For several years now I’ve been playing hand percussion instruments. Latin shakers, tambourines, cow bells and especially the African instruments known as the Djimbe drum and the Shakere. I am adequate on most of the instruments and I do tend to have a good feel for music and time, but I am very much a beginner and will not ever master any of these instruments in this life time. And in this life time, I am quite blessed to have found a group of folk in town who like to get together and lay it all out.
The Djimbe is a most difficult drum to master. Three basic tones all created by how and where one strikes the drum and so many variables influence all the nuance and precision of movement and posture up to the striking of the drum and the sound elicited. Learning to play this instrument continues to be a practice of mindfulness and humbleness and considerable joy as incremental improvements are noticed. But its the Shakere that seems to draw my ancient soul. The Shakere is a gourd wrapped with beads and it seems that the only way one can play this simple looking instrument is by totally letting go. Any body contraction or stiffness will produce a hiccup in the rhythm and that hiccup is noticeable and worse, it can throw the timing off. The pocket or sweet spot ceases to exist.
When the Djimbe doesn’t fit the energy or mood of the tune the Shakere is my favorite go-too toy….for its sound and the body movements and handing skills required to control hundreds of beads and keep time and rhythm with other musicians is quite a spiritual and physical practice. Good for the body, good for the brain, a great way to practice mindfulness of the first foundation.
I started playing the snare drum when I was 9 after banging around at home and soon realizing every opportunity would drive adults around me insane. When adolescence arrived and my parents were more intrusive I found a rock n roll band and a Ludwig 4 piece drum kit and taught myself how to play. I learned good enough to make a living at it through college and a bit after till my heart fell out of doing it and being in a band didn’t make any sense any more. I put away my drum set and I picked up a camera and the camera was my primary medium for creative expression from then on until we moved to Durango and I discovered a group of highly skilled white African drummers and dancers who would get together and co-create energy fields of happiness and joy.
Even though they are young and strong, fast and skilled with hands and feet, and I am not, they were kind enough to let me hang out and shake and I quickly became entranced, addicted and in love with participating with a group of drummers and dancers creating tapestries of movement, of grace, of joy, of rhythms from the most ancient of our days played with passion abandon and love. I’ve been playing the Djimbe for five years or more and only now reaching a point of starting to hear and feel how to play really play it – not just bang on it. Same with the Shakere.
Mastering these instruments will never make me any money or make me a name for myself beyond the county line but the Djimbe is such a challenging drum encouraging one to work both sides of the brain and if I am mindful when I sit down to practice I become aware of how hard it is to maintain balance and how sheer joy it is when balance is experienced. As for the Shakere, well this simple looking gourd with beads is teaching me that to play in rhythmic harmony with others I just have to let go – to live in harmony with life’s rhythms – I gotta just toss it all up and let it fall – knowing it will be caught with a crisp Ka-Thunk!
When I sat to put these thoughts into a blog, a lyric from a Van Morrison song trickled into my head and wouldn’t let go: “I’ll be praying to my higher self keep my feet on the ground” kept going round n round the stereo in my head. It’s oft repeated phrase used by Van Morrison in his songs “Ancient roads” and “Ancient Highway” each highly entrancing as only Van can put it out and Van’s not alone in walking some of those Ancient roads – I’ve walked a few myself, and haven’t we all known, in some way of these ancient paths – shamanism drumming, hypnotic trance, magic potions sacred drugs, physical movements, sexual pleasures and sensory ecstasies we all know on some deep, ancient, bodily layer and we all relate to these ancient roots of dance…of contact with global beats and universal – universe-full rhythms with great capacity through the body to open the mind and the heart and the human intuition to the storehouses of knowledge available to all and the deepest roots of our shared hearts and bodies?
I tell ya for an old guy its about the closest thing to an orgasm an asexual person can have. Imagine being lost in swirling sounds moved at a visceral level by the low pitched and thundering Dun Dun African drums playing against three higher pitched Djimbe drummers – each playing a different and complimentary pattern all providing a steady pulsing high energy platform from which the lead drummer can create from. I tell ya, there are moments rocking to the rhythm – and everybody is in the pocket the groove is strong and seamless….the dances feel it and respond with their own fiery energy, intensity and abandon co-mingling with the sheer wonder, excitement and joy in being a part of that mixture presents me moments of transcendence – moments of bliss – moments of an ineffability of which words do not exist.
If you ain’t got that swing it don’t mean a thing!
The drumming and dancing is performed according to the ancient ways, once it starts it just goes until it stops – until the dancers and/or drummers start to drop. There’s an endurance thing and a macho thing and a mystical thing and a Zen thing and lots of other things going on and this is only from a drummer’s side of the ancient rituals of drumming and dancing, of singing and smiling, of moving our bodies and our energies in harmonious, happy and beautiful ways. I come home drenched and rung out and filled with gratitude that for one more night I could be a part of this community – party to the celebration all the participants feel – lucky as hell to be healthy and able to still do this kind of stuff….and I don’t know when that last night will be….