Excerpt “History of the Groove, Drummer’s story” Russell Buddy Helm ©2013 all rights reserved
2003. One thousand Nuns were on the groove; two hundred nuns were in the chapel and the rest were on a video feed out to the dormitories on the grounds of the Dominican Order’s Mother House. It was a Thursday morning prayer group and we were all drumming. The oldest nun, in her habit, eighty two years old, sat next to me and was beating on a djembe with as much or more conviction than I’d seen the weekend before at the festival fire dance. They were all committed to generating spirit right here in their beautiful white chapel. I had arrived with a car full of Ghana djembes, and a muddy tambourine pedal that soiled their white shag carpet but they did not mind at all. They were focused on prayer and drumming.
That morning, driving out through the desolate farmland, I was feeling tired. I had a moment to talk with the universe, directly to Divinity; “Look….This is getting to be a lot like work…I am feeling tired. I am thinking of pulling the plug on this. So if you want me to continue this work, you have to give me a sign. It’s got to be a big sign though; I am deaf, thickheaded, lazy, and stubborn. If it’s not a big sign, I will miss it.”
I pulled into the Dominican convent and unloaded the drums. Drummers unload and load drums twice as much as they play the drums. So get used to that if you are considering this as an activity. There is a certain type of stamina needed to tour playing music; it is a mixture of insanity, surreallness, commitment to the music and an unalterable ego that insists on showing the world ‘what you got’. In my case though, I was still looking for my music partner, Tim Buckley, who had been murdered years earlier at the height of his career. It had felt like my horse had been shot out from underneath me and I had hit the ground with a thud that I still feel. Drumming was a way to alleviate the pain. It was also a way to generate life force that would overcome other people’s traumas. I was starting to suspect there was more to this drumming then just feel good grooves. People were telling me that they were ‘getting better’.
We had been drumming for an hour, praying for the children in the war zones. They had a wireless mic passing around the audience members asking for specific prayer requests. I was enjoying this a great deal; it reminded me of my grandmother’s summer retreats to watch faith healers when I was eight years old. Only here, there was a good beat going. The group sitting with me were nuns of all ages. They all were hitting the groove. The video camera was sending it out to the hundreds of nuns in the dormitories across the campus. Sister Sharon told me to lead the prayer.
“I’m not an ordained minister.” I explained.
“We know that.” She nodded and smiled. “We’ve seen you work. Just go ahead…”
So I improvised. Drumming can enable that talent in people who are even so locked up that they can’t even make any kind of decisions; when the groove moves them, they feel courage.
“Let’s call in the Christ energy..” I said, looking around at the ecclesiastical crowd; no one threw tomatoes at me, so I continued. “Let’s call in the Mary energy” I posited. I prefer a balanced Yin/yang flow to the groove. They were still with me so I proceeded to let the spirit take me as we drummed. The prayer lasted for a while. I closed the group with the invocation that I have been using for years; a non aligned verse that doesn’t seem to offend anyone yet calls in the universal life energy. We did the ‘big ending’ and everyone clapped and smiled. It had been a success.
As we stood around basking in the afterglow of this inspiration, the Mother Superior entered the room with a quiet sureness. She was looking very composed, but something was on her mind; she locked her eyes on me and glided to a stop in front of me.
“We have been here for one hundred and fifty years. We built this Convent. There is an old tree in front of the Mother House that has been here since the beginning. It is cracked up the side, but it is still alive. It is our favorite tree. That tree caught fire while you were drumming.”
No one said a word. The nuns standing on both sides of me just stood there with some enigmatic understanding. I felt a deep shiver down in my bones. I looked at the nuns. They did not react. The Mother Superior continued in a calm, authoritative voice. Her hands were clasped in front of her.
“The grounds keepers are calling it spontaneous combustion.” She made an imperceptible shrug, “That happens…”
I was at a loss for words, so I just looked at her and hoped someone else would say something. I was sliding into a state of shock.
“Would you like to see our museum?” She offered.
“Yes. Very much so.” I was glad to learn more; this was a heavy group of women. They took me to the museum and I saw their heritage of justice and caring all across the globe. They were real trench fighters; not backing off when the going got hard. There were a lot of heroes in their ranks and a lot of ultimate sacrifices by the nuns in the killing fields. They had martyrs. But they were down to earth and non self righteous. They introduced me to their counselors who were dealing with women in the convent who could not go out into the public because of their pychological and physical abnormalities such as inoperable tumors on their faces and other conditions. They were all very sweet people.
“We would like to use your drumming therapy here.” Sister Sharon explained. I of course agree to come back and teach it. But I had to ask something.
“I am a man of…how shall I put this….pragmatic faith. Can I see the tree?”
The sister drove me around to the other side of the immaculately tended acres of grounds. The tree was a red oak, standing over two stories tall. It was a hundred and fifty years old. It was enveloped in white aromatic smoke. The grounds keepers were standing at a distance. One nun stood far back, watching. The Adrian Fire Department hook and ladder truck was just pulling away. They had placed a yellow hazard tape in a circle around the tree after dousing it with water and chopping a small hole in it to examine why it was burning. They found no apparent reason for the fire. The local newspaper photographer was taking pictures. He came over to me, all excited and full of energy.
“I heard the call on my CB and got up here before the fire truck. While you were drumming, there were flames coming off the top of the tree!”
I looked up. “It’s not burned.” I said kind of forlornly. This was looking uncomfortably mysterious.
“Yeah! Weird, isn’t it.” He waved at me. “Get in there. Lets get some pictures!”
I climbed over the yellow hazard tape and knelt in front of the smoking tree. “Wait til the winds get the smoke right!” He yelled, ‘Ten Commandments’ with Charlton Heston had nothing on this guy. I did not know how to feel about this.
Sister Sharon bought the drum I was using and arranged for me to come back. I returned four times. The City of Adrian cut the tree down to the ground and eliminated any sign of the tree’s existence. The only remaining evidence was the old sidewalk that had curved around the tree in a half circle. When I returned, there was a sprout coming up in the middle of that circle.