Several years ago the above question was posed to me during a phone call and I had a very strange response. I totally froze. One of the few times in my life when I was utterly without words. I could feel them stuck in my throat, and I couldn’t dislodge them. The silence hung in the air, across the phone line, and the miles between us.
I knew the answer. Without a doubt in my mind.
But I couldn’t express it. Not one word of it. I was… tongue tied.
Have you ever been like that? Where you know what you’re thinking but just can’t find the words to express it?
If you’re like me – the chatty, oversharing type – you’ll understand that it’s alien to not be able to spit something out. To be completely unable to form words to describe what’s in your thoughts, and heart, and soul.
In Native American culture, the drum is not just a wooden frame with a hide stretched over it… It is the heartbeat of the People… It is their connection to one another, and to Creator… and to the balance of all there is.
The person on the other end of the line – my Mide’, my spiritual mentor – waited patiently, for a very long time. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for how long he can wait it out through a prolonged silence.
“Are you ok?”
“Kel? Are you ok?”
Are you getting uncomfortable yet? I sure was. My throat was working and finally I said.. duh… “I don’t know how to answer that.”
That wasn’t really true. I knew exactly how to answer that. What was inside me, though, just couldn’t come out into words.
It was too big.
But I’m getting ahead of myself just a bit.
Why would anyone ask another person what “the drum” means to them?
In Native American culture, the drum is not just a wooden frame with a hide stretched over it. It’s not just a musical instrument. It is much more than that. So much more.
It is the heartbeat of the People.
More than that… it is the People themselves. It is their connection to one another, and to Creator… and to the balance of all there is.
I dare say the majority of us mid-lifers, and older, in America were raised with John Wayne, Bonanza, and spaghetti westerns which depicted Hollywood’s often erroneous representation of “Indian” drums and chants. You know the ones, “HAH-yah-yah-yah, HAH-yah-yah-yah..!”
In truth, Native drumbeats in this place we call Turtle Island, quite literally mimic the human heartbeat. “Duhn-DUHN, duhn-DUHN, duhn-DUHN.” It centers us, it brings us back to ourselves, back into balance with Creator, it reminds us who we are. The People.
It has, indeed, been proven that when we are gathered around the drum, our own heartbeats begin to sync to the drumbeat… and to one another as well. In this way it is clear, the drum is the People, the very heart of the People.
At the time the opening question was asked, I was just beginning to learn these things. As many of you know, dad died before I was born, and afterwards mom moved back home to be with her parents. I am a city girl, raised by the Eastern European half of my family. I’d been told I was part Cherokee (Tsalagi) on dad’s side but that’s all I (thought I) knew.
Regardless… I have always been the musician in that part of my family who raised and loved me. And if I could get my hands on an instrument, I would give it a good go. As it turned out, I’m best as a flutist – the silver European flute, because that’s what was available to me in Slavic Village, Cleveland, Ohio.
For as long as I can remember I’ve craved music from every corner of this big beautiful blue rock we call home. My Aunt Marlene… introduced me to countless musicians, composers, performers… all through magical black vinyl discs.
Today, I have an array of instruments all around my house. My dad was a fabulous mandolin player (as well as guitar) and I still proudly display his old mandolin in the guest bedroom where my mom spends her time here in Arizona. I have several flutes, both silver and wooden.
And I am an ardent collector of percussion instruments from all over the world. I’ve been known to go to some very interesting places – on back streets of a town to track down a store that specialized in instruments indigenous to that area – but that’s a story unto itself, and for another time.
Back to the question at hand…
I was raised completely outside any Native influences. But I always knew the power of the drum – long before I knew I knew. Does that make sense?
Music has always held a special, and very private, place in the deepest parts of me. It’s impact on me has always been deeper than just tapping my foot or snapping my fingers to the beat. For as long as I can remember I’ve craved music from every corner of this big beautiful blue rock we call home. No matter how obscure, I’ve sought it out.
My Aunt Marlene had a huge influence on that. She loved music every bit as much as I did and she had access to all manner of wonderful things! She introduced me to countless musicians, composers, performers… all through magical black vinyl discs. She had quite a collection, and when she saw I was interested, she shared them with me. Henry Mancini, Herb Alpert, Ravi Shankar, Los Indios Trabajaras, Al Martino, Longines Symphonette, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, CCW (Creedence Clearwater Revival), Italian music, Spanish music, classical music, pop music. And I could go on and on. The variety was seemingly endless and it just made me want more and more.
Many years later, Aunt Marlene moved to California, and died far too young, and I was left to continue my musical discovery on my own. I found BMG Music and introduced myself to all kinds of wondrous sounds. People I never would have heard of otherwise. Later, as technology progressed I found Rhapsody (now Napster) and then the “coop de grassy,” as Bugs Bunny always said, I discovered Pandora.
The first time I heard the tribal drum, I knew… This was the human heartbeat. It was passion, sorrow, celebration, victory, loss, devotion, and prayers to Creator – the very glue that holds the People together. It is what draws you in, longing to connect.
Oh, how aptly named it is. It has allowed me to broaden my musical horizons more than any other single source in my life so far. I have found Nuevo Tango, and bands like Beats Antique. I’ve discovered Gregorian chants and old favorites from Al Martino and Frankie Valli. And I now once again have full access to my guilty pleasure: 80s music (my hey day, so to speak)!
When asked what the drum means to me, those years back, I froze because I couldn’t possibly know how to explain the inner workings of my very soul. I instinctively knew that “the drum” was everything to me that was the raw language of rhythm and the true companion to the magic of melody.
And I realized then with stark clarity, that since Marlene, I’d chosen not to share it with anyone else. It was something so intensely personal I felt it was impossible to either describe it or, worse, to ever let anyone in again.
When I couldn’t answer… and I actually started to cry… my Mide’ led me through a conversation that would eventually allow me to open up and begin to share again. And I was also about to learn what “the drum” is to my Native ancestors and contemporates.
The first time I heard the tribal drum, I knew I was among people who “got it.” This was the human heartbeat. It was passion, sorrow, celebration, victory, loss, devotion, and prayers to Creator – the very glue that holds the People together. It is what draws you in, longing to connect.
Finally someone who understood!
It may seem a leap between Henry Mancini and a tribal drum but it really is much closer related than it appears on the surface.
Humans have been making music for time immemorial. It all started with the beat of our mother’s heart as we lay against her chest being nourished, being loved, being protected. We associate the rhythm of the human heartbeat with everything which is vital to our survival.
Over the eons, we’ve gotten more “sophisticated,” added more types of instruments, discovered harmonies, spread out over the globe, and developed cultural characteristics that always include the drum in one incarnation or another. Even without formal study, most of us can readily recognize the rhythm of the Caribbean vs Africa, gypsies vs farmers, peasants vs nobility… you get the idea.
Music is everyone’s language. Whether you see it as superficial in your life, or you are a devout explorer, whether you’ve never touched a musical instrument or you’re a virtuoso – music is deep within all of us.
So now I will ask you, “What does the drum mean to you?”
Where does music fit into your life? How does it soothe you during a crisis? How is it present in your celebrations? Do you listen infrequently? Or do you have music playing constantly? Head set or big blowout speakers? Classical or headbanger?
What music soothes your savage beast? Do you play different music at different times, for different purposes? Do you like variety or are you a steadfast loyalist?
I invite you to explore these questions. You just may learn a lot about yourself. Maybe some things you never thought to put into words, or even organized thought. If you journal, consider it as an exploration of, and challenge to, yourself. To express it. To not be tongue tied the next time you are asked…
What does the drum mean to you, my dear friend…?