Sunday, August 21, 2011
Drums and Rattles.
For starters, one of the reasons why a drum is an interesting tool in Shamanism is because it can mimic a heartbeat and induce a state of trance. A rapid heartbeat can trigger nervousness, excitement and even aggression. A very slow heartbeat can help in relaxation, sleep and dreaming. Every rhythm can inspire an emotion and can bring about the memory of a past experience or a parallel reality. In Shamanic circles the drum can be instrumental in healing, teaching, ceremony or ritual, expansion of consciousness as well as dreaming and journeying.
Almost a decade ago I participated in a Mohawk naming ceremony. During the ceremony a group of eight people standing in the position of the 8 winds played the drums while dreamer initiates accompanied individuals in the dreaming in hope to receive their Spirit name. The tempo was quite fast (maybe 4 beats a second); which is usually the beat when attempting to induce a trance. I remember cringing at the sound at first because it was too loud. After a minute or two all I could hear is my own heart hunting this drumbeat and so it felt. It’s as if my legs were running and following the sound. Just when I expected it the least I was caught by an Eagle and was flying up to the sky. It was the most incredible rush. There were a few more details to the dream and to the experience; but what I found most interesting was how the drumbeat had literally led the way to this phenomenon.
My son is a musician (a drummer) and we’ve always had music in the house (piano, guitar, base, flute, violin etc….). We love to explore sound and the instruments, which produce it. There is no instrument that can have an effect on the heart like the drum does. I’ve often drifted into trance like spaces while listening to music; but each time I’ve participated in shamanic or First Nation ceremonies or journeys where drums were used, I’ve literally lost complete contact with what we call “the real world” and lived phenomenal experiences.
Like AT once said: “People use drugs to get this kind of buz….”
It is true that it makes a difference who is using the drum. It doesn’t mean because you participate in a drum or shamanic circle that you’ll experience the supernatural. One of our students once expressed that “it took her several years of practice to reach a state of altered consciousness.”
She said: “I thought all I needed was to practice the instrument; but realized I needed to practice presence, perseverance, patience and surrender more so than technique to produce the right tempo.”
When I was 23 years old and started working with a drum I had a dream. I saw myself resting against a tree. I had a drum on my lap. I started to play a slow tempo and soon I saw myself levitate. Up to this point I had been holding my breath. As soon as I let it go and exhaled the tree swallowed me whole. I became a small little creature the size of a fairy and I travelled through the sap of the tree. I climbed to the top of the branches until I felt a pull. Again I stopped breathing for a moment and as soon as I exhaled I was vacuumed down into the roots where I stayed for a while. Soon I was drifting back to the waking and wondered for years what this dream could have possibly been telling me….
In 1998, at the age of 33 I met EC who took me under her wing. One of the first lessons she taught me was that “all Spirits of Nature make sounds.” I don’t believe it takes a Shaman to hear these sounds; but it does take a Shaman to be able to communicate with these Spirits and work with them. In a previous blog (can’t recall the title or the date – sorry!!) I mentioned how trees make a clucking sound when they are young (10 to 15 years old) and can literally produce melody once they reach maturity (50+ years). EC and I would spend hours sitting by the St-John River without uttering a single word. At first I thought it was about learning the Mystery of Silence; but with time and practice I came to hear what she seemed to hear so easily and naturally (and so I thought). I could hear the stone-beings talk and the whispers of the Sprit of the River itself. Sometimes it spoke in soothing tones and other times it was angry and even dangerous.
I’ve seen many Shamans or/and Medicine People use rattles to call out demons, ghosts or shadowy entities, which have attached themselves or possessed humans. The instrument just like the rattle of a snake seems to send the message: “Reveal yourself or I’ll attack.” Rattles were given to children to protect them and keep them safe from dangerous or evil entities. I always find it interesting that many of our traditions hide shamanic or pagan beliefs.
Amongst eastern First Nation People only men used drums. With the arrival of Christianity the drum was literally taken away from the people and banned. It was illegal until the mid 1980’s to practice Native Spirituality. It was women who brought the drum back to the men and pushed for a revival of the Old Religion. Because of this, the men invited the women to drum alongside them. Today, both men and women are allowed to use drums. The drums, which have more of a high pitch are often called “women’s drums”; and the lower pitch drums are called “men’s drums.” The drums, which are found at pow-wows encircled by singers, are called “mother drums.”
Drums are said to invoke healing properties. I know there’s some research that has been done on the topic; but unfortunately can’t recall the sources. Some scientists believe that by stimulating the heart you can have some strong effects on wellbeing. I’ve read that even our cells respond to sound. Everyone knows how important sound is to a newborn baby. I remember noticing that even in the womb CT could differentiate between my voice and the voice of my husband. There’s no doubt in my mind that sound can literally shape our lives. Our tone of voice for example can make the difference between inspiring our children with self-esteem or making sure they grow up with trust issues and a deep sense of insecurity.
I hold a few different beliefs in relationship to drums.
1. I believe that we should always be gifted a drum. If you want a drum there’s a way of making that happen… ☺
2. I believe that if you are meant to receive a drum you should first receive a dream about a drum. All drums choose their Keepers.
3. I believe that if we are devoted to working with a drum we should at least make one drum in our life. Making a drum helps us learn about how to use a drum.
4. I believe that if we have more than one drum we need to be committed to use all of them regularly. A drum should never be without a sound.
5. I believe that each drum has its own Spirit with no help from anyone; but a Shaman can give a Spirit to a drum and remove the Spirit from a drum.
6. I believe that a Medicine Drum should only be played or touched by the Keeper of this drum. There are stories, which speak of Shamans dying and being buried with their drums.
7. I believe that some drums are meant to teach and guide many people… It is always the drum, which decides where to go and when to go.
8. I believe that a drum maker should never mass-produce drums. He or she should be guided by Spirit in the making of drums.
9. I believe that all drums should be wrapped in red linen; embraced by prayer; and stored in a dark spot.
10. We should always make our own sticks or add a personal touch to the sticks we choose, receive or purchase. The stick leads the drum beat and hence, represents what leads your life and your heart beat.
11. Always smudge your drum before using it for the first time if the maker didn’t previously smudge it.
12. Finally, consider the Spirit of your Drum at all times. Your drum is meant to be more than a tool, it’s also a teacher, a guide and partner.
I have a drum that I only use in matters connected to death. You would be surprised to hear how regularly I use this drum. Death is part of every day living. When I made this drum I thought it would have the Spirit of the Snowy Owl (one of the totems on my personal wheel); but it revealed itself as Butterfly instead. It took me a while to truly connect with the drum and understand how to work with it. Many people believe that they should enjoy from the get-go the presence of the drum they’ve chosen. The truth of the matter is working with a drum is like working with a human partner. It takes time and dedication. There may be chemistry between you and your partner; but it takes effort to make the relationship work and last. You don’t want any of your drums to end up as a decoration on a wall.
As I’m writing this I’m glancing at a drum I inherited almost 15 years ago, which literally hangs on the wall by my bed. It’s huge (24inches in diameter), extremely heavy and beautiful. The problem is it was created “to hang on a prop-wall on a stage.” A First Nation band petitioned a drum maker to make the drum to hang on every stage they played on. The drum was never used. When they broke apart and no longer needed the drum they gave it to a fan and good friend. She in turn hung it in a wigwam she built in her back yard for Moonlodge circles. She as well never used it. The first time I saw the drum I knew that “it had never been played.”
The drum was meant to convey a particular message and basically look good (so to speak). The band members who petitioned the drum wanted the drum to represent their cultural and traditional roots. It was clear that the Spirit of this drum was about representing others whether it be the band, their culture and tradition, or the presence of the First Nation Ancestors. After a few years, I approached the lady who “owned” the drum and offered to exchange one of my drums (which I kept at the time) for this hanging drum. She accepted. ‘Til this day this drum still hangs on a wall: MY WALL. It seemed important to continue to honor and respect its unique Spirit. Obviously it is rare that a drum is created with the objective to hang on a wall and never be played.
I guess there are always exceptions to the rule.
I once had a drum that I used only for gardening. This drum was wonderful for communicating with the little people. It was with the help of this drum that I brought healing to quite a few sick trees. Once I was able to reproduce the sound of this drum through song and do healing work in my garden without the help of the instrument, I gave it away. No use to keep a drum that no longer serves. Drums should always be useful (just like humans and animals). I also have a drum that I use for dreaming. Since I’m a dreamer I often need and use this particular drum. It allows me to connect to my guides, my totems and to the sounds within the dreaming. Given that dreaming is between every inhale and exhale and within everything – I work with this drum most of all.