This is Your Brain on Drums...Any Questions?by Steve Koc
Forty thousand years ago . . . . . . give or take a few millennia, a clan of cave-people sat around the evening campfire by the banks of the river. While finishing dessert, the conversation turned to that day’s hunting expedition. One of the tribal hunters, Congo, said to his brother, “Ya’ know Bongo, you saved our lives today when you scared away that saber-tooth tiger. That was quick thinking to beat the hollow log with your club. And it sounded way cool, too! I think you invented music today, buddy!”
Bongo proudly replied, “Tomorrow I’ll stretch a woolly mammoth hide over the opening of that hollow tree. I think it’ll sound even better.”
Bongo’s wife, Maraca, excitedly joined the discussion. “I can shake a gourd filled with pebbles and make bird-calls while you guys keep the beat!”
Their daughter Brittany chimed in, “I’ll wear my skimpy two piece pelt—and a bone through my bellybutton—and I’ll jump around and simulate mating rituals.”
“No way!” cried her mother.
“That might be pushing it a bit too far,” said her uncle, Congo.
But Marty, the tribal agent, thought she was on to something. “Have your people phone my people,” he told her.
“Phone?” said Brittany.
Salem, Oregon, A.D. 2003 The woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers are long gone but on any given Wednesday evening at Riverfront Park Amphitheater a crowd gathers to carry on a tradition that began before we kept track of time—The Drum Circle. Imagine 30 or more people playing drums and other percussion instruments with spontaneous abandon. An equal number of listeners lounge on the grass as the sun sinks toward the Willamette River. A few, moved by the homemade music, dance and sway. Maybe a juggler or two shows up to toss and twirl their props. Packs of little children run free over the grassy knolls. We’re not in Salem anymore, Toto! The police stop by and visit. “Thanks for coming out and using the park” they say. “It keeps the crime down.” Roller bladers wiggle their hips in time to the beat as they cruise on by. The sun disappears. Someone tells a story, someone sings a song. And to think it all started with Bongo and Congo one day, long ago. But what happened in between?
Mickey Hart, percussionist extraordi-naire for the now defunct, yet everlasting Grateful Dead, and Senatorial appointed Trustee for the Library of Congress American Folklife Center (bet you didn’t know he works for the government), has done research into the history of drumming. His studies have shown that primitive music making, via percussion, was primarily an attempt to communicate with the spirit world. Our prehistoric ancestors performed rituals with fire, smoke, and drumming to connect with the “other side.” It was our way of talking with God. The heavens would rumble with thunder and we would rumble right back. Drumming was an original form of prayer.
The more earthly applications of drumming evolved from these early attempts to merge our spirit with the Great Spirit; drumming turned out to be a powerful new way to communicate with each other. The sounds produced with wood, stone, and animal hides (cutting edge technology of the time) would travel far beyond the range of human voices. A specific pattern of sound (i.e., a beat) could be assigned its own specific meaning. So, say, if you were a kid playing out in the jungle and you heard a resounding “boom, boom, boom” it may be your mother signaling you that it’s time to come home (no street lights yet.) And if the drums were playing “boom, tikki, boom, cha” it may mean that a baby was just born. Or, if the next village was pounding out a furious “boom, chaka, laka, boom!” it could be an invitation letting you know they just caught a few missionaries, come over for some barbecue!
Both the spiritual and practical uses of drumming turned out to be a hit all across the globe. Percussive instruments were incorporated into ceremony and story telling of most cultures. Ancient rituals reproduced the sounds of nature and the heart beat. Around the campfire, a pulsing beat might accompany the narrative description of that day’s events. Stories became songs. The oral tradition now had a sound track. Taking it a step further, distinct melodies were coupled with specific tales. This acted as a memory device for ease and accuracy in the retelling of legends over many generations. The flip side to this is that I can remember the words from most sitcom theme songs and commercial jingles of the past 40 some years—quite maddening.
Throughout history music progressed as tribes or communities developed their own sounds to reflect their unique cultures with drums staying at the heart of the matter, keeping the beat. The Salem community drum circle is no exception. If you listen closely you can pick out some distinctive locally-grown rhythms such as Dallas and Ric’s Funky Beat mixed in with the classic styles of West Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.
No one knows when our ancestors were first inspired to tap out a beat, but what is known is that each of us innately understands how to drum! You spent about nine months curled up in your mother’s womb listening to her heart beat a steady pulse... lub, dub...lub, dub...lub, dub. This natural rhythm was entrained—literally downloaded—into your nervous system and can be tapped into once again, no matter how musically challenged you think you are. Lots of adults learn through drumming that they have creative abilities that were repressed. Children discover new talents.
There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to drum. Each gathering will have its own style. Though it is helpful to study drumming techniques, many people experience that they already know how to drum once they give themselves permission to cut loose.
The heartbeat was our first awareness of the existence of an outside world. This external activity, the beating sound of the mother’s heart, harmonized with our inner activity, our own heart’s beat! This may have been our first experience in communicating with another human. And communication is the essence of drumming. The first time my friend and drum mentor Jonathon Weber handed me a drum he instructed me to “listen first, and then play.” He explained, “If it sounds good, keep playing. If it doesn’t, stop! Listen again until you feel the beat...then play.” He then picked up his drum and started to play. I first listened, and then joined in. The communication was sweet. I’ve been listening and playing ever since.
The Salem Community Drumming Circle happens at the Riverfront Park Amphitheater every Wednesday from 7 p.m. till late, spring through autumn. This tradition began in 1998 when a woman from Sheridan posted a drum circle sign at the Coffee House Cafe. Any queries can be directed to the author at [email protected].