When All the Drummers Were Women

Written by Lyra Hilliard on .

Lyra Hilliard

Lyra Hilliard reads a story she wrote for the Morwen Two Feathers tribute in Concord, MA on October 20, 2018. Her words were powerful and visual.

I remember when all the drummers were women.*

*That’s not quite right—it was never quite that uniform, but in my mind’s eye when I look back at the benches from twenty years ago, I remember that all the drummers were women.

Twenty years ago, I was pulled in by the drums’ vibrations that shot through the earth, tattooed the soles of my feet, drove my legs to dance for hours. Vibrations from women’s hands flying across taut circles of goat skin wrapped around metal rings fixed atop the wooden vessel of the djembe held between women’s thighs.

I was too shy to look above their thighs to their eyes as I danced, but I’d sneak a peek from across the circle, the front row of benches a wall of fierce, strong, powerful women who could and did move mountains together.

On a mountain together twenty years ago, when the distant sounds of the drums lulled a ten-year-old Donovan and a six-year-old Aidan to sleep across the other end of camp at Rites of Spring, the center of the drummer’s V that Dono and Aidan would eventually earn was led by Imani. Bright Hawk. Su. KB. Joss. Spinner. Samina. Morganne. Jeanette.

And right behind them, standing deep in the center of the V with her djuns, was Morwen.

It’s the low tones of the djuns that shake our bones awake. Djembes are vital, yet djuns drive the bus. And it was Morwen who laid down the dunun path. With her wide eyes and wider smile, she held the heartbeat, drove from deep in the center of the V, made sure that the bottom end that carried our souls was solid.

Twenty years ago, when all the drummers were women, they would push the rhythm tighter and tighter, faster and faster, cooking a cauldron of raw energy like alchemists melting metal until it transformed all of us into something else entirely until we could go no further, we all peaked at once and stopped hard the last djembe slaps echoing off the rocks for an eternal moment dancers falling to the ground spent.

Morwen would eventually protest these releases, advocate for softer transitions— “we’re dropping the dancers!” she’d say. Others agreed. We moved away from that. I never minded being dropped.

Because I wasn’t. We exhausted ourselves. But dropped? At a sacred all-night fire circle with these women? Not a chance in hell.

When all the drummers were women, they modeled how to create sacred space, how to build and sustain a potent container, how to step up and hold those who needed holding, how to step back and create space for those who needed to be seen, how to create a zone of radical safety, a vehicle for transformation, a portal for people to journey beyond themselves into their mythic selves, their highest visions, their deepest dream states.

People danced and tranced themselves out of the circle entirely. No matter. Sylvia would go there with you and lead you back when it was time. People snapped, crackled, and popped, convulsed, caterwauled, burst open in ways that could be terrifying to witness. No matter. Imani would run towards exploding spiritual and energetic matter and catch it all, reshape it and the explodee, ritualize the ordeal right then and there.

I see this work continue in the more than capable hands of Brighid, Tess, Kat, many more.

When all the drummers were women, they were also all guardians of that ritual space. KB stood with a bell and a serene smile, a pillar of strength and grace. We were—are—always safe with KB in circle.

Su’s eyes were everywhere, even as Spirit moved through her body and she moved the whole circle through her shekere. Joss would work the perimeter with shakers, slyly sneak in some Trickster energy right when she knew I’d be looking. Katlyn would float through the outer perimeter, dancing incense off her fingers. Allison would crawl out of the belly of the earth, her skin caked in mud, and tend the fire while Earil cackled with god.

I see us held by a range of guardians like Tiffany, Rachel, Anne, Artemis, Brandy, Diane.

Spinner, of course, would find the exact chant to bring in at that exact moment.
Hermione would emerge in the soft early gray light to give the Fellowship.
Countless women would dance with the fire for hours: Samina, Spindarella, Shara, Shakti.

I hear the perfect words come in through Luna, Emily, Julie, Dawn.
I see women continue to dance the fire for hours: Anya, Lela, Asherah, Maura, Talia, Rox.

When all the drummers were women, Morwen would hold down the djuns, as Lisa does now, as Giovanna does now. And when blue o’clock came, Imani would bring out her hang, and then Bright Hawk got one, and then Morwen did, and now Amanda blesses us with that beautiful sound.

I’m not naming every woman who contributes heart and soul to our fire circles; there are too many to name, and I only have a few minutes of your time.

And while I’m only naming women right now, brothers: forgive me. Of course you were there, too. Of course you are part of this origin story. Know that this is all coming from a woman who loves, honors, and respects the men in our community with a love that is as fierce as the full force of that front row of benches when all the drummers were women.

Right here right now, I’m celebrating the powerful women in this community who have showed us how many different ways power can show up, how power can be seen—or not—how power can be worked with safely, how it can be shaped, how it can be wielded. How much we all benefit when we don’t run from our power but own it, share it, do good work with it, empower others to cultivate their own power.

That’s what I learned from these women when all of the women were drummers.
That’s what I learned from Morwen.
That’s what Morwen did for so many years: brought people together, created and sustained communities upon communities, brought women to the drum, helped shape the sacred all-night fire circle as we know it.

I learned from Morwen that it is the prolonged drumming, the entrainment, that allows us to do what we do, to go where we go. It’s the power of the group playing and listening together that fuels the fire, feeds the dancers, takes us places we can’t access anywhere else. It’s what we all do together that makes this magic possible.

At 19, 20, 21, I was forged by a sacred fire circle where all of the drummers were women. I don’t want all of the drummers to be women. We’d be losing quite a lot. I wouldn’t mind seeing some more women drummers, however.

And at a recent fire, a young MacKenzie stepped into the circle, first on the benches, with her djembe, and then on the perimeter, singing her heart out: We are opening up in sweet surrender to the luminous love light of the one. And then Let the way be open. Her eyes were shining, a reflection of the beauty that the fire illuminates in all of us.

Let us continue to let the way be open. Let us continue to build community, empower each other, listen to each other, love each other, bring the drum to women—and to men—for the next 20, 30, 40 years.

Let us continue Morwen’s work.

Now she is everywhere
Now she is everything