Atlanta, the testing ground
1995. Tommy Motolla was installed as head of Sony Music, after divesting himself of Hall and Oats, and Charlie my pal from the Bethlehem Asylum Daze. I was making folk art inspired by my trips to Atlanta, so was commissioned to make a tin ear to present to Tommy at the roast in Culver City. “What do you need to get ahead in the music business?” was printed on the glass domed case. Inside the glass was my tin ear and a pair of shiny brass balls. This was an homage to the Brill building days when songwriters sat in little rooms and composed love songs for teenagers then had doo wop singers record them. We still move to those grooves. They are our sacred tribal grooves. The CD “Drum Dance”, later retitled, “Let the Goddess Dance” was released. It was the beginning of drumming as a separate music form for me. I pulled away from the conventional music scene when I got cynical flak from some of my old session musician friends, “It’s just drums, man!” I threw out the rules about how to record a song and made up a new open canvas on which to paint rhythm. Large record companies controlled the manufacturing of CDs. Tape Specialties was the first company to go outside the monopoly and manufacture small runs of one thousand CDs. Brent Lewis had an amazing drum studio out in Joshua Tree where we drummed and slept under the stars. Our store was acoustically perfect for recording drums. Its a craftsman house built in the forties, floor above the ground with a two foot crawl space that acted as a super bass woofer, we vibrated the wooden floor with djembes. I put together a Protools computer recording system in the store. Helmtone records was created. My trips to Florida and Georgia and other parts of the country were getting more frequent. The drumming in St. Pete, Tampa, Orlando, Clearwater was picking up. 1997. November. We took one of the first precious Ghana djembes to Maui and sold it to our friends. Rod and Sunita. There was some sporadic drumming on one of the remote beaches that you had to hike into, but there didn’t seem to be drumming groups on Maui to speak of at that time. Djembes were not anywhere to be seen. I could feel that the time was imminent though. Something was rhythmically evolving in our three times a week drumming workshops at Seasons in Santa Monica. There was a wide spectrum of people; creative, eloquent, willing. The feedback was resembling a faith healing show. People were becoming believers in a form of energy that the drumming was generating; especially if the grooves were played in a certain relaxed way. They didn’t have time to learn traditional African drumming. They couldn’t remember the parts anyway. These people were creating what they wanted; a mechanism to recharge their lives. I just kept the downbeat going and they created, sang, released, healed, and celebrated. I was just the drummer! Now that we had come up with a rhythm therapy using drumming as a meditation, it was time to take it on the road and test the Helmtone Healing Drum Protocols among ‘real’ people. An artist in LA does not always get a true read on what they are creating. It is best to take it out of town to see if it is a viable product. Atlanta to me always represented the nexus of true music. The quality of musical experiences for me in Atlanta are indelibly etched onto my heart like a classic RnB tune cut into a lacquer disk. I love the town. If this drumming meditation worked there, in Atlanta, then it would work anywhere. Chomping at the bit, I arrived with a collection of derbougas from Morocco. We knew two Muslim brothers who ran a falafal stand in the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade. They imported rugs from their home in Tunisia, and rolled up clay camel drums inside the rugs to protect them. They were as fragile as flower pots, and had great tone. The pictures painted on the side of the little drums were strange, until one day I turned the drum upside down and saw that the images were camels walking across the desert. Wriston, a friend I met in LA at Motown had moved back to Atlanta. She hosted a house drumming meditation. The metaphysical community caught on when I went into their shops and pitched the idea. We had a bunch of witches out in the woods, banging and singing, and dancing on Halloween. Up in the Blue Ridge mountains, I taught a seminar on the downbeat amidst the tall trees. This felt very good. I felt I was on the right track even though when their ceremony started the drummers forgot about the downbeat and just hooted and banged away. It was a lot of fun but I could see that people were looking for meaning in their rituals. The drum would provide that ingredient but our psychology was getting in the way. One of the first events in Atlanta was at a long standing metaphysical bookstore on the north side of the hilly wooded center of town. The turn out was small; one dog. It’s owner was the editor for the Aquarian underground newspaper. I wrote an article on drumming as an energy and spiritual event. My sister heard the article in the United Kingdom at Glastonbury during her retreat at the Tor. Things were connecting all over the place. There was no money to be made at this but I was not deterred. I drummed at the Roswell Women’s center, and had a good turn out. The second time I returned, the women’s center had changed hands and had disregarded my booking an event months earlier. I had to throw out the conventional booking and touring methods based on my years in the regular music business. This was going to be a lot looser. I just reminded myself of how patient Baba Olatunji was. Cathy, infinitely patient, was sending me more delicate camel drums when they were dropped and broken. One men’s drumming event in the park was exceptionally noisy. The alpha male wanted me to get him the biggest drum I could find. He chewed up my dombeq with his class ring. I reminded myself that this was a long process and that I was playing a small part introducing rhythm to America in ways that had not existed before. I felt guided and pulled along by this creative flow of the groove. When Jumoke’s drums arrived from Ghana everything changed for the better. The Sensua gallery was actively running a drumming group by this time. I met Bill Liggin, a therapist who got the drumming therapy right away. I had been coming into Atlanta and adjacent venues for five years. The seeds had sprouted and mingled with the homegrown. Johnny Appleseed of the downbeat. This went on all over the US. Constant touring, replenishing drums, repairing vans, driving, drumming with so many people that they all started to resemble each other. We were a growing community, a network, a web of consciousness that would eventually make the right decisions for us all. And it would swing.
excerpt: History of the Groove” Russell Buddy Helm©2015 all rights reserved.