Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Nag, Nag, NAG

I hate to harp, but if you haven't ever been drumming with Buddy Helm (, then you're really missing something. I sure wish I could be more articulate than that, but it's probably impossible. I can at least describe the physical part, though, right?

Pretend you've come to The Longhouse ( with me this Friday night just before seven. We pay our twenty-five dollars to Andrea and go into the main room. There are a handful of people there and about as many African drums. Pick one. Someone will help you put it on a stand if one's available. If not, they'll show you how to hold it, tipped, with your feet and knees. Tap on it. Tap again. Huh. Tap tap tap hey!

Buddy will sit down and adjust his mike, which I simply cannot type as mic, not yet. Maybe in a couple of years. He's already been talking and smiling, things he does in abundance. He'll start patting out a beat and a pattern, telling us how to hit the downbeat in the center and how to hit the rim, listening to the different tones. You'll find yourself doing the same. Before you know it, we'll all be doing the same thing -- people who've done this before; people who've been dragged, wincing, by their husbands; people who claim to have no rhythm; people who played drums in high school.

This is not a do-your-own-thing hippie drum circle. I've been to those twice and they're horrendous, in my never-humble opinion. No. This is real drumming with specific beats and tempos, with a leader. You'll find yourself following along without even knowing the rules. We'll all end at the exact same moment because somehow -- because Buddy's a great teacher? because there's something innate in drumming? -- somehow, we all know what to do. There are certainly times when we can -- and do -- wing it. It's a ball either way. There's great satisfaction for me in all of us doing the same thing at the same time. It's a little scary -- but more exciting than scary -- to play a solo, not that that's ever required. The only requirement seems to be a respect for the drum.

Well, what do I know about respecting drums? That's a bit Out There even for me. But I just listen to Buddy and do what he does. Last time, there was a handsome young schizophrenic man amongst us. He started right off pounding the head of the drum with his fist. I was aghast. Buddy gently, calmly, easily soon got the kid to hit the head properly, and he, too, became calm and easy. It was great.

At the beginning of 2000, I think, I went to an African drumming session with Fishbone. It turned out that we (!) drummers were accompanying an amateur troupe of West African dancers. They sat me down and gave me a drum. They gave me a pattern to play. When I played it wrong, one little kid corrected me. The drummers drummed and the dancers danced. I tranced right out. Time passed and I never knew it. When the rehearsal was over, the dancers came and knelt before each drum and drummer, paying his or her respects. As they honored me in this way -- not Barbara, but The Drummer -- I actually felt honored. And grateful.

Because of that wonderful experience, I checked in on those free-form drum circles and was sorely disappointed. It's only with the formal style of drumming that I find ... whatever it is I find.

I was in Ghana ten years ago -- two weeks with Habitat for Humanity and three weeks on my own. Habitat had arranged for some drummers to come play for us one night in a village of three thousand (without running water or electricity). I wasn't especially looking forward to it, being a non-drum person, but of course I attended. To my surprise, I ended up dancing for two solid hours. Usually when I dance, I'm singing or at least humming with the song, but there's no tune in drumming, no song. So I didn't hum but I sure did dance! "Oh, Auntie Barbara! You are a surprise!" one local Habitater shouted to me. I danced for two hours with an eleven-year-old girl.

I've never been a fan of the drum. When people go wild at a drum solo, I sit back and wait for the good part -- the music -- to show back up. When I hear drum, I think snare. I imagine I'm ripe for learning to appreciate the snare and other drums, but for now, I'm completely entranced by the African drums, played by hand -- played by my hand, your hand. It's invigorating and soothing at the same time, like shiatsu. Sometimes I seem to zone out, and then I'll hear something new. Maybe it's a chime sound or some fancy handwork someone popped into the mix. I'll look up smiling and find people grinning all around the circle. Sometimes only I seem to think something's funny.

Yeah. I can't describe it, but I sure can experience it, and I encourage you all to give it a shot. Friday night. Seven to nine.


olga kruse said...

Dear Natterer, I have been quite a miss- between a back issue and sleeping not and a play to be part of past my bedtime, nontheless I usually found it uplifting to check in with my Nattering Chatter Blog, because and as it did just now, I was smiling, yes, one of those non teeth smiles- which are my favorites; You always do that to me. But, somehow the days flew by and just now reading about the Buddy Helm Drumming thing - I feel like, wow, I just enjoyed hearing about it and your experience and I appreciate your mentioning 'shiatsu'- though, of course, you and I both know that that form of massage is often torturouss? Should I reveal that, say that? Expose that? Oh shit, no, but I did. thank you again, for lifting my spirits.

skymetalsmith said...

Nice drumming with you this summer for a little while at Hot Times.