Ritual Drumming
(Selections From a Letter)

(This letter deals with the mechanics of drumming in rituals, whether for an audience, or as part of a magickal practice.-Luis)


Dear (deleted):


Following up on our brief conversation about ritual drumming:


This is not necessarily relevant since there are two different scenarios. One would be where one wants a maximum of biophysical, psychological and, according to generally accepted theory, spiritual phenoma. The other being limitied by a few practical cultural and/or business necessities.


The first is preferable but the second is usually the best most cultures have achieved. The following addresses the first case but is also applicable to the second.


New Orleans ritual rhythms are typically combined from several of the following origins:


1. Composed by the group.

2. From another New Orleans group.

3. From a New Orleans Afro/Cultural group.

4. From authentic Haitian ritual rhythms (fairly rare).


The combinations and sources not only illustrate the looseness of interpretation of the rhythms that can be used, but also indicates that such a mix can still be as effective as most "more authentic" rhythms used by other drumming cultures. New Orleans ritual drumming is just as "authentic" and, really, not much different in its sources than the drumming of other cultures.


However, cultural authenticity and tradition has never meant "best way". The most important "tradition" of ritual drumming is its effectiveness. This effectiveness is controlled by:


a. The base composition of the rhythms.

b. The lead drummer/s.

c. The biomechanical methods of performing the rhythms and

d. The general overall setting.


A. Base composition of effective rhythms: The most effective rhythms are combinations of the following:


1. It should stimulate dance. A person hearing it would instinctively respond by dancing. This requires content that is within a danceable speed and repetition to reenforce and dominate any potentially misleading contents (counter beats, etc.)


2. Structural and/or aesthetic depth. Individual patterns can be classified by their density, meter and horizontal structure. Having all patterns of similar structure in a composition would lack depth.


Having too many patterns of similar, but slightly different structure, would also produce a conflicting message.


A composition of well chosen different structures can appear to have a multidimensional depth that transcends ordinary experience, therefore aiding trance states.


However, as you increase a composition's dimensionality, you lose some metrical and aesthetic focus. To remedy this, you must choose to use few dimensions, but use "prime" patterns to increase the "spaciousness" of the chosen dimensions. Prime patterns are the most mathematically pure examples of a particular structure.


Aestheric depth in place of structural depth is an intense form that promotes and requires the listener to create depth internally. Such rhythms often appear plain and may be done on a single drum. However, the sparseness allows focus and control. Totality is created by the influence of the lead accompaniment. Skill at this is rarely seen (and therefore the use of this type of composition is rare).


3. Tempo and volume. The louder the sound is, the more it dominates the environment. The faster it is, the more intensely it dominates the motor cortex. Problems; the louder it is, the more reverberations it creates and the muddier it sounds. Too fast, and the thythm loses intelligibility and both the dancers and the drummers will become distracted by energy demands. These problems are remedied by varying tempos and volumes. However, one must be careful to not reduce the "spiritual" energy level when one reduces tempo and volume. The level can be plateaued by several different methods. Like: dividing the meter and/or aesthetic reference. Dividing the meter is also essential for the drummer biophysically.


B. The lead drummer/s. The most critical component of a drumming ritual is the dominant lead drummer/s. Almost all of the dancer/participant's environment is the drum rhythms. Even their eyes are unfocused or closed while dancing, so the visual environment is minimal. The sense of smell still functions normally, which is why incense is so often used.


For a priest to have any effect, he/she must do so spiritually or he/she must interrupt an individual dancer or the entire proceedings to get their attention. In most cultures, the priest has little function during the drumming. Since the drumming is usually the most intense spiritual experience of a religion, one might expect the lead drummer to be the highest priest and, occasionally, this is true. However, because the drumming is so spiritually dominating, a lead drummer's mind usually becomes so conditioned that expressions of spirituality in other forms just do not bring him/her anywhere near the same level. (The high priest has other functions in a religion, such as healing, non-drum ritual, etc.)


Beyond adding his own aesthetic message to the rhythms, a lead drummer:


Influences all the other drummers. Senses and plays within the total rhythmic and psycho/spiritual environment created by the combination of all of the rhythms and all emotional / spiritual / phenomenological emanations of the environment. Is the dominant influence on the total spiritual environment.


(Also note that a priest can also influence an environment while this is occurring. This influence becomes part of the lead drummer's environment. It usually just nudges the environment in some required direction, causes no disruption and is accepted by the lead drummer as the normal content of the environment. -Luis)


When the lead drummer is very proficient at his work, his/her influence is great. This proficiency comes from a combination of skills.


a. Mastery of the culture's ritual rhythms, or, even better, mastery of ritual rhythm itself. The second requires knowledge of all aesthetic structures and logics that can be used and knowledge of all vertical and horizontal "architectural" micro- and macro-structures that result from combining rhythms.


b. Ability to "sense", "exist", and "operate" within the total psycho/spiritual environment. If one only senses the drummers to the immediate right and left, one could not be said to be at one with the entire environment. If one does not sense or feel the dancers, you would not be as one with them.


The area of sense should extend to just outside the dancers and drummers and form a dome shape over them, usually to a height of several feet above the dancers near the center. This area above the dancers contains swirling densities of convection currents and also seems to contain other energetic constructs. Some feel these constructs are manifestations of spirits. The area would normally be limited by the presence of walls or low ceilings.


c. Ability to manipulate the things in the sensed area. Beyond the normal influencing of dancers and drummers, it is also possible to manipulate the entire shape of the area. The goal is to coalesce the convection currents and spiritual energies into a whirlwind type vortex. This concentrated structure somehow increases the overall energy content of the area and is about as "high" as a drum ritual can get. Beyond this, there are the rumors of astrophysical manifestations, earthquakes, ascensions into heaven, etc. (Note: areas can be deliberately "punctured", disturbed or disrupted by witch doctors, spiritists, etc. However, they can not completely control the environment without having the attention of the drummers and the dancers.)


C. Biomechanics of performance. Using the most efficient ways of producing rhythms. Some cultures are held back in their effectiveness by their lack of understanding of how to drum efficiently. The (deleted) lead drummers are an example. They've become trapped into beat keeping with their left hand and playing the lead only with their right. Basically, the resultant rhythms are what you would expect from a one handed drummer. Half the energy and less than half the variety and flexibility. (The beat is already being played by the supporting drummers, so it isn't necessary.)


D. The general overall setting. Food, incense, good people, etc.


Jim's Notes: A Course in Drumming