For those who have been exposed to the media’s critique of the Drum Circle, it is not just a group of vagrants beating on stuff to get attention. The Drum circle is one of the oldest ways for a community to play music together. When done in a health way, the Drum Circle incorporates the entire community to participate in creating music and celebrating life.
Although I have been a student of music for decades, it was not until the 90s when I was introduced to the Drum Circle. I witnessed a Drum Circle at the close of a Renaissance Faire in California where all of the “players” (participants) gathered to make music and dance. I was amazed at the sheer joy and wanted to participate Later, I had joined the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) and watched as the bonfire blazed away at the close of the evening and everyone pulled out a noise makers to join in. Again, I felt immersed in the joy being produced.
My work led me to travel the Eastern Seaboard from one festival to another where at the close of the day, the fires were lit and the drums came out. I did not remember another kind of music making experience which was quite like it. Although I have been a student of music for decades, this was not the kind of musical discipline I was used to. Playing the piano required skill in understanding rhythm, tone and form which was well defined and practiced. This looked like a free-for-all; it wasn’t. After a little time I began to see the kind of interaction going on between the drummer and the dancer.
In Classical African Music, the Drum Circle is a very strict. There are very specific rhythms (patterns of beats) played against each other: Polyrhythms (two or more specific rhythms previously determined, set to be played together). This was not what I was experiencing. What I was hearing was a wide assortment of rhythms being played together – sometimes imperfectly – with no real set theme. It was explained to me this was called “Open Drumming”, the drummers were not required to play the same pattern over and over again. This kind of chaotic drumming was astonishing! I had to try.
I began to stand with the drummers without a drum – just listening to what they were doing. I was able to follow the rhythms as if they were conversations between the drums. Then the drummers ganged up on me and demanded I play with them and get my own drum instead of borrowing one. A very good move because I learned more about how to drum with my own instrument.
Over the years of listening and playing I began to comprehend how the dynamics of the Drum Circle (the healthy ones) held together and the remarkable experience of becoming one with the drum. Because of this (and other reasons) I decided to write a few notes about Drum Circles, what they are, how to start one and keep it healthy.
To begin with here are the basic components of a healthy Drum Circle.
For this first article about Drum Circles:
Drums and the Drummers themselves
Drums come in a variety of sizes and shapes from the stick drums (like kit drums which are designed for a single player in a rock band), to the bodhran (a Celtic hoop drum – similar to the hoop drums you may find in Native American events) to the hand drums of the conga, bongo, ashiko and the d’jembe. Which ever you choose, it is important that they are all of a like kind. In other words, it is best all the drums can be played of a similar volume. Just as you would avoid placing a harp next to a bagpipe, it is best to keep the big bass drum away from the bongo.
My personal preference is the d’jembe for several reasons. Compared to other drums, for me it is the most expressive, I find more tones in the d’jembe than most other drums. It is light weight and can be worn with a strap or played seated in a chair.
Many Drum Circles have a host of rules because of past experiences with silly human tricks. That being said, an “Open Drum Circle” really doesn’t have a lot of rules as to what is to be played – it is what ever fits into the rhythms being played by others. Still there are some suggestions I would offer to make sure the drumming is at it’s best.
When entering a Drum Circle listen to what is being played and match what you hear. This does several things:
It allows you to warm up your muscles while you get yourself in sync with the circle itself.
Second, agree on a down beat.
This is (in musical terms ) the first beat of each measure – the pulse (if you will) of the rhythm. This is the heavy “boom… boom…boom” you hear at a circle. If everyone doesn’t agree on the down beat, the flow of music scatters and falls apart. In some cases, I have seen someone step into a circle where the down beat was a constant and steady pulse and our new-comer forces a strong down beat at a different speed and placement of the down beat. This produces chaos in the Drum Circle and makes everyone angry – which is counter productive.
Third, leave spaces between what you are expressing with your drum.
This allows you the ability to listen to what is happening around you and provides silence for others to speak with their drum. This is where conversations take place: between your own phrases of rhythm.
Fourth: careful with your volume. If you cannot hear other drums around you, you are probably playing too loud. Back it off a touch so you may hear what is going on.
There will be times when the rhythms will get way from you and so enthralled that a musical phrase carries you for a bit, but make sure your phrases fit into what is being said.
I will offer more drum circle pointers later, in the mean time, keep drumming and keep listening!