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Spiritual But Secular

Good vibrations help drummers tap into the rhythms of the universe

By Anne Bokma

Laura Reid and John Smith came to drumming from two different paths, but both say the practice gives them a spiritual boost they can’t find anywhere else.

Reid, an Anishinaabe from Nipissing First Nation in Ontario, calls herself an “Indigenous ninja and spiritual geek.” She grew up with the drum as the centrepiece of celebration in her community and uses it regularly in her work as a youth adviser to First Nations high school students in Hamilton. Drumming, she says, offers her a “telephone to the universe. When the vibrations are emitting from my drum and my voice is paired with it, it’s as though I’m speaking to Mother Earth. There’s no greater or more humbling experience than that.” 

Smith, an analyst at Bell Canada, leans toward the “humanistic and atheistic end of the scale.” After stumbling upon his first drum circle in a public park a decade ago, he immediately went out and bought a djembe. Today, he leads a monthly drum circle. “There’s an energy you can feel in the circle when we all come together for the purpose of creating something magical in the moment with others,” he says. “We all connect through this experience — to each other, and for some, to a greater source.”

Such spiritual superlatives are common among those who embrace drumming. They talk about the practice as an intimate conversation, a give and take that involves picking up on the beat created by others, adding a musical layer of their own and, in the process, becoming part of something bigger. 

Drumming is one of the oldest forms of communication, used by ancient cultures to carry warnings and signals across long distances. It has had both secular and sacred functions, from a cry for war to a celebration of the changing seasons. 

Arthur Hull, a pioneer of the modern-day community drum circle, says the practice helps people feel better. “There is a natural high produced by a drum circle that you simply need to experience to believe,” he once reflected. It is an exercise in trusting your instincts, being spontaneous and entering a meditative trance-like state, as well as a tool for building community. 

“Rhythm is fundamental to our experience as humans,” says Matt Meyer, a Boston-area musician who conducts drumming workshops for congregations. “Through rhythm and music, we have the potential to grow our relationships with each other and the Divine.” 

There are also reported health benefits. Studies show drumming helps Alzheimer’s patients, autistic children, recovering addicts and trauma patients and has a positive impact on a host of ailments such as stress and fatigue.

The last few decades have seen a revival of the drum circle. Iron John author Robert Bly endorses the drum as a tool to explore primal instinct, an act he associates with the reclamation of masculinity. Drumming also empowers women: at the annual Ontario Womyn’s Drum Camp, north of Kingston, Ont., hundreds of women morph into percussion priestesses over the course of a weekend. And corporate drumming workshops have become a popular way for top executives to create greater workplace harmony.

Drumming, however, has its critics — some of whom suggest that white folks banging on drums smacks of cultural appropriation. “White people can and will choose to perceive the drum as ahistorical and culturally empty — a plaything,” writes Joanna Kadi in Thinking Class: Sketches from a Cultural Worker. 

Though Reid concurs that there are some circumstances in which the charge of cultural theft applies, she says, “Drumming belongs to the whole human race. . . . When I’m drumming in a group, I feel a vibrational sensation in every cell of my body. It’s when I’m most at peace. Nothing else comes as close to feeding my soul.” 

Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.

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