The Rites of Ritual Drumming
By Nadiya Shah c. 2006
Spiritual souls and writers alike have explored the rites, motivations, and practices of Ritual Drumming. The process of creation, communion, and melodic power continues to hold intrigue. The Dragon Ritual Drummers are a Drumming Troupe who borrows stylistic influences from various Shamanic and what they term ‘Magical’ traditions from around the world. Their members are of the Niagara Pagan Men's Circle and gather foremost in private for their own spiritual fellowship. They utilize Ritual Drumming as part of their spiritual practice. Through the expansion of their practice they decided to share their talents and launched the performance group “Dragon Ritual Drummers”, or DRD, 7 years ago (1). The DRD and other drumming troupes are among those who collectively meet to travel a sacred, transcendent journey facilitated through their respective drums.
One of the lead drummers of the DRD, Utu, was kind enough to sit down with me to an interview. Despite his straight-laced Scottish upbringing, Utu is clearly on a spiritual road less traveled. His musical contributions and impressions reflect just that. Utu runs the Niagara Voodoo Temple, which is where we met for the purposes of this article. For him, drumming within the Niagara Pagan Men’s Circle began within a purely ritualistic and spiritual context. (2)
Utu explained that the process of music creation comes together in a way that is completely void of formal music methodology. Despite his extensive musical training as a child, Utu explained that the beats are “grunted” out and memorized on completely mental, or rather energetic, levels. It is rare for a member of the troupe to have any musical training at all. The men gather for ritual purposes and will play their respective drums. After the ritual is complete they may remember something, a sound or percussion movement, that was impressionable. They will then go back and search their memories and try to replicate it. They will think of what specific spirit inspired a medley for the purpose of remembering the phrases discovered while in a trance- like state. Once they have simulated the beat they will repeat it several times before deciding if they want to include it in their repertoire. (2)
Their most popular rhythm consists of the 4/4 timed “Bamboula”, which is a call in honor of ancestors. During a Voodoo ritual the Niagara Pagan Men’s Circle will start with this rhythm. During a performance of the Dragon Ritual Drummers this beat will be the very last of the night. During a show the opening beat usually consists of a standard 2/2 heartbeat accompanied with a drone. Due to the vast array of spirits, and the vast array of cultural influences, the tempo of their music can vary greatly. In the few rhythms that Utu demonstrated to me I heard 2/2, 4/4, 3/3, and even 4/8 (2). The 2 CD’s by the Dragon Ritual Drummers I heard in support of this article also demonstrated the same variations in tempo. (3,4)
Rituals are constructed for a precise purpose. Drumming plays a specific function within a ritual. Utu identified definite beats that correspond to different spirits. These beats are played in an attempt to call that chosen spirit or as part of a ceremony of honoring specific ancestors/ ancestral energy. During a ritual of the Niagara Pagan Men’s Circle, the second rhythm chosen to play sounds like an old man walking with a cane. The purpose of this second rhythm is to call forth a spirit named Legba, who functions as an alliance, or a facilitator, of the “opening of the gates” to the spirit world and towards a vast array of spirits. This is a 4/4 beat that is vastly layered depending on the intention. The hope or intention of the beats is to allow a shift of consciousness to occur towards a trance-like state that would actualize communion with these spirits. (2)
Melinda Maxfield has considered the shamanic impact of ritual drumming among participants. In her paper “The Journey of the Drum”, Maxfield documents how researchers have attempted to document the correlations between rhythmic drumming and altered states that the Shaman attempts to achieve during ritualized settings. It is in essence a journey that the Shaman or ritual drummer is attempting to travel on. The repetitious, almost mechanical, sounds of a steady 3/4 or 1/2 beat allow the practitioner to change their perception of reality so that they can interact with the spirit realm for the benefit of themselves and ultimately their community, as they understand it. (6)
Adler and Duignan-Cabrera have had their own experiences with Ritual Drumming. In “Heeding the Call of the Drums”, Adler and Duignan-Cabrera articulate their own experiences witnessing Ritual Drumming. They spent time with “Sons of Orpheus”; a Florida based Pagan Men’s Drumming Troupe. “Sons of Orpheus” utilizes drumming as part of ritual and as part of performance as well. Adler and Duignan-Cabrera describe what they heard as a “room-filling thunder (that) defines a ritual space around the men, a bubble of noise within which they feel safe and protected. Its’ irresistible rhythms break down the ego's defense mechanisms and get it up and dancing. The very materials of which it is made, wood and skins, give it the aura of the sacred earth.” (5)
The Dragon Ritual Drummers incorporate this philosophy in the instruments they use. Each instrument is made of natural materials and holds a spiritual significance. Their instruments include djembes, djun djun, tubano drum, ocean drum, thunder drum, dumbek, tablas, floor tom, rototoms, toms, gong, cymbals, digeridoos, cow horn, calves, flutes, chimes, bells, plastic barrels, metal trash cans, rain sticks, human hands and mouths. These instruments originate from a wide range of cultural and shamanic traditions including First Nations, South and Far Asian, and African, accurately attempting to reflect the varied spiritual influences of the members of the troupe. (4)
When listening to a track from “The Epic: A Drum Opera” by the Dragon Ritual Drummers, I am struck by the various components to a song. For example, the song “Talon, Celebration of the Dragon” holds a steady fundamental 4/4 beat of claps and bells, creating an energetic tone. Though a fundamental would normally apply to musical pitch, the Dragon Ritual Drummers manage to create a feel of harmony with persuasion instrumentals alone. Once the fundamental base is established the sounds give way to a more complex middle section. Even within the percussion sounds, harmonics are heard with higher pitched drums playing an intricate, almost free styled rhythm on top of the fundamental. Continually, as in a loop, we are returned to the pure 4/4 phrases that establish a steady tone. The timbre is pure and energized. The last 30 seconds of the song return us to the clap and bell sound fundamentals. Clear multi-cultural influences can be heard, ranging from Celtic, Middle Eastern, and African. All in one song. (4)
A performance holds a completely different objective for the DRD. Performances are considered “mild rituals” done in service of the spirits and in service of the audience members. During the performance itself “trance-ing out is not allowed”. The drumming must be steady in respect for the fact that the dancers, who are audience members, are meant to “trance out”. It is in this position as performers that the drummers become facilitators of transcendental mental states. But the spiritual function of their work is always foremost the focus. (2)
Utu expressed that during a Pagan or Shamanic festival there is an awareness of energy exchange. Due to their place of reputation within the Pagan community people are much more enthusiastic in their responses to the Dragon Ritual Drummers. There is willingness among audience members to move and dance when within these specific circles. The shared spiritual and religious pathways create a greater camaraderie between the band and the audience, and within the audience itself. When the Dragon Ritual Drummers perform at events that are not geared to more spiritually minded people they find that people are less willing to participate. (2)
The lack of audience participation within non- spiritually minded audiences is a complaint held by the Sons of Orpheus as well. In response, Sons of Orpheus carry extra percussion instruments and encourage all types of audiences to participate by dancing and using their bodies. So even if a mundane crowd doesn’t recognize it, they too are participating in a ritual. (5)
Bruce Gladstone is a clinical psychologist who believes that "the voice of the drum is the voice of the belling in the solar plexus…a liberating, de-civilizing, anti-intellectual experience, the distillation of wildness” (5).
It seems that this voice of Ritual Drumming speaks to a city soul on an eccentric spiritual journey and the traditional Shaman whose practice has been handed down through bloodlines for centuries. The attempt at the primal connection, the desire to connect with one’s solar plexus, with other like-minded people, or with the spiritual realm is still a calling of many. Perhaps through the presentation of this private spiritual practice in the form of performance our collective culture is enhanced by more accurately reflecting our varied personal spiritual and religious practices. Perhaps it is audiences that are ultimately enhanced with a greater sense of their own spiritual energy.
This article was originally submitted as an academic paper, Ryerson University 11/07/06
1. Dragon Ritual Drummers. Official website. 2006.
2. Utu. In person interview. October 26, 2006. St.Catherines, Ontario. Canada
3. Dragon Ritual Drummers. The Epic: A Drum Opera. 2006. Sound recording.
4. Dragon Ritual Drummers. Volume 2. 2003. Sound recording.
5. Adler, J. Duignan-Cabrera, A. Heeding the call of the drums.
Newsweek, 00289604, 6/24/91, Vol. 117, Issue 25
6. Maxfield, Melinda. The journey of the drum. ReVision, 02756935,
Spring94, Vol. 16, Issue 4
I was trying to find where this belonged, and came across Nadiya's post. Rereading it, it seemed the perfect fit, in the context of the purpose of ritual drumming that she outlines above.
This weekend was the beginning of the local gala week. As such, a great show is made on the first Saturday. Bands, dancing troupes, bouncy castles (?!) all clutter up the main square for the afternoon. We forgot that it would be so, and wandered in to the town...
Aarrrgghhh. Midget children with ego's the size of planets, dressed in nothing more than a lettuce leaf, bounced, gyrated, flung each other in the air "LOOK AT ME, LOOK AT ME!" Competitive parents stood beaming around the square..."Isn't my child the best?".
Then a local band leapt on the back of a truck and blasted out some raucous noise on badly tuned instruments, singing (no - shouting) out of tune, some lyric which equated to conspiracy to rape my mother and destroy my family line. Very nice sentiments to kick start a week long celebration...
The entire square was completely filled to overflowing with negativity. It clung to you in great globs of derision, apathy and tension. It was so bad, that even Mrs H (not reknowned for her energy antennae) was bouncing off the prevalent feeling in the place. Two minutes was enough for me, and I was starting to get more than a little tetchy when along came a learning opportunity...
"Ladies and Gentlemen - The Pipe Band!"
I can honestly say, that it was one of these stop-dead-in-your-tracks moments. The deep bass and the snare were the first points of reference. The negativity in the square seemed to waver. Then the drone of the lone piper. The negativity positively quivered. The mass pipes and flutes. My Lord, it was like standing in a vacuum: every negative entity, every negative thought, every egoic tentacle shrank and ran. I stood in a veritible void where the only vibration in the place was a mixture of drum, flute and pipe.
The first round ended. And I waited. Nothing. A young "lady" let off an incendiary obscenity. The influx was immediate: all the negativity that had previously pervaded the square rushed back in on that single point of focus. Now I knew how the Egyptians felt at the Sea of Reeds... I was once again drowning...
The snare, the bass, the mass flutes and pipes. Back in the void as everything retreated once again to apparent safety of "anywhere-but-here". Again, the cycle repeated and the same thing!
Now, I know that the pipes are not everybody's cup of tea (nor mine for that matter), but their effect, alongside the drums was quite breathtaking at a subtle energy level. Whether the crowd were aware of it or not, some deeply ritualistic significance is contained within this mixture of instrumentation.
If only that significance had been understood by those around me, the obscenities, the egos and the self grandification may have been short circuited: and the rest of the afternoon could have remained the positive affirmation that it surely should have been.
We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it.
We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream.
This is true for the entire universe.
There are currently 1 users browsing this thread. (0 members and 1 guests)