04 May 2012

percussion and perspective

'i don't want to work, i want to bang on the drum all day
i don't want to play, i just want to bang on the drum all day.'
(Todd Rundgren)

Ever since i was a young boy and first pulled out some pots and pans and laid them out on the kitchen floor and started hitting them with wooden spoons, i've been a 'drummer'.

The pots and pans turned into plastic paint buckets and sticks...and then a practice pad as a 'snare drum' and a metal music stand as my 'hi-hat cymbals' and cardboard boxes as my 'tom-toms' and my clothes hamper as my 'bass drum'...and then finally, a 'proper' drum kit.

But it really didn't seem to matter in the bigger picture what i was hitting.

At heart, by nature, i was a 'drummer'.

While most adolescents rant out their natural rage and assault the world with their understandable angst at the cataclysmic changes their minds, bodies, psyches and spirits are enduring simultaneously, most of mine was channeled into cymbals and hammered into heads (DRUM-heads, that is) and drowned in the noisy din of percussive propulsion.

(Now mind you, i was NOT one of those dudes who constantly had a pair of sticks in his backpack and would take them out at every opportunity to thrash away on the trash cans and tables, and to pound paradiddles on the shoulders of poor unsuspecting students seated in front of them in class. I was far too shy and insecure to exhibit my skills or exploit my talents in this way. And quite frankly, I also didn't want to be potentially perceived as an irritatingly arrogant asshole.)

This outlet provided me a more direct and intuitive way to get in touch with all that hellish, internal commotion, and a more creative way to exercise it from my soul.

It also made me a hell of a good drummer. (rimshot, please.)

When people speak of going to their 'happy place', for me, i start tapping my fingers in rudiments and rolls. Most of the time, i do it without even thinking. Especially, it seems, when i'm bored (read: sitting in 'institutional-preservation' types of meetings). It's my initial, innate response to keep me engaged in most any life situation, and with life in general. And it comes from the deepest part of my being, the place where true joy resides.

Why drums, you ask? There are so many other forms of creative expression, musical and otherwise, that could serve this same kind of central purpose in my life. Is it just because of the way i'm 'wired' that i'm pre-disposed to gravitate towards groove, like the mysterious reasons why some people prefer green over blue or sushi over succotash?

Well, perhaps it's partly because of my natural preferences, interests and talents. But for me, it goes much deeper than that. The reasons i resonate with rhythm are both more personal and universal.

For me, percussion is primal.

Percussion not only provides the tempo for your toes to tap. It also serves as a launchpad for language, a source for speech, a conduit for conversation and connection between communities.

Entire tribes of people talk to each other with drums.

I've never heard of violins or electric guitars being used for this purpose.

Percussion calls people together and draws them into a circle of community, moving to the heartbeat of the heavens and the humus, the pulse of paradise and paradox, the undulations of the universe, the groove of the galaxies, limbs flailing and laughter flowing, engaging in the calypso of the cosmos, the dance of destiny and dreams, the limbo of life.

Percussion reconnects us with the Rhythm that resounds within us all, and around us all, and IN all.

It took hanging out with a bunch of 4 and 5 year-olds today to remind me of this.

For the past several years, i have made a visit to the preschool class of my friend, Belinda. I bring along some of the drums and percussion instruments that i've collected from different countries and cultures over the years, and tell the kids something about each one whilst playing them. I love to hear them shout out the names...'DJEMBE! DALAMA! DARBUKA!' Whenever i tell them that i've been to Africa, i always ask if any of them have been there before. And without fail, almost every hand shoots up in the air. (One boy told me later, 'I've been to Africa THIS many times (holding up all ten of his fingers)...I met Snow White there!' I'm not exactly sure what may have been in this kid's breakfast, but he sounded like he was ready to break into a rousing chorus of 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds'.) And without fail, i always end up laughing.

After demonstrating all the instruments, the teachers will line up the kids to come up and try them all out. Some kids are very shy and gentle, while others momentarily turn into Animal from 'The Muppet Show'. Usually, they each just come up once, have their fun, and sit back down.

But today, they kept coming up. Again and again. In sequence. And i looked up and noticed that the line had become a circle. And for all the spontaneous expression that was happening on the drums right in front of me, the circle itself created a kind of rhythm. The kids were moving in a kind of sporadic symmetry, like the rhythm that was resonating not only from the instruments before them but from the infinite space unseen around them and the innate pulse emanating from within them.

And it reminded me of something i had done with groups in the past, but had forgotten to do with the group this year.

i would ask the group if they had rhythm. And they would all yell 'YES!'
And then i would ask them, 'How do you know that you have rhythm?'
And they would give me some puzzled looks, and shout out things like 'My dad had a pet unicorn when he was a kid!' (to which i'd start humming in my head, 'Lucy in the Sky...')
And then i would tell them to take their two big fingers and press them into the right side of the middle of their necks, and then tell me what they feel.
And at least one of them would say, 'My heartbeat!'
And then i would ask them, 'How many of you have a heartbeat?'
And MOST of them would raise their hands.
And then i would say, 'Well, if you have a heartbeat, then you have rhythm.'
And then i'd start playing a dance rhythm on one of my drums.
And the kids would jump up and start dancing around in spontaneous and sporadic and sacred joy.

It seems that in one way or another, at least for me, percussion always helps me regain perspective.

Some of us claim that we 'have no sense of rhythm'. And this supposedly precludes us from joining in the Dance in any of its forms.

On certain days and seasons of life, when all is unsettled and uncertain, filled with ambivalence and anxiety, this group of people includes me.

And it's on days such as these where i am thankful for reminders that come through crazy little kids around me and persistent little 'wet engines' within me.

And i remember to check my pulse, to make sure my heart is still beating.

And check my breath, to make sure my lungs are still breathing.

And reconnect with the Rhythm that resounds within me and around me and IN all.

And recall that no matter what life throws my way that may get me out of sync with that Rhythm, it keeps on moving and grooving.

The Pulse is persistent.

And primal.

And ever-present.

And it causes me to pause and ponder the possibilities...

IF all of life truly IS Rhythm...engaging with it, moving to it, living it out, sharing it with others and inviting them to join in the Dance...then maybe the truest and deepest calling in life is to get a chance to do what i've always wanted to do.

To 'bang' on that 'drum'...

ALL day.

ALL night.

ALL of my life.

(an early incarnation of the 'lil drummer boy'...
actually this is NOT me,
but i've been given this bday card several times :)

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