“I Want to Drum, but I don’t want to be a Drummer.” Phyllis explained

excerpt “History of the Groove, drummer’s story” Russell Buddy Helm

©2013 all rights reserved


“I want to drum, but I don’t want to be a Drummer.” Phyllis explained. She was a sweet, grey haired grandmother who walked into Seasons on Montana Avenue,  spotted our meager beginning collection of drums; and my handwritten sign I had put up since our return from Bali; “Drum lessons, Dollar a minute”. Next to the Bali drums on a shelf out of the way. People were drawn to them but they weren’t for sale.

Her distinction moved me on a deep level that I could not identify yet it felt very familiar. “What kind of drumming do  you want to do?” I asked her. This was unknown territory, I must learn from the students. Thank you to Aileen Trafford, my first drum teacher for giving me an open mind when I was nine years old.

“I just want to drum with myself,.. and my friends, some other women…grandmothers like me…and with my grandaughter.” She spoke carefully, obviously having thought about this need and had already found the words to explain it.

In the year of our Lord 1987 there were no drumming groups. There were no African djembes available to play by hundreds of people like today. There were no drum healers, no drum shamans, no drum facilitators, no certified drum instructors. There was only one kind of drumming; that was for musical accompaniment. Our culture and not yet made a place for sacred drumming. I was having to make this up out of thin air as we went along. I had already made a deal with God, “OK, I’ll play the drums. But I will not play that kind of music that is wrong. I will play….. for You….whatever that was.” I knew it was my gift and my responsibility to play but there was no place for sacred drumming in our culture. I had played gospel, that wasn’t it. Then I remembered Coconut Grove…the magic. The nights, the music…the Caribbean drums. It was what we needed now. It was what I needed right now. Phyllis was bringing it to us. I heard my voice but it wasn’t me.

“There is a low tone in the middle of the drumhead, find that note and keep it steady. There is a high tone out at the edge, hit that once in a while. Just go back and forth, keep it steady, don’t speed up. Just stay relaxed.” I had already come to realize that people could not stay steady, they compulsively would speed up, creating anxiety, sounding aggressive. The steadiness imperative came from my years of training to a metronome. I could play steady for a long time. But this was not metronome drumming, this was more laid back, like rhythm and blues. This was not ‘correct’ drumming. This was funky, sloppy and fun, relaxed and happy. Inviting. inclusive; especially of women. This was the beginning of healing drums. But first of all we had to relax..

“I want to take lessons with you.” Phyllis said earnestly. We set up out back of the store in the yard, under old eucalyptus trees. We tapped along gently for awhile then she said unexpectedly, “You should be recording this.”

That surprised me. “Why?”

“Because you are talking while we are playing; telling stories. It helps.”

I had no idea that I had been talking while we were drumming. Next lesson I brought out a ghetto blaster, put in a cassette tape, put it in record and we started  drumming. About half way  through the lesson, I stopped and played back what had been recorded. I heard my voice telling stories about the history of the groove. The universe shifted before my eyes; as if some great hand turned the focus knob one big notch. The colors of the tree leaves became vivid green, the sky was bluer than I had ever noticed before. The Universe came into focus in front of my eyes.

I knew what I was supposed to be doing for the rest of my life.

I took out the cassette and handed it to Phyllis, “Here you can keep this. I know what’s going on here.”

excerpt “History of the Groove, drummer’s story” Russell Buddy Helm

©2013 all rights reserved


Bali drums



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