The following essay is from a blog series, 30 Days of Joy, now part of a book in progress, Juicy Joyful: How To Squeeze More Joy From Your Already Messy Life. I am using it as today’s blog post to honor the memory and living legacy of Layne Redmond, master frame drummer and pioneer in bringing the Middle Eastern style tambourine technique to the West, and to me and to my teachers here in Maine, in particular. Without Layne’s work, we would not have each other, the drums, the delicious frame drum community, or the rhythms and their magic in our lives. Layne died two years ago, leaving us to carry on the teachings and share the wealth we have inherited. Her book, When the Drummers Were Women, is a classic and must-read in the women’s spirituality movement and is still available. Namaste, Layne! We love you and miss you.
My moment of clarity with drumming came years ago, listening to a friend in my living room playing an African rhythm on the djembe and singing. Something hit me about her making music with her body, a hollowed out tree, and a reverberant, taut animal skin. The rhythms were not directly translatable to my Western musical paradigm, but obviously had an internal order and sense that I could not quite penetrate by any means I possessed. I took in the whole experience of person, voice, hands and drum and said to myself, “I want to learn how to do that!”
It was revolutionary, because in my upbringing some types of music were “real” music and “real” art – “serious” music – and some musical expressions and instruments were more valuable. Melody, voice, harmony, these were at the top. Wanting to play rhythms was akin to wanting to be a music stand: close to music, but not music. Now I see rhythm as the skeleton. Without it, nothing else in the music functions very well.
Sometime later, I was invited to go with a friend to Kripalu in Western Massachusetts, to take a weekend class with Layne Redmond, frame drummer and author of When The Drummers Were Women. This was a weekend of learning to play the Middle Eastern style tambourine and learning what Layne’s work was all about.
The whole weekend I kept saying, “What am I doing here? I can’t do this. It’s hard. I’m not going to be able to do this.”
At the end of the workshop, Layne put tambourines out on the floor and offered them for sale at a discount. My eye caught a beautiful turquoise tambourine that had large, shiny, brass jingles. ( I later learned it’s real name is riqq, a type of tambourine from Egypt.) I picked it up, and I loved the sound of it. Layne came over and played it and said, “It’s a good one.” It was sixty dollars, and I bought it.
I brought it home and I became obsessed with learning the rhythm she had taught us in the workshop, a 6 against 4 rhythm that defied analysis and seriously messed with my coordination. But once I got the hang of it, it did something to me, to my body, to my mind, to my energy, to my mood. It made me happy, calm, energized, alert.
During that weekend with Layne, I learned that there is a frame drummer in the cultural origins of every single person on the planet. And that frame drummer was most likely a priestess, who used the drum to induce a trance state through which she could connect with the Divine. Later, I learned that the spiritual aspect of drumming is not limited to the frame drum and is known across every culture.
Drumming bridges the physical, the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual. There is smacking something with an open hand and feeling the vibrations in your heart. There is math. There is synchrony. There is chaos, and it’s okay. There is listening, and speaking. Drumming gets you in touch with your body, in touch with the ways your body is out of balance and disproportionate. Drumming strengthens the bridge between the two hemispheres of your brain, and the two sides of your body. Drumming brings involuntary smiles and unforeseen tears.
I love what everybody brings to the table while holding this little drum in their hands.
This sounds so insignificant in the face of drought, floods, shootings, war, and poverty. But I don’t think I’m going to help anything by turning away from the things that make me happy. I drum to stay spiritually fit, to stay joyful. I also drum with people because of the magic that happens.
Look, I want everybody in the world to drum. I think if people drummed together it would be a different world. I think if neighborhoods drummed together, if nursing homes drummed together, if my entire company took time off and drummed together, if they drummed together in Washington, D.C. and at the U.N., it would be a different world.
See, when you put a drum in your hand and you sit in a circle–I know it sounds like a cliche, and I know I am a cliche to some people, but I live this way because I’ve seen miracles happen. I’ve seen tears streaming down people’s faces from drumming. I’ve seen old ladies get up out of their wheelchairs with oxygen still attached to their noses and boogie. I’ve made friends through drumming. I’ve seen healings through drumming–
When you sit down together and make music together–and this is not a whole group of people playing the flute, or a classroom learning brass, or a woodwind quintet–
There is a direct transmission from a mysterious place inside you that has rhythm, movement, pace, dynamics, texture and mood. It’s a direct transmission from that which some people call Soul to the body, through the hands, onto the head of a drum that travels around the circle, visits each person, making something greater than each individual contribution, and comes back to you, as something greater within you. It’s an automatic connection to something primal and universal. We access an innate knowing that we carry around within our DNA, and we become confident expressers of things that have no words. We laugh with each other, and we can’t say why. We bond over the voices of the different drums and the rhythms we make. We instinctively know to savor the moment, because it will never be again.
When you do that with other people, there’s a place where we come together, and there are places where we’re different, and we don’t have words for it, but it feels good. It is both rare and familiar, unique and natural. After an hour of drumming in harmony with a person whom I think of as an enemy, I’d be hard pressed to do anything to harm that person.
Now you could argue that just the act of sitting down together would bridge whatever gaps and differences we have and that the decision to do that is really the healing factor.
And I would say, Great! Let’s go for it. But just in case it breaks down, make sure you have drums available.
Yearning to connect with drummers? Check out these Facebook places: Worldwide Frame Drumming, Rhythm Rising Frame Drum Ensemble, Inanna Sisters in Rhythm, and New England Area Frame Drummers, and many, many more.
As always, thanks for reading.