Big Mama Thornton and Howlin’ Wolf lived in Santa Cruz

excerpt “History of the Groove, Drummer’s Story” Russell Buddy Helm ©2013 all rights reserved

1975. Big Mama Thornton and Howlin’ Wolf lived in Santa Cruz and had a group of local players that would back them up around town. They were getting up there but could still rock the house. The local band leader was Joe Garcia, and he hired me to play with his blues band in a small Mexican bar in Gilroy. We really packed the house after word got out that it was a cooking band. I would have done the Howlin’ Wolf gig with him, but I was off my game.  I would settle into a moody funk in between sets, sitting in my car behind the dusty bar in the Santa Cruz foot hills. The farm worker patrons would come out and just look at me, offer me a beer, but I just thanked them politely and sat quietly until the next set. I wasn’t in a party mood after Tim’s death. Joe explained to them that I had lost my music partner and they nodded respectfully. They were very sweet and actually showed concern after they heard us play. I could still play like a rock star.

Bruce was a Santa Cruz psychotherapist with a reputation like a rock star in the therapy world. He was head clinician at the San Jose State psychological counseling center where Katherine ran the office. The rest of her time was spent painting and taking care of me. Bruce’s staff handled exotic cases and the mundane. He assembled a group of thinkers up in Los Gatos; astronauts talking about their experiences in space, psychic experiments in orbit, yogi’s, meditation teachers, realized masters from various studies but there were no drummers, so they were kind of square. Drumming was not on the screen yet, in terms of being a healing, integrating tool. It was discrimination based on fear. People are sensitive about their sense of rhythm, worried that they may not even have one. They feel vulnerable when exhibiting their supposed lack of rhythm. This is a cultural mindset that we have inherited from the Dark Ages of Europe. One reason it was called the Dark Age was because people were not allowed to dance and feel their sense of organic rhythm. The Roman church expunged sacred tribal grooves from European society. As a result, those of us from those tribes have a hole in our souls. Today we are realizing what is missing and we are struggling to fill that emptiness. If you have a heart, you have rhythm. There might be some trauma in the way of experiencing your own grooves, but you can still drum. There are no wrong notes in this process. Each note is a clue as to how each of us perceives and interacts with the world. Just move the stuff in the personality that interferes with your soul playing directly. It’s easy if you have the right help. Just lay back the groove. This is a great art form in Rhythm and Blues; laying back the downbeat means being ‘late’ to the metronome concept of timekeeping. We are brainwashed into being on time, being correct. That is where a great deal of our stress comes from. Where there is stress, there can be illness. Telling our system to relax, using the secret of laying back the groove, gives us permission to release in a mechanical, physical manner, not just intellectual. Using the intellect to relax is like trying to fix your car while you are driving it. Drumming in a laid back fashion, with the beat gradually slowing down, moves our attention out of the survival mind and into a larger sense of universal awareness and objectivity. This was my discovery when I came back to the drum as a healing tool instead of just a musical instrument. The Downbeat is the cornerstone of this protocol for healing and most people don’t understand how simple that concept is. The Downbeat is the beginning note of any repeated rhythmical phrase. For healing drums, we play that note simply with our full hand, using palm and fingers, in the middle of the djembe drumhead; hitting it quickly, not hard, rising up to release the vibrational tone to move through our bodies. if we lose the repeating downbeat, we just pick it up again and get back on the groove.This is the great healing lesson for recovery. Everybody loses the Downbeat, but you can get back on it again and keep going. No blame, no shame. We are instinctively drawn to the drum as a way to heal but we often think that we have to be trained by an expert. The problem with expert drum teachers is that many of them are traumatized by their teaches and transfer that anxiety on to their own students. It shows up in their playing. You can tell if you like a drummer just by how their playing feels to you. When I first sat down at a drumset with Tim Buckley, it took him all of about three minutes to realize that I was his drummer for the rest of his life. It worked for him. There was no tension, or fear, just flow and confidence. That is the one area of my life that I am a master. I owe it to my teachers and the people who have given me love, but what I give when I drum is a service. It is not me showing off and asserting myself as a great performer. That happens on it’s own when I can get out of my own way.  My first drum teacher was a woman and that had a great impact on how I drum. I have great technique and can read difficult music, and perform all of the rudimental drumming that is essential to be a competent professional drummer, but Ailleen Trafford also gave me the meditation tools as well as all the medals for excellence.  She was the best therapist I have ever had.

excerpt “History of the Groove, Drummer’s Tale” Russell Buddy Helm ©2013 all rights reserved

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