The Way of the Drum

By Belinda Recio / September 12, 2011

Every so often my heart skips a beat, racing ahead of itself. This always gives me pause. After all, during that split second my heart actually falls out of sync with its own rhythms. It’s a startling sensation that always calls my attention to the archetypal one-two beat that has kept time for me since before I was born. Although our lives are full of rhythms, there is none more important to us than the beating of our own hearts. But we usually don’t pay much attention to our pulse, unless it falls out of sync. This is the nature of rhythm—when we’re in sync with it, everything feels effortless; when we’re not, it’s as if our hearts skipped a beat.

The entire universe vibrates—every galaxy, star, planet, molecule, and atom—and everything has a rhythm. A rhythm is anything that repeats itself in time: the phases of the moon, an oak tree dropping acorns in autumn, the pounding surf, our heartbeat. During our lives, we are immersed in all of these rhythms, beginning with the rush of blood through our mother’s body while we are still in her womb. From the first beat of our hearts to the last, our lives are defined by rhythm. We may, through the course of our days, walk to the beats of many different drums. But ultimately there is one rhythm that all of us share—the pulse of life.

Drumming is an ancient technology for keeping time with this pulse: It reminds us that we all come from the same primeval sound that burst forth out of the silent void—the first beat of the universe. Because the drum can evoke a beating heart, thunder, the flapping of wings, the pounding surf, and so many other sounds that create the symphony of life, it symbolizes the voice of creation. For the Lakota Indians, the drum represents the voice of Wakan-Tanka, the Great Spirit; within the Hindu tradition, the drum symbolizes the destructive-creative power of Shiva; for Buddhists, it is the hidden power of the cosmos and the voice of Buddha; and in many African cultures, the drum is a powerful symbol of the heart. As an expression of primal sound, the drum is also a catalyst that makes things happen, as in the expression, “to drum up.”

Drums have been around for more than 8,000 years, and drumming has been practiced by nearly every civilization. As an echo of the larger rhythms of life, drums have been used in many kinds of rituals—birth and funeral, renewal and harvest, work and play, war and peace. The sound of the drum has been used as an acoustic amulet, to ward off evil and calamity, and as a medium for communicating with nature and the spirit world. In the Japanese Shinto religion, drums are used to speak to the spirits of animals, water, and fire. The hypnotic rhythms created by West African drummers are believed to pull the spirits of ancestors into the bodies of dancers, and the Kaluli drummers of New Guinea hear the sounds of the drum as the voices of the dead communicating with the living.

Within shamanic traditions, the shaman’s role is that of mediator between the ordinary world and the spirit world, and shamans have described their drums as horses, canoes, or other vehicles that carry them to other worlds. The ancient Samoyed used the same word for “bow” as for “drum” because they perceived the drum as a way to “shoot” the shaman into the sky, meaning into altered states of consciousness. Practitioners of most shamanic traditions believe that drumming creates a portal between worlds—through which they journey from one realm to another. For this reason, a shaman sometimes has an assistant who maintains the drumming while he or she enters a trance state. In this way, the assistant keeps the portal open so that the shaman can find his or her way back from the spirit world.

It is unlikely that we remember the first time we created a percussive sound. It was probably a form of body percussion, like clapping. We may have then progressed to tapping on a table with a spoon, which at some point led to the quintessential toddler “drum set”—a collection of pots and pans. We are drawn to rhythm because it makes us want to move and join in its vibration. The drum is often used to call soldiers into battle or dancers to the dance because the percussive and rhythmic sound travels through our bodies to our hearts in a visceral way, breaking down resistance from within. This is why a song with a good beat gets us tapping our feet unconsciously—we quite literally can’t resist the beat, and our bodies give in to the rhythm.

When one rhythm pulls another into its beat, it is described as “entrainment.” The theory of entrainment proposes that if two rhythms are very similar, with sources in close proximity, they will usually fall into synchrony with each other. It is easier for the two rhythms to pulse together than in opposition because of the mutual influence they have on one another. Entrainment can happen in music, dance, even life itself, as when our rhythms and those of the world around us fall into sync. When our tempo is in sync with another’s, we fall into entrainment with him or her and it is easier to communicate. Some people have even described falling in love as a particularly profound kind of entrainment. Conversely, when we are out of sync—whether with family, friends, work, or the greater rhythm of our lives—it is as if our hearts are skipping beats and we’ve lost our rhythm.

Ritual drumming can help us stay in sync with our own biological and emotional rhythms, as well as with the rhythms of nature. Like other meditational practices, drumming can help us focus our attention. Just as shamans use drumming to journey to the spirit world, we can drumming to travel out of our heads and into our hearts and bodies. From there, drumming can pull us into a centered state where we can find peace, serenity, and the sacred. When an infant cries, we sometimes respond by holding him or her against our chests. There, the baby can feel the familiar beating of our heart and is comforted. The drum can serve a similar purpose: It helps us feel the beat of our own hearts and, in doing so, it connects us to the rhythm of the universe.

The Sacred Art of Drumming

Anyone can drum, regardless of musical ability. When groups get together for ritual drumming, it’s often called a drumming circle. Drumming circles are held for meditation, healing, celebration, or for the purpose of getting in rhythmic sync with one another and the world. Ritual drumming is a creative collaboration that is usually unrehearsed and unstructured. In a drumming circle, it’s easy to lose yourself in the group rhythm and feel a sense of belonging to a pulse greater than your own.

Recently, drumming circles have sprung up nearly everywhere, attracting people from all walks of life. Drumming in groups has such widespread appeal because it enables us to achieve a sense of communal rhythm. Although you can join an already existing drumming circle, it’s easy to facilitate your own. All you need is people, drums, and a space, indoors or out. You might schedule the drumming to fall on a full moon, equinox, solstice, holiday, or other special occasion.

What You Need

Ask people to bring their own drum, if they have one. If they don’t have a drum, suggest they use a found object, such as a bucket, pail, empty coffee can, pot, pan, or a wooden box. Many objects can become percussive instruments just by tapping them with your hand or a wooden spoon. To create a softer sound, wrap a scrap of fabric around the spoon and secure it with string.

The Sacred Space of a Circle

Once your group is gathered, ask everyone to sit in a circle with their drum. The circle is a powerful symbolic element, without beginning or end. It’s not mere coincidence that most drums are circular. Just look up at the sun or moon—both are circles—and you see one of the first and most ancient symbols of humanity. The circle represents eternity, totality, and the divine. Arranging the drummers in a circle helps to create ceremonial space and a sense of community.

The Rhythm

Get the drumming started by softly tapping your drum, in whatever rhythm comes to you. Then, speaking over your tapping, tell the group that there are no rules, and invite everyone to start playing. You’ll feel a rhythm take form almost instantly, as if you could read each others’ minds. As you continue drumming, allow people to improvise and let the rhythm change on a whim. Either take breaks together or allow individuals to break as they need to. You can let the drumming circle conclude spontaneously or you could suggest an intentional conclusion, such as a few minutes of drumming in a joyous tempo or a gradual slowing down into silence.

Belinda Recio

Belinda Recio

Belinda Recio is a writer and curator working at the intersections of nature, art, and soul. She has authored books and iOS apps on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from animals to sacred arts. She is the founder of True North Gallery, where she exhibits art that connects people with the natural world. She is also a past recipient of the United States Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals and Society.
Belinda Recio

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