Shamanic Drumming Blog

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Paradoxes of Rhythm

Pandit Subhankar Banerjee
One of the paradoxes of rhythm is that it has both the capacity to move your awareness out of your body into realms beyond time and space, and to ground you firmly in the present moment. A steady, monotonous single beat, for example, will arouse and vitalize you. At a rapid pace of about 180 beats per minute, a steady, unvarying pattern stimulates an upward flow of energy within the body. It creates the sensation of inner movement, which if you allow it, will carry you along.

A two-beat rhythm, on the other hand, produces a different sonic experience. The soft, steady lub-dub, lub-dub of a heartbeat rhythm, at around 60 beats a minute, has a calming and centering affect. It reconnects us to the warmth and safety of the first sound we ever heard -- the nurturing pulse of our mother's heartbeat melding with our own. At a rapid tempo of 180 beats per minute, the heartbeat rhythm stimulates a downward flow of energy within the body. Every rhythm has its own quality and touches you in a unique way. These qualities, in fact, exist within each of us, longing to be activated.

It is this process of internalization that allows us to access the inaudible yet perceptible soul, so-to-speak, of a rhythm. Another paradox of rhythm is that the audible pattern is the inverse of the "inaudible matrix." Every rhythm has both an inaudible (unmanifest) and audible (manifest) aspect -- silence and sound. It is the inaudible intervals between audible beats, which allow us to hear the grouping of beats in a coherent cycle or pattern. We sense the interval as the "off-beat" or light element and the audible beat as the heavy element. The drummer establishes the audible beat, whereas the silent pulse quality unfolds by itself in any rhythmic pattern.

Master percussionist, Reinhard Flatischler, in his book The Forgotten Power of Rhythm, established that all people perceive the unmanifest essence of this silent pulse in the same way, regardless of how the drummer shapes the audible pattern itself. As Flatischler puts it, "As the inaudible part of a cycle, this pattern exists in a universal archetypal realm. The audible shaping of the cycle, on the other hand, exists in the realm of uniqueness and individuality. In rhythm, both sides unite and thereby allow the individual to make contact with the world of archetypes."1

In conclusion, one can be creative with the audible aspect of a rhythm, as long as one stays within the framework of the cycle. One can shape a rhythm by varying the tempo, the intervals, the accents, or the drum sound itself. Alternatively, one can play the exact structure of a rhythmic pattern with precisely regular intervals. Both approaches to rhythm have merit and both allow you to internalize the archetypal essence of rhythm. The way you shape a rhythm will shape your response, but the "inaudible matrix" remains timeless and invariable. So do not be concerned about your rhythmic skill, technique, or competence. Allow yourself to be carried by the power of rhythm without fear of falling out of rhythm. Allow the drum to integrate the seemingly paradoxical yet complementary aspects of rhythm into the resonant core of your being. 

1. Flatischler, Reinhard. The Forgotten Power of Rhythm. Mendocino: LifeRhythm, 1992.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Elk Medicine

Elk medicine includes stamina, strength, cadence, confidence, empowerment, sensual passion, and the inspirational power and influence of sound energy. As the days shorten and the temperature drops in autumn, bull elk, like the crickets heard on my song "Elk Autumn," use sound to attract mates. Sound is regarded as one of the most powerful ways of establishing connections. It moves through space, penetrates visual and physical barriers, and imparts information from the web of the collective mind. Sound provides a means of "relationship" as well as a "transformation" of energy. Elk power helps us use sound to inspire others, stirring them into action. We gain the confidence to fully express our ideas and intentions in an inspirational manner. Elk teaches us how to reclaim our power and how to pace ourselves to reach our goals.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Trevor Hall - The Fruitful Darkness

Joan Halifax's 2004 book The Fruitful Darkness is a great inspiration behind singer-songwriter Trevor Hall's latest album of its namesake, which is currently in the midst of a four-part release. Hall was in the middle of recording the album when he discovered Halifax's insightful book. Her deep study of shamanism, Buddhism, tribal wisdom, and their interconnections resonated with Hall on many levels. "The book really helped me finish the album," Hall said in an interview.

In her book, Halifax delves into the fruitful darkness -- the shadow side of being, found in the root truths of shamanic traditions and the stillness of meditation. In The Fruitful Darkness, Halifax writes: "Both Buddhism and shamanism are based in the psychological grammar that says we cannot eliminate the so-called negative forces of afflictive emotions. The only way to work with them is to encounter them directly, enter their world, and transform them. They then become manifestations of wisdom. Our weaknesses become our strengths, the source of our compassion for others and the basis of our awakened nature."

Shamans, Halifax notes, develop mystical abilities by surrendering to darkness and that which attacks them. Her reflections on the Buddhist path and the shamanic journey -- a spiritual journey of learning to befriend darkness -- spoke to Hall's own difficult walk through darkness. Hall's latest album tells the story of his own journey through darkness in song. Nearly three years ago, his health deteriorated as the result of a staph infection, leading to his hospitalization and many canceled tour dates.

Hall says he became completely disconnected from the beliefs and inspirations he had previously based his life on. As his idea of himself disintegrated, he found himself feeling alone in the dark, filled with doubt, asking "Who am I? What do I believe?" It was a feeling he couldn't shake.

Halifax's reflections on the Buddhist path and the shamanic journey immediately spoke to Hall's own difficult walk through darkness -- his own shamanic initiation. Initiation is the death, dismembering, and dissolving of old forms/structures/ways of life. Shamanic initiation serves as a transformer -- it causes a radical change in the initiate forever. An initiation marks a transition into a new way of being in the world. It tells us something about the mystery of life and death.

Completing this restorative rite is precisely the task of the shaman. As Joan Halifax explains in her book Shamanic Voices, "The shaman is a healed healer who has retrieved the broken pieces of his or her body and psyche and, through a personal rite of transformation, has integrated many planes of life experience: the body and the spirit, the ordinary and non-ordinary, the individual and the community, nature and supernature, the mythic and the historical, the past, the present and the future."

While writing an album reflecting on the wisdom he'd gained navigating a period of hardship, Halifax's message was the very guidance Hall needed. When it came time to title his record, Hall knew he wanted the album to share the same name as Halifax's book. He wrote to Halifax, who serves as the Abbot of Upaya Zen Center, requesting her permission to title his project The Fruitful Darkness. She gave him permission to use the title for his album, which echoes many of the book's themes in its lyrics. On the title track of the album, Hall sings:

The dark within my dark
Is where I found my light
The fruit became the doorway
And now it's open wide
The fruitful darkness
Is all around us

On "Arrows," the eighth track that Hall has released from The Fruitful Darkness, he sings:

The dark is all around me
But I'm so glad it found me


Hall has come to know the fruits of darkness well. In a recent interview Hall said, "It's been a journey to get to this point. The spiritual path is like a razor's edge. Every tradition says that -- Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jewish. It's not a walk in the park."