Drums: The Rhythm of Life

Everything from the human body to the limits of outer space beats to the same rhythm of life.
By S. Brent Plate
July 2014
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Drums are the most essential and widespread instrument in the history of human culture; its beating is the rhythm of life.
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Religion scholar S. Brent Plate explores how everyday objects are intricately connected to spirituality in A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects (Beacon Press, 2014). Plate analyzes the deep-rooted similarities in how these objects, connected to the five senses, have been used among different religions, and across history. The following excerpt focuses on sound by taking a close look at drums and the rhythm they create in life.

Drums: The Rhythm of Life

The drums were still beating, persistent and
unchanging. Their sound was no longer a separate
thing from the living village. It was like the pulsation of
its heart. It throbbed in the air, in the sunshine, and even
in the trees and filled the village with excitement.
— from Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

The heart is a drum. Its beating is the rhythm of life. Its pulsing provides memories stretching back to our embryonic state: sounds that shaped and soothed us before seeing or speaking. In the womb we are woven into a sensual soundscape that persists deep within matured bodies, surfacing on occasion to connect us to other beings, to the world around, to the flow of life’s cosmic dances. Constant, steady tempos indicate a good life; erratic, rushing rhythms a cause for concern. No pulse indicates an end. To be is to beat.

Charles Darwin surmised that the beats, tones, and cadences of music preceded language on an evolutionary scale and brought beings together: “The suspicion does not appear improbable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females, or both sexes, before they had acquired the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm.” Birds do it. Bees do it. Fact is, Homo sapiens does it too; prancing and preening, and dancing and singing, we supply rhythms and melodies and harmonies that bring us closer. We make music for attraction, to draw others to us, which paradoxically gets us beyond ourselves, losing ourselves in the process, if only to find something of our true selves remade. The “profound meaning of music and its essential aim,” composer and music theorist Igor Stravinsky says, “is to promote a communion, a union of man with his fellow man and with the Supreme Being.”  By all means, “It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing,” as the song goes.

Even on a vast cosmic scale—which we tend to think about in primarily visual terms, seen through telescopes—the universe itself beats. Astrophysicist Janna Levin has been working on documenting the sounds of space, particularly black holes. As she puts it, outer space wobbles and rings out; black holes, those scientific wonders of curved space and sucked-up light, pound and pulse. And that primary mythical metaphor of the beginnings of it all, the big bang, is nothing if not percussive. We are part of a vibrating, rumbling galaxy that we cannot always consciously hear, but that undergirds our comings and goings nonetheless. 

Perhaps this is why the drum is one of the most essential and widespread musical instruments in the history of human cultures. Drumbeats knit us into the cosmic fabric of the universe, into the social fabric of families and lovers, and into the rich textures of religious traditions. The sound of the drum reaches our eardrums, sonic percussions that draw people together in space just as it pulsates in time, cocreating melody, harmony, rhythm, and tone. The drum measures time, providing a sonic backbone for the jazz trumpeter and sutra-reciting monk alike. But it is not merely a metronome, some constant presence relegated to the background to help us keep on the path. Across religious traditions, drums invoke the gods, protect people, create rain, unite communities, and bring us to the point of ecstasy. They also conjure division and destruction, stir wrath, and start war. Drums can be living beings themselves, with or without their sound, and so one persistent question is whether it is the object itself (the drum) or the object that is produced (the sound) that is most central.

Drums in Religious Traditions

Rhythm is deeply rooted in human bodies, and thus in consciousness itself. Which may go some way to understanding why drums figure prominently among the creation stories of peoples around the world. Drums are divine gifts, and the object itself possesses powers, as does the sound produced from it. The drum and the beat are intimately intertwined, and as the drumbeat reaches the human body, the body begins to move, dancing, grooving, tapping, praising.

Of the thousands of iconic images from South Asia, one of the best known is Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance. In these typically bronze forms, the dancing deva is caught midjig, one leg down trouncing the demon of ignorance, the other slightly crossed over and suspended midair; his four arms displaying gestures (mudras) of blessings. In one hand he holds a consuming flame. His matted locks sprawl outward, catching the Ganges River within the weaves. Surrounding the great god is a circle of fire, spinning as if Shiva is dancing across a cosmic treadmill, revolving the universe through his two steps. One step and the world is created, the next it is destroyed, and so on and so on, as another of his hands holds a small, hourglass-shaped damaru that carries the cadenced cycles of death and rebirth. For devotees of Shiva, this drum makes the sound from which all things come, setting the stage for the rhythmic dance that maintains our existence in a tensed balance. Sounds of creation in one hand and fires of destruction in another: the Dance of Bliss. A dance creative and destructive, erotic and spiritual, all at once.

In the creation story of the Dogon of present day Mali, the great god Amma creates the earth and sky, spirits and animals, and ultimately people. To aid in human work, Amma sends a blacksmith down to earth (divine blacksmiths are prevalent in many of these stories, because the sparks from their anvils can be seen during thunderstorms on earth). At one point a terrible drought threatens life, and so the blacksmith beats his anvil, as does a leather worker who made and plays a drum. Pleased by the percussion, Amma releases the rains.

Among the Mataco people of Argentina, the story is told of a great cosmic fire that destroyed the world. Out of the ashes fly two birdlike creatures, Icanchu and Chuña. Icanchu seeks a place to create a homeland and comes across a burned-down tree. He bangs on the remaining stump like a drum, chants, and dances all through the night. When the next day dawns a small shoot has sprung up from the charcoaled drum. The shoot becomes the first tree of the re-creation, the cosmic center of the world, and the birth of life for the new world.

In Chinese Taoist stories, the Jade Emperor—the sky god—rules over a number of lesser gods who interact with human life. One time one of these lesser gods, the rain god, abandoned his duties, leaving the land in drought. Animals and people died. So toad, fox, bear, and tiger went to the heavens to ask for rain. The gates of the heavens were closed, so toad beat a drum, which only annoyed the Jade Emperor, who then sent his forces against him. Somehow toad overpowered them, causing the king to admit toad into the palace and listen to his grievances. Toad asked for rain, and got it, and since then has been commissioned to be the one who announces the coming rains with his thunderous drums.

At the northeastern edges of Siberia, the Koryak share mythologies in common with Native American peoples along the Pacific Coast of North America. The supreme being in the Koryak tradition has an assistant named Big Raven, who is the first man and the ancestor of the people, serving to establish harmony in the universe. As such Big Raven has given gifts to humans to help them along in their humanly travails. Among the gifts are reindeer, light, instructions on how to hunt, ritual directions, and a drum. In one story, rain has not come to earth yet. It arrives only when another deity named Universe attaches his consort’s vulva to a drum and beats it with his penis until liquid squirts out and onto the earth as rain. The rains don’t stop—godly stamina being what it is—floods threaten life, and so Big Raven and his son fly to the heavens, cause Universe and his wife to fall asleep, and dry out their genitals by a fire so that the drum beating (rain making) will cease.

Precipitation and percussion are matters of life and death. As the gods bang their booming drums, rains beat down to create fertile fields. Without rain we get fires, drought, and death. Too much and we get floods, and death. That contemporary modern people often believe the religious symbolism of water (as read about in scriptures or practiced in rituals like baptism or mikveh immersions) is simply a pleasant “cleansing” substance indicates something of our distance from nature. Throughout mythologies around the world, water erupts as a powerful, chaotic force that sustains just as it may destroy. Entire rivers, like the Ganges or Yamuna, are themselves deities with sovereign authority, or like Hapi, the ancient god of the Nile who caused the flooding that ultimately made the banks fertile. We have to know how to be in synch with water. We’ve got to get our rhythms right to call down the correct amount of rain; Goldilocks-like, it cannot be too much or too little, but just right, the proper pulse.

Sex, violence, and rock and roll. They are all there, in the beginning. Such is the stuff of mythology. Joseph Campbell once suggested “mythology is the womb of mankind’s initiation to life and death.” Among the deep truths of these ancient stories, humans, deities, and animals beat drums, and through this beating cause supernatural action, changing the course of worldly events and giving humans a tempo with which to walk the earth. The great violinist Yehudi Menuhin similarly evokes such a profound mythological creation when he suggests, “Music creates order out of chaos; for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent.” Bound to the creation and maintenance of the religious worlds in which we live, drums play a vital role in the existence of people. Their sounds form a sonic structure within which our bodies collectively subside.


Excerpted from A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses by S. Brent Plate. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.


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