It sounds hippy-dippy, but joining a drum circle is a great way to release tension – and learn a thing or two about African rhythms, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH
IT DOESN’T GET any more elemental than this: sitting in a circle of people and beating out a complex web of rhythms on a simple African hand drum. Cynics may scoff at the peace-and-love hippy vibe, but drumming aficionados know better. It’s no coincidence that drum circles are soaring in popularity, with sessions springing up in Dublin, Wicklow, Galway, Limerick and Belfast.
Drumming allows people to shrug off what leading Irish drum circle facilitator John Bowker calls “the grey of the modern world”, reconnect with the sparkle of life, and lose themselves in a surprisingly powerful communal experience. As Mickey Hart, drummer with The Grateful Dead, points out, the drum circle gets people “in tune with each other and themselves”.
A former rock musician, Bowker looks every inch the tribal shaman, flowing grey locks and all. He’s fizzing with passion about the healing power of the drum (“the perfect tool for non-verbal communication”) and its ability to bring people together. “I’m into wildness,” he says. “Chaos can happen at any minute – it’s all about taking a risk.”
It’s easy to see how Bowker can get otherwise reserved people to cast off their inhibitions, crying, laughing and generally unleashing their inner creative spirit.
Bowker was one of the first people to introduce the African hand drum to Ireland when he arrived in 1990. “I was an economic refugee from Thatcher’s Britain, and I moved to the countryside near Ennis in Co Clare with my then two-year-old daughter. I had been a singer and guitarist in a rock band, but I was disillusioned with the music industry. I was interested in the mystical side of the music, but that had disappeared – it had all gone corporate. When I came to Ireland, I started doing a few drum workshops at my daughter’s school, and the whole thing just snowballed from there.”
Together with his team at Tribal Spirit Drumming, Bowker travels all over Ireland facilitating workshops and drumming events. “The supermarket/motorway/TV culture can easily make us think there is no magic in the world,” says Bowker. “But drumming gives us access to that magic again. Traditional indigenous cultures across the planet know that music is a major tool in keeping people healthy, nudging them from a mundane to a magical setting.”
“Nudge” is one of Bowker’s favourite words, and you can see why: it sums up his persuasive yet non-authoritarian style. A drumming session usually starts with participants trying out a few West African rhythms, perhaps from Senegal, Gambia or Ghana, before choosing one to take forward and explore. Why especially West African drumming patterns? Apparently they have the best ones, the sort with a “particularly earthy weave”, according to Bowker.
“The rhythms are like maps that we follow. Some are really powerful celebration rhythms – they’re easy, accessible, exciting. Others are healing, or meditative, or calming.”
Once a rhythm has been chosen, the group is encouraged to “take it to the max”. The resulting experience is cacophonous and exhilarating.
“Almost everyone has great innate understanding of rhythm,” says Bowker. “But one woman, who was physically challenged, couldn’t hit the drum on time. So we gave her permission to drum out of time. She walloped those drums, she really gave it some welly, and we all felt the joy. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
And neither is performance the point; the drum circle is an end in itself. “It’s about making music in a setting: the village making music for the village.”
Yet just because a drum circle is inherently democratic, open to all, doesn’t mean that it’s dumbed down.
“A drum circle can be just as powerful as a rock band, but it can also be very sophisticated,” says Bowker. “Sometimes a rhythm is so complicated that it can be very hard to hear the pulse. I’ve had experienced musicians come to sessions and get completely lost. Some rhythms start on the beat, some on the third beat, some on the quarter beat. It’s quite mind-bending.”
Anet Moore, from Galway, says she was hooked after one session with John 12 years ago. “Really it’s about empowering people. The focus is not just on the drumming – it’s on community, too, and ecological issues, and celebrating the Celtic calendar using traditions from all over the world. The music ties us all together and strengthens the community: it’s a way of navigating this wonky world we live in.”
Drumming is very much a female-led phenomenon: Bowker estimates 70 to 80 per cent of participants are women. In fact, some drumming circles are female-only groups, such as Chidambaram in Belfast. Nora Greer has been a member since its inception in 1998. “The name comes from a Sanskrit word, which literally means ‘the cave of the heart’,” says Greer. It refers to the first sound a foetus hears in the womb. “In the beginning, I couldn’t imagine that you could make tunes with the drums,” says Greer. “But you do hear the notes in your head; sometimes, you could almost hum the tune.”
Chidambaram recently led drumming workshops with female refugees and asylum seekers, and Greer says that it was a powerful way to connect with the women. “Drumming is an international language – it crosses all boundaries.”