Drumming Movement Issues
A Lively Usenet Discussion
On Wednesday, November 6, 1996, a member of the djembe-l usenet bulletin board system posted a message, quoted below in part. This was part of a fascinating discussion about "traditional" drumming at drum circles. Two responding messages, written by members of the EDC community, are posted here. This document is an excerpt from a compilation of djembe-l. When a message quotes another message, the quoted message is surrounded by brackets >like so>.
... I am hostile to this concept of a certain "correct" tradition, which can't really exist beyond the idea that in some sense you're being true to a greater "rightness" than one person's version. Even the people on this list who advocate subservience to a "traditional" way of drumming admit that the names of rhythms change from person to person and village to village, and the rhythms themselves vary from person to person and village to village, and, presumably, though it's not demonstrable, from decade to decade. What tradition is that? You dig into what "tradition" seems to mean, and the more you dig, the less substance it seems to have until it disappears entirely. But it seems to serve some useful purpose, because it has so many adherents.
The useful purpose might be that when DrummerX calls a rhythm "traditional," DrummerX invokes a power greater than the individual. No single person can create a tradition, so it provides justification for believing that this rhythm, and by extension, DrummerX, is elevated above the other people. And that's the exclusionary dogma I would like to avoid.
Before I get flamed too badly, I should perhaps relate the story of the first time I met "traditionalist" drummers. It was at Starwood, and that year anyway, there were two large drum circles, one below in a dome by the woods, and one on a clearing on a hill, by a large tepee. I went down to the dome, where I had a great time, blending and mixing with the grouples there. I decided to sample the other one, up on the hill, and wow, were those people filled with hate. I have never in my life found such a hostile group of drummers, before or since. People started bumping into me, to try to intimidate me, people stood near me and played ridiculously loudly to try to drown me out, people stared at me hatefully... It was amazing, evil, and I left in about five minutes. Yes, there was a better way to get rid of me, but more importantly, the basic idea on which they were acting, "we are superior to you," was also wrong, evil. It took me a while to learn to separate the two. At first I felt bad, as if I had intruded, but then, really, since it's so common to join a public drum circle, if they were a specific group, they should have had people who were in charge of explaining to people like me who showed up that, although this appeared on the outside to be like any other public drum circle, it was a performance by a specific group, and I should not intrude. Or, they could have offered to include me, but clearly that was totally out of the question. In retrospect it's sometimes funny, that the Earth Nature Drum Circle, (some name like that) would be so full of hate. Still, it left a horrible taste in my mouth.
Wed Nov 6 23:00:26 1996
Subject: In defense of tradition (was Re: DJEMBE-L digest 62)
At 05:01 PM 11/6/96 -0500, [djembe-l member] wrote:
> I am hostile to this concept of a certain "correct" tradition, which can't really exist beyond the idea that in some sense you're being true to a greater "rightness" than one person's version. Even the people on this list who advocate subservience to a "traditional" way of drumming admit that the names of rhythms change from person to person and village to village, and the rhythms themselves vary from person to person and village to village, and, presumably, though it's not demonstrable, from decade to decade. What tradition is that? >
It is a rich and living tradition rather than a dead, static one. I believe it is wrong to assume that because a tradition has variations and flavors in different places, that it is somehow invalid or has no continuity. As a linguist, you know that a language will vary from place to place and will change over time, but does that mean it has no value? Does it imply that one person can't use it to communicate with another even if they "speak funny"? Likewise, traditional rhythms communicate the culture and practices of a people, and help to shape their identity as a member of the group. In an earlier post you also said:
>I hope I will not misattribute your intent if I say that this was in response to my suggestion that an identifiable "tradition" to the exclusion of variation, could not be derived from an oral tradition, due to the inherent vagaries in an oral tradition, such as the telephone game effect and the fallibility of memory.>
Having studied drumming in Africa, I believe you seriously underestimate the power of oral traditions. I spent 6 months in Tamale, Ghana studying with Abubakari Lunna, who is a "Drum Chief" and master drummer of the Dagbamba people. In that culture the drummers are oral historians who maintain 700 years of history by singing and playing the "Salima" praise name songs of their chiefs. He can recite the songs of every paramount chief of Dagbon over this period, as well as the complete lineage of several towns and villages within it. Sure, there are styles or variations that one drummer might play differently than another, but the core set of rhythms and songs is well known and recognized by every drummer in that culture. Their drumming is "timpanophonic" meaning the sounds of the drum relate directly to the sounds of their spoken language, and every part to every rhythm has words that correspond to that rhythm. To make up a rhythm that has no words is "niema-niema drumming" - nonsense drumming.
I think the real question that you are trying to raise is: Do these traditional rhythms have any value here in the West? Should we as American drummers make up our own rhythms and traditions or learn from the rich body of knowledge that is contained in the "traditional rhythms". I think there is room for both, and I find a great deal of value in learning from my "elders".
>Before I get flamed too badly, I should perhaps relate the story of the first time I met "traditionalist" drummers. It was at Starwood, and that year anyway, there were two large drum circles, one below in a dome by the woods, and one on a clearing on a hill, by a large tepee. I went down to the dome, where I had a great time, blending and mixing with the grouples there. I decided to sample the other one, up on the hill, and wow, were those people filled with hate.>
I too, have been to several Starwoods, and may well have been among the circle on the hill, which was organized by Earth Drum Council. I am sorry you felt rejected, but let me assure you, I, and the people in that circle that I know are not "filled with hate." We do, however, try to create a drum circle that is more than a bunch of drummers pounding away. We try to create a musical conversation, with different parts speaking back and forth, and leaving space for other voices to be heard. Sometimes, we use "traditional" rhythms to give ourselves a framework to create that conversation. Do we play them the "right" way? probably not. To a purist, I'm sure our renditions are sloppy and poorly executed. But these traditional rhythms provide a structure where a large group of drummers can find different grooves (other than BaDaBaDa in 4) and can co-create that poly rhythmic conversation that makes drumming fun. The key to all this is to _LISTEN_.
> I have never in my life found such a hostile group of drummers, before or since. People started bumping into me, to try to intimidate me, people stood near me and played ridiculously loudly to try to drown me out, people stared at me hatefully... It was amazing, evil, and I left in about five minutes.>
If you were getting that much flak from the circle, you have to ask yourself: Why? Did you place yourself in the middle of a group of drummers that were trying to communicate with each other, obstructing their sight lines? Were you playing loud intense leads without making space for other voices? Were you listening?
> the basic idea on which they were acting, "we are superior to you," was also wrong, evil.>
EDC drum circles are _not_ about "we are superior to you", none of us are professional drummers or really even top flight amateurs. It is about creating something together that is greater than any one part or person, about listening and making space for other voices.
There is certainly a difference between this and an unstructured, anything goes, drum jam. In a jam, every one is often filling up all the spaces, playing all the notes, and there is no opportunity to really listen to each other. People who are used to Rainbow style jams sometimes find the attempt to create structure and space in a drum circle restrictive or foreign. The beauty of Starwood is that there is room for both the unstructured Gruple Dome jam, and the more structured drum circles.
I have been to many drum circles and always I sit back and listen to what's going on before I start to play, then find a voice that supports and complements the rhythm, and only step out to play variations or leads once I'm solidly in the groove and feel there is space for me to speak out.
Once again, I am very sorry that you felt unwelcome and rejected by the circle. I know that EDC works hard to create a space that is safe for people to play together and enjoy the magic of drumming. If you ever run across an EDC circle again, I urge you to come, watch what is going on, listen, and join in. And, if you don't like what is happening in that circle, there is always Gruple Dome, they'll be pounding away until dawn.
Mon Nov 11 22:50:50 1996
Subject: My 2 cents on tradition and culture (long)
Whew! It's not every day one gets called "evil" in a public forum! At the risk of sounding defensive, I must reply to [djembe-l member]’s description of his experience at the EDC drum circle at Starwood in 1994. (That's when the teepee was there.) I was not actually present at the circle to witness the incident he is referring to, because I was four months pregnant at the time and, to my great dismay, found that I had to go to bed early every night, missing every drum circle of the gathering. I could hear the drumming from my tent, though, and it sounded sweet (exacerbating my distress!).
Somehow, in [djembe-l member]'s posts, what started out as "bumping into" him in what he considered an intimidating way escalated to full-blown violence. In his later posts you would think there was a fist fight at the fire! Even without witnessing what actually happened, I am sure that there was no violence intended. I am sorry if he felt unwelcome, and I also see that he left after five minutes, forming a judgement that he has carried ever since.
The reason we call ourselves "Earth Drum Council" is that council is an integral part of what we do. By sitting in circle and talking about what we do, why we do it, and how we do it (in addition to DOING IT), we have organically grown into a community of folks who share certain perspectives and build on our experiences. You might even say we've created some traditions. Some of these concern how physical space is set up at an EDC drum fire, with the drummers on one side of the fire and space for dancers on the other side, as well as space for dancers to circle the fire. We have "traditions" of making eye contact, grouping jun-juns and other bass drums together, occasionally changing the energy by stopping the drumming (sometimes with a break, sometimes by bringing the volume down slowly) to make space for a song, a poem, an "OM", or some other offering from the circle. Often we pass chocolate along with the water. Facilitation is a group affair, no one person is in charge. These "traditions' evolved over some years of getting together to talk about what works and doesn't work. At gatherings like Starwood, we generally council the day after a fire circle (in preparation for the next one!), and the council is open to anyone at the gathering. We also hold a "formal" workshop (i.e., it's on the gathering program) which is exactly the same discussion: What works, what doesn't work, us sharing our experience and inviting everyone there to contribute. The point here is that there's nothing exclusionary intended. Although there is a core of 20-25 people who have been drumming together for a while and have been instrumental (no pun intended) in developing these traditions, it's an open circle in which everyone is welcome to participate. And many people do.
What works and doesn't work for what? you might ask. Well, the goal is to create a container where there's space for all the voices to be heard, to create music with give and take, back and forth, conversation and silence. Funky, swinging, flowing, flying, whispering, seductive, insistent, whirling, transform your Self kind of music. A container for ecstatic dancing that's grounded to the Earth. It's hard to describe it, but you know it when you feel it.
It's ironic to see us called "traditionalists", when what we do is certainly not true to any particular African (or any other "indigenous") tradition. We've caught our fair share of shit from African and Native American sources alike for not being "traditional" enough. When we work with teachers or particular rhythms, we are careful to respect them, and to honor the sources from which we draw. When we bring our Selves to the fire circle, all that we have learned as well as all that we are, all the Spirit that we can access from within and without, we are doing something quite different. Together with all those everywhere who are drumming from the heart, we are creating a new culture.
At the heart of all the living drum traditions is the relationship of drumming to spirit, of rhythm to life. IMHO, in western cultures (read: white european cultures and their descendant, white american culture) where rhythm and the body were exorcised from the culture, that relationship became disrupted. Many of us who grew up in that culture have been drawn to the spirit of traditional drumming, partly because american culture is so cut off from the physical connection to spirit expressed in drumming and dance. But the spirit is not in playing it exactly "right". No matter how many traditional rhythms we learn, and how much we understand and respect the original cultural context of the music that inspires us, it's what's between Spirit and our Selves that counts. By creating our own traditions and passing them to our children, we do indeed create a new culture, one that has a certain quality of connection to Spirit in common with "traditional" or indigenous cultures, but which is authentic for who we are here and now.