I just got back from an amazing weekend of sharing rhythm and instrumental technique and knowledge with people who love rhythm and drumming. These kinds of experiences are among those I cherish most. More people making more shared rhythm experiences will always make the world a better place.
Each one of these encounters provides me with an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of what we’re doing with shared rhythm experiences. This weekend was no exception. I had a great time talking with the other instructors and participants, and the firecircles at night were among the most satisfying I’ve done in quite some time.
Today, I’m home, reflecting and processing the work/play we did over the weekend. I wanted to share some of what we discussed as we collectively evaluated the experiences, as well as some personal thoughts on how we might be able to make the experience even better.
Modern American drum circles should be Multicultural and Inclusive
In a society of immigrants, we have the blessing of living in a world rich with the inspiration that arises from a vast range of musical systems and traditions. Co-creative American drum and dance circles should be a reflection of the culture from which they arise. This weekend, I saw instruments from the rich traditions of North and West Africa, Cuba, the Middle-East, South America and Europe. The rhythm influences I heard were from all of those places, plus no small amount of the music of contemporary American society.
One of the things that I love about the language of rhythm is that it is universal. I’ve been able to share beautiful co-creative encounters with people from all over the world without ever needing to speak a word of English. Some of the most inspiring experiences can arise when we are open, listening and able to respond to the moment and the people around us, regardless of where they call home.
That kind of openness is something I believe we should continually try to cultivate. It can change the way we approach how we play in really inspiring ways, just by listening and looking for interesting ways to respond to the rhythm flowing around us. Through this process we are creating something that is both – part of the universal and ancient human system of musical transmission – and new, uniquely a reflection of the people creating the moment together. Through this process, a rich inclusive rhythm culture will continue to evolve in the United States.
At some point, I’ll share some more methods for making space in these settings, but initially, if we just pay attention to varying the length of our phrases, leaving rhythmic space in our cyclical phrases so that we’re framing one another’s sounds, managing our dynamics so that the participants are able to operate at the same dynamic levels, and allowing the top (solo) space to breathe so that we can feel the subtle shifts in the groove, a lot can be done. I felt there was a significant difference in the coherency just between Friday and Saturday last weekend. (one of my favorite parts of this process is the informal sharing we do during the day before and between circles)
Physics + Intention = dynamics
Among the things to keep in mind in an inclusive co-creative setting is dynamics. This is the term we use for the amount of energy we are creating. Ways to affect dynamics include tempo, rhythm density, rhythmic tension, and volume/loudness.
I’ve found that one of the ingredients of a really good circle is novelty. Too much of anything (no matter how great it is) for too long, can be numbing. If instead, we create an arc with an energetic ebb and flow, everyone can stay more engaged, and everyone gets some of what they need or want from the encounter.
It’s worth noting that due to physics, some instruments can be louder than others. Darbukas have a higher dynamic ceiling than most frame drums. Congas usually don’t project quite as much as (d)jembes. Cowbells can cut through pretty much anything. A drumset would drown everything else out, etc. Some of this is technique on the instrument, which relates to our skill as drummers, but a lot of it is really just due to the physics of sound and how much air can be moved with force from the instruments. But our dynamics arise from how much of our dynamic range we are using. In an inclusive multicultural circle our aim should be to be able to hear most of the instruments most of the time. That may mean that we have to adjust where we are in the dynamic range of our instrument to work with the group. For example, darbuka players may have to play closer to the top of their range, and (d)jembe players probably have to stay more in the middle of their range, Now I get that it can feel good to play hard (sometimes I play one of my quieter instruments just because it frees me to play with more force without overpowering those I’m playing with) and because we’re inclusive, there is room for the maximum dynamic range of even the loudest instruments, but to stay inclusive, we should vary our volume so that we can still hear the beautiful sounds from some of the instruments with a lower dynamic ceiling.
In addition to volume, it’s good to play with slowing down or speeding up (tempo). If we’ve been playing slow for a while, let’s kick it up, if we’ve been burning hot for a bit, it may be a good time to break it down for a while. Another way to do the same thing is rhythmic density. By subtracting notes from our phrases, we can open up space and reduce the energy a little bit without necessarily reducing the intensity. Subtraction is also a great way to move into new rhythmic spaces, as we remove sounds from the cycle, we hear new relationships between the parts. These new relationships lead us to the next moments and new rhythmic territory.
Even in a bigger (co-creative) circle like the one we had this weekend, it’s possible through intention to create an experience that has a lot of variation, and something that is inclusive enough to work for everybody. All we have to do to make it so is to intend it.
Let the top space breathe
On the subject of density and intensity, I think it’s great when there are so many people inspired to speak (solo). I also really appreciated the sensitivity with which those who took solos made space for others to solo. Anybody who has been in a circle with an “incessant solo-er” knows how that can really alter the experience for everybody, and not necessarily for the better. I would also like to suggest that one of the ways we can be inclusive is to spend a lot of time exploring the more subtle aspects of groove. There are small moments in the fills, variations, ornamentation, and relationship between parts that can lead to new and interesting rhythmic territory, and create a very organic path to transitioning to the next “song” For many dancers I’ve spoken to, the groove is what they’re dancing to (more than the solos). It can be more difficult to connect with those moments under a solo. Generally, I tell my students that when someone is taking a solo, our job is to maintain stability and consistency to balance the tension produced by the solo. When we let the top space breathe we free up the groove for more collective creative exploration and transition and create new contexts that may inspire new ideas for individual expression.
The size and layout of the circle matters
I’ve found that it’s ideal to have the drummers packed in pretty tightly so that we can hear one another. A “drum and dance circle” is a circle not necessarily because the drummers are forming a circle, but because there is no leader (think King Arthur’s round table) and the dancers are dancing in a circle to make space for movement and keep energy flowing. In a circle of any significant size, drummers on opposite sides won’t be able to connect with one another, and rhythm phasing (the highly undesirable situation where different sides are playing totally different things) is common.
A useful method for packing the drummers in is to use rows, with offsets so that the second and third row drummers can still see the fire and communicate with the dancers.
There should be enough room for the dancers to be able to move around one another between the drummers and the fire without being too hot, but not so much room that the drummers can’t feel any heat from the fire. Also, the closer the drummers are to the fire, the tighter the circumference of the circle, and better we can hear one another.
When we leave the circle, especially if we don’t intend to come back for a while, it’s good to remove our stuff, (chairs,drums) so that other drummers can fill that space. Sometimes it can be frustrating for drummers to hear one another over a sea of empty chairs with drums in front of them. As the night progresses, it’s optimal for us to be able to move in a little more tightly to stay connected.
The Bass drums/dununs and bells
The bass drums and/or dununs often create the shape of the groove. The bells, tambourines, and shakers often affect the momentum. Sometimes people may assume that because the parts are simpler, less glamorous, or the instruments are smaller, that they are less significant. I’ve seen a lot of evidence to the contrary. Bass drum players have to be stable and consistent, but it’s critical that they are listening for dynamic changes and groove changes, because if the bass doesn’t come along, the groove doesn’t change. Subtraction is a great way to add variation here and make space for moving to new ideas.
Bell players can cut through the whole circle, They can add an amazing amount of energy and momentum to the groove. In skilled hands, they can easily help guide tempo and maintain pulse consensus when it gets shaky because they’re so easily heard, If the groove is solid and at cruising speed, it’s useful to try to blend the sound in more to the other instruments, (usually by playing more quietly) this creates sonic space for darbukas which use some of the same frequency range, AND it creates more of an opportunity for others to make sonic suggestions about dynamic shifts
This was a really wonderful weekend. I loved sharing and getting to learn new things, and I loved playing with everybody. I got to play in circle for about 10 or 11 hours over the course of the weekend (would have loved to have done more, but I was mindful of needing to teach during the day), plus a handful of smaller impromptu daytime sessions that were also a lot of fun. I loved connecting with old friends and making new friends, I can’t wait to see y’all around the fire again.