What is a Drum Circle?
Drum circles seem to be as old as our species. Nearly every culture likes to get together to play music and the most common instrument we have is percussion. We just like to beat on things. To take a look at the oldest drum circles on the planet we can look to Africa where the tradition of the drum circle goes back generations. Some estimate it to thousands of years. There are rhythms for nearly every occasion and must be played “just so” or is would be considered sacrilege or the very least an insult. These traditions should taken very seriously and should be respected with the same honor as any ancient religious practice. Getting involved with them takes time and knowing the right people, practicing the rites, taking vows of secrecy and honoring those who have gone before us.
In the USA, there spun out of a very different way of drumming; a new wave developed in the Beat Generation and passed into the hands of the Hippies. The roots of which has borrowed rhythms handed to us by the Afro-Americans rhythm patters, western Classical traditions and many others. During the 1960 the Hippies went with a free-style of drumming, relying on bongos and congas and eventually using ashikos and djembes. Factions into the Rainbow movement adopted drumming and picked up by the Pagan movement using it for a more liturgical purpose. Most drummers tended to “let the drum do the talking” and really didn’t speak to purpose and “right vs. wrong” styles; a very “free-style” sprang out of these circles only to clash and melt as the various ideas were introduced.
What I will be addressing in this article is the “free-style” sort rather than the “classical” of ancient lands and times. Most pagan drum circles are filled with new drummers and a scattering of the old hippies who have been around the block a few times. More recently the Yurba and Ifa influence has introduced a more strict forms to the Pagan approach, I will address this at another time.
Why Drum Circles for Pagans?
Drumming for Pagans is a mixture of old and new. While pagans seem to have always been drumming, in the current practices we are only getting started. Drum circles combine efforts to straighten community and work out magickal issues. This combination of community activity and religious practice helps to pull together their resources to develop a strong society.
Drumming helps in communication and unity. When individuates are introduced into the Drum Circle, a different way of thing is introduced. We have an opportunity to listen to each other and work together to form a single rhythm with variance and still hold together. It can promote collaboration in an art form which the entire circle can contribute. One may discover the use of a drum circle to open a counsel session of a group to help develop better communication before discussing sensitive issues.
In ritual, drumming helps build energy within a group for healing and other uses. It can be used for grounding excess power after a rite. Drumming also is excellent in celebrations at festivals and small gatherings.
Drum circles are also great for teaching children (and adults) how to listen to others and cooperate with each other.
My first Drum
In the past I have often suggested people shop for a drums in decor shops and rebuild them, but these days there are a lot of drum makers in Community who make their living at it. Find one local to you or perhaps find one at Festival or Gathering and consider what fits your needs. By purchasing a drum from in Community helps build community. (I cannot say enough about supporting your Pagan artist and musician. Many of them have devoted the majority of their time to serve the community.) Many of them can rebuild your drum, put on a new head (they do break) or you can upgrade. I found having a couple of drums on hand for various purposes is helpful. Also having shakers and other small sound makes while you sit out a while is fun and adds an interesting feel and texture to the sound of the circle.
Once you find a drum, be sure to look up sources on-line for technique: the idea is to make sound, not hurt your hands. Many start out beating the drum as hard as one can only to bruise their hands. Finding a local teacher who can help you with technique is the optimum.
If you are having trouble playing in sync with other, try putting on your head phones and going for a walk, stepping in time with the music or (if you are able) dancing to music in the privacy of your living room. The idea is to get used to moving with the beat: this will translate into good drumming.
Practicing at home by playing along with recordings can help in learning rhythms. Sometimes simply playing along with the radio or a favorite song can ease you into synchronizing with others. Don’t over do it. Ones’ hands can be damaged if you are hitting to hard.
My first Drum Circle
The first step would be to seek out a local drum circle and see what they are doing. Always ask the facilitator what the “rules” are. Just as one must know the parameters of a game, so too a drum circle typically operates with a series of “rules” to make the experience a healthy one. Too many “rules” can cause a strained experience, too few and you will have chaos. Many circles have favorite rhythms to play and tend to have procedures as to how to enter the circle, which way the dances move (clockwise or not) whether smoking and drinking is permitted (alcohol) whether one can simply approach a drummer when drumming, which drum one can borrow and so on. Joining a circle and knowing the fellow drummers is helpful in one’s development.
I would always recommend sitting through a circle and listening to hear what they are doing. Watching the community as to how they
interact and so forth. If you wish to drum and you already know how, bringing a drum or seeing who will lend one is a good option (always ask for permission). Start drumming with them by playing the down beat ~(see figure one)~. This is typically found at the first beat in a measure, the strongest one being played. Most Drum circles in the West use a 4/4 or ¾ rhythm pattern. The down beat is the first one. The more advanced drummers always appreciate beginners accenting that beat as it will help them keep track as to where they are.
If you are more experienced and start to add rhythms, try to keep in the cycles without disrupting what is being done. By adding 7/8 pattern over the top of a ¾ can cause confusion to the beginners and is typically a practice for more advanced drum circles. Think of the circle in conversation and not to “change the subject” at random times. Many circles consider it rude to be disruptive and you may even be asked to sit it out or leave.
If you are looking for more advanced drumming, start one with others at your ability. This is fine and encouraged. Public drum circles are filled with beginners and it is better to keep it simple so that everyone can participate. If you start doing more advanced drumming in such a scenario, be watchful to see if others can follow your lead. If you get too complicated and people drop out, this is counter productive and you will not be helping the community circle.
Larger circles that may be found in camp outs, festivals and so on, typically the circle moves in three shifts, each one becomes more advanced. Most of the time the more seasoned drummers will sit out the beginning of a drum circle and rest, waiting for more advanced drumming in the wee hours. Take your time and don’t force the issue.
Forming your own Drum Circle
If for some reason you cannot find a local drum circle you can start your own. Without direct experience One may be “flying blind” by the attempt. Remember the first ones were exactly like this: not knowing what to do so “let’s make it up”. This is fine. Try it. The experience itself is worth the attempt. If you can fine a local drummer to drop in and help out, it may turn into a “workshop” which is also fine. Typically such experiences develop into a drum circle. If all else fails, get a friend and drum together. Play beats from favorite songs and be prepared to laugh. I have found this is a good sign for a healthy experience. More is better and the second circle with be better than the first. Keep drumming: you’ll get the hang of it.
The Heart Beat Rhythm
This is a favorite at Pagan Drum Circles, sometimes referred to as the Gia Rhythm. The Time signature is 4/4 (meaning there are four beats to the measure and the quarter note gets one beat). Each measure (I have placed three measures in this illustration) starts with the down beat and followed by a second beat then two “beats” are silent. This produces a rhythm like a heart beat. At the end of the sequence is a repeat sign meaning you return to the beginning and do it again.
The Heart Beat Rhythm is typically used to open circles because it is the easiest to follow. Many attribute meanings to this rhythm, depending on the circle.
About the Author:
Kirk McLaren has taught Piano (on and off) since 1976, founded Amulets by Merlin in 1986, assisted in founding: Drums of Thuatha in the 1990s and occasionally drums at the Mystic Moon Drum Circle in Norfolk Virginia. More information may be found at his FaceBook profile: Kirk McLaren 1 or at Amulets by Merlin.
Editor’s note: In this time of social distancing, share pictures of your drum circles in the comments below. It will be encouraging to others to have a feeling for what drum circles can look like as well as a form of connecting with others. Enjoy and share your pictures below!
Also, for those who are homeschooling, here is a link to beginner drumming lessons on YouTube.