Drum Circles-An Historical Perspective

The modern Drum Circle as we know of it in today's context is considered an American phenomenon, as the respected purveyor of the craft, Arthur Hull states. Communities around the country and across the globe are catching on to this, "New Age" trend, as it sometimes is erroneously referred to. But can we really lay claim to an attribute of society which in one sense supports the maxim that, "It takes a village"? In a drum circle everyone is acting as one. The ME becomes the WE. That is the true meaning of community. Villages have historically been such interdependent social environments.

Tribal enclaves were dependent upon each member to do their part for the betterment of all. Community drum circles embody that tradition. Rhythms are played with a sense of group. Each person plays a piece to make the whole. Everyone in the community can join in and not only make music but commune with one another without inhibition and with their own self expression. That is the spirit of the drum circle.

As the social ramifications of Drum Circles magnifies the genre will undoubtedly be labeled, pigeonholed and, as with all contemporary endeavours-villified. So what is a drum circle? How can we describe something that is in an historical pattern of continuity and, at the same time a state of social metamorphosis.

Critics need to be presented with an explanation that would have to be first qualified with a defensible and understandable description of what a drum circle is. Quite simply we know it as; "A group of people gathered in the same location playing percussive instruments in a uniform rhythmic manner". This can be either by happenstance, culturally indigenous or socially facilitated. It has occurred throughout history in cultures and societies worldwide.

A case in point, and a continuing cultural example would be the "Bon Dori" community gatherings in Japan. Centered around the mid summer, "O Bon Matsuri" (Lantern Festival), where people enjoy frivolous merriment and dancing (O Dori) the local residents gather and shares fellowship. These 'neighborhood parties' historically involve persons of all ages and abilities. The amassed crowd, often drawn to the event by the sound of the drums, reminiscent of African tribal calls to gather, is free to join in rhythmically on a percussive instrument, dance or chant, also indicative of indigenous communities from various continents. Contrary to modern American musical event etiquette, few if any people from the village would just sit and observe. Joining in the activity is the norm.

The crowd is led by a person playing a single rhythm on a drum. The barrel shaped drum, "Miya Daiko" is often used for its thunderous sonority. This is the drum used in feudal times to delineate the boundaries of a village community. The borders were to the stretches of the drum's tone. Sometimes the shallow, "Shime Daiko" is played for its piercing resonance. The Shime is the one used in the tower before a Sumo match in Japan, historically to call all followers to the tournament. These drums have a special place in the minds of the Japanese and most people know the patterns and rhythms by heart. At the festival the lead drummer pounds out a familiar rhythm. People would emulate it and play a supporting rhythmic counterpoint, often with such instruments as the, "Kachi Kachi" a kind of 'Clacker', similar to Spanish Castanets.
Occasionally there is a whimsical flute accompaniment. Sometimes there is a traditional folk singer whom all focus on for melodic cadence and support with a rhythmic pattern. This may be in a Call and Response style rhythmically uniting the gathered citizens with the lead drummer, the flute, or the singer. The main purpose is still amity amongst all.

The participants play in a true circle, as the "Facilitator" is always in the middle, often elevated on a platform so the crowd can see them and get visual cues if and when necessary. The Facilitator rhythmically opens and closes activity windows for the people participating to enter and exit at their leisure. In this true drum circle there is always the sense of freedom of expression. Sometimes rhythmic tangents appear and disappear.

Various drums are used and people often play what is called, "Uchiwa Daiko" (A reference to the Japanese fan-Uchiwa). Many may know it as a "Paddle Drum" or "Lollipop Drum" (REMO Co. has laid commercial claim to this instrument but it has been in Japanese, and Korean drum circles-where a double headed version of it is called-"SOGO"-for centuries). This simple drum can be played by anyone and allows for ones freedom of movement as it is held in one hand and struck by a beater in the other. This calls to mind Tambourines and Tars, used by historic gypsy, minstrel, and even pagan gatherings of old where people would frolic and celebrate their community event.

Drum circles are not a new invention. Made in the USA cannot and should not be imprinted upon the lapel. They are not modern attempts to reinvent the wheel. We must respect and acknowledge the efforts of those before us on our small planet. Drum circles most definitely are not so called-New Age remedies for the ills of society. Drums are not a panacea for human dysfunction. Drumming has always brought out the often raw emotions of the community, giving voice to the meek or heartiness to the timid. What drums and drumming can do is bring us back to, and conjure up within us a simpler time from the history of man where people could bond, express themselves artistically and share true community together.

Kenne Thomas


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