being pagan  informs how I choose to express my relationship with the worlds, seen and unseen. I refer to myself as a world-changer, edge-walker, magick worker and witch.

How does being a pagan influence the way I make music? Well, for one thing it isn't just about creating sound. For me it's about creating space, space that allows potential to become manifest. I practice making the drumscape a palpable energetic field. "What does that mean?" you ask, well, when I'm part of a dynamic, intentioned drum circle I purposely make a temenos, a line between This place and That place and I work to expand that in-between area. For me, that's where the magick gets created.

If you've ever sat in the middle of  a drum circle, not as a drummer but as an observer, or been part of a healing ritual that features drums, you probably have a good sense of what I'm referring to even if you don't use the term magick to define it. Something shifts.Anything is possible. Transformation happens.

There's science out there that speaks to what actually happens in the brain when certain rhythm combinations are played or so many beats per minute are hammered out, and all of that is true and well researched. However, although I find science to be an invaluable tool, it tends to be soley reductive in it's approach. Magick, I believe, is expansive. It seeks to marry what is factual and quantifiable with that which is known but not easily explained. Another way to say that is that magick looks to preserve the Mystery of co-creation.

So when I drum I am in the entering into the act of creation. Creation is the domain of the goddesses and gods as I see them. And entering into that conversation with the universe is magick, as I hold it.

Be well and drum often!


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My Drumming Journey

My musical journey began like many others in grade school, although there wasn’t much for me that was musical about it. Music class was difficult for me because I was very shy and having to sing in front of others was often an excruciating experience. Additionally, every year there was a “show” for the parents, and each child would be subjected to individual voice testing by the teacher to determine the part he or she would be allowed to sing for the show. I dreaded these meetings because of the looks of disappointment I would inevitably endure from the music teacher.

We also were introduced to some instruments. I can remember the crenellated sticks that you rub together to make a washboard like sound, the wooden block, the triangle, and the recorder. I don’t recall being that fond of the rhythm instruments although they were fairly easy. I was pretty decent at playing the recorder, however, I still think it is a horrible instrument, prone to all manner of dying/mating animal noises. In retrospect, those classes in which we played music together were my first rhythm circles.

When I got to junior high I started playing the tenor saxophone and I enjoyed it immensely, even though I was a “band geek”. Unfortunately it was stolen in my eighth grade year and it was never replaced. I went through high school and into my twenties relying on tapes and cds to fulfill my musical needs.

I became involved in a spiritual group that was teaching Native American practices in my early twenties. Every gathering included some form of singing or drumming usually to open and close the work. The music was powerful, sending me into ecstatic and heightened states of awareness. There was a call within the music, urging me to add my voice to the song.

Although it meant revisiting and working through all those wonderful childhood memories of music class, I followed the call and began to add my voice to the singing. At first I mimicked another’s voice that was in my range so that I could learn about tone, pitch, and rhythm. As I began to sing, I discovered that my previous experiences of ecstasy had been but a pale reflection of the possibilities. I began to have visions and to experience the presence of ancestor voices within the song.

When I had progressed enough with my voice, I began to learn how to use a hand drum to keep the rhythm while I was singing. It was extremely difficult at first, like patting your head and rubbing your tummy simultaneously. Eventually I mastered some of the songs and moved even deeper into the spiritual experience. The group dissolved at some point and I stopped singing and drumming for several years.

I was reawakened to drumming several years ago when I attended a week long spiritual retreat. I entered again into the world of ecstatic dancing, drumming, and singing. It was as if my body was the music, and the music was my body. I existed outside of time, yet I was connected to the steady beat of the music. I was at once embodied and aware of the presence inside that was not my body. I could hear again the voices of the ancestors with me, the songs in my blood.

I resolved after this experience to begin my own drumming practice, but this time using a two-handed drum like a djembe. Since that time I have played drums in two consecutive retreats at the same location as the first and have taught a class on ritual drumming. For me it is very much a spiritual practice that allows for the experience of ecstatic union while still maintaining individuality. I still have grade school tapes that criticize my playing, but I try to listen to the ancestors instead.


Friday, September 30, 2011

The Deep Knowing Sounds Like a Promise on a Drum

I admit it - I haven't drummed all that long.  And there are times when I actually wince when I call myself a drummer.

It all started when I was in a year-long priestess training class.  We were scheduled to have someone come in and help us learn more about drumming in ritual.  That was May of 2010.

I didn't have a drum.  And while I know I could have borrowed one of the ones in the class space, I wanted to make a bigger commitment.  I'm the sort of person who will buy the drum and tell myself that I will learn how to play it.

(Even when I'm less than convinced I will.)

My first drum was a Celtic Labyrinth drum, a deep red, a larger drum, and it was beautiful.  When I pulled her (I assumed) out of the box, the first thing I did was examine all of the grooves and the white of her head.

Gorgeous.  But my hands hesitated.  I wanted to touch her, I wanted to hear her, but even in the apartment all by myself, I didn't want anyone to hear it.  That virgin step towards drumming was slow, less than confident, and it took a few minutes before I summoned up the courage.

Then I heard her sound.  Deep and true.  It called to me and suddenly I was playing a beat that I hadn't practiced and that I hadn't realized I'd know.  The deeper knowing called from my hands into my heart and out into the room.

I stopped.  I heard the echoes along the walls and I wondered what she would sound like in ritual.  And then, I knew that I could.

I could.

That drum has been sent to a loving home with another Witch, but I remember that first day, that first delicate touch as something that stirred me.

Drumming continues to stir me, even when I miss a beat, or bruise my fingers, or wonder if I'll ever be good enough.

But I am good enough for the drum.  I am good enough for the song.  I am a drummer because I play, because I reached out and opened up my heart to what I already knew.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Me and Drumming

Hey there, this is Phoenix and although I am one of the founders of Pagan Sounds, I have yet to add my voice to this blog.  So as my first official leap into Pagan Sounds blogging, I figured that I would write about my experience with drumming and what brought me to this point.

This story goes off track a wee bit, but bear with me, we’ll get there.

I started belly dancing when I was in my late teens (see what I mean about off track?).  What started as a fun activity for me, my mom, and sister, to do together became an art form that I was rather good at.  I caught on to the movements quickly and was easily able to get my body to copy what the instructor showed us.  After the first session my mom and sister dropped out, but I was hooked.

There was something transcendent about moving my hips in time to the drum beat.  And the first time I danced on stage with live musicians, my dancing moved on to another level.  There is an electric interplay between drummer and dancer, an energy, a conversation, that goes back and forth.  I loved feeling that conversation in my hips as I shimmied to the beat the drummers laid out for me to follow.

I loved the drumming in belly dancing.  I wanted to be able to drum like they did; so intricate and moving.  And on my 23th birthday my friends all pitched in and surprised me with a small set of bongo drums.

I was elated and terrified.

You see, now I had these drums and they expected me to play them, only I didn’t “know how” to play.  I hadn’t learned any rhythms, I never took any classes, and I was scared of looking foolish.

The lovely and thoughtful present was played by many other hands, but never my own.  I was too afraid of doing something wrong.  I was scared to be off beat.  I was so worried about messing up, that I never  once played those drums.

Fast forward close to ten years later, I am part-owner of a drum business.  Weird, right?  It’s only been about three years that I have started playing drums, even by myself.  So what changed?

I took a drum workshop, hoping that I would “learn some rhythms”, but what I actually learned was much more powerful.  I had been waiting for someone to give me permission.  I had been waiting for the okay signal, from some outside source.  I felt like I needed a green light to play the drums, otherwise I would be doing it wrong.

I have been a part of many classes and drums circles since then and now I understand that I only needed permission from myself.  I was the one holding me back.  I make mistakes all the time in my drumming.  And now I know that it’s okay to do that.  In fact, that is all part of the magic of it.

So I say to you, don’t waste ten years worrying about how making mistakes, just get out there and do it!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Magical designs - Not just a pretty drum

Pick any culture around the world and from any part of history and you'll find that we humans love to imbue our lives with symbols. They decorate our temples, our houses, our bodies and our musical instruments. .These symbols are transformative metaphors designed to move us from the ordinary reality of time and space and paying the bills through to a place of magic, wonder and timelessness where we can glimpse the infinite.

Specific designs also convey a particular belief system. Spirals may speak to a journey to and from the center. Pentacles may show us the map to running energy in a particular way, noting the intersection of certain points. Runes carved by themselves or in combinations can form warnings, spells, and blessings.

I recently bought a new drum that features a "chevron" design and called it "classically African." After reading back my description I wondered what makes this design African and, if indeed it is African, what's the story behind it.

Chevrons appear through Europe as a heraldic sign. You'll also see chevrons used to signify rank - just look at most military insignia and you'll see what I mean. But those hardly seem classically African now do they.

After a little digging, I discovered that the Zulu term for a chevron is amasumpa. It's an ancient design consisting of several inverted stripes. The tip, if you will, points downward toward the womb. Zulu women often adorned themselves by ritual scarification with amasumpa symbols on their lower abdomens.

In many African cultures pots, vessels, and drums are identified with the female form because they carry life within them. Food and water carried in vessels literally meant the difference between life and death. So too the idea that the universe was born of one sound, makes a drum a sacred vessel that creates a life - in fact the sound created is the stuff and matter of the universe itself.

This  drum, with it's amasumpa design, has deepened my experience of drumming yet again. This simple carving, rendered in the base of a drum is a powerful reminder that through it I give birth to sound and add my voice to this incredible multi-verse.

Moves me to tears. Moves me to play with just a little more reverence.

Keep drumming...