Different Drummer Book, Excerpt #5

“Are you talking about spirits here?” A woman asked incredulously from the back of the room. 

I was in New Orleans giving a talk at the Autism Society of Louisiana’s annual conference. My session was standing room only. Several hundred people were waiting for me to answer this challenging question.

“Historically, yes,” I said, pausing to let my audience take this in. “But the language used then was very different than what we use now. We know so much more about human behavior and today we have an entire lexicon of terms for these conditions. We have no need to view aberrant behavior as having a spiritual cause.” 

Here I was in the heart of the bible belt, in the largest American city where vestiges of the African religious diaspora mingle with the conservative values and deep religiosity of the south. To top it off, New Orleans is a music town, lying at the crossroads of spiritual and secular music.

Blues, gospel and jazz, music that New Orleans is know for, each developed out of African spiritual traditions that blended with Catholicism to form musical styles that would eventually change the way we experience music in the West. Rock, pop, soul, R&B, hip-hop, rap, all owe a debt to the spirituals sung by the slaves as they toiled on the fields of a new America. 

The Africans that were brought to the new world had long and deep spiritual traditions that consisted of an intricate musical landscape. Like with many cultures around the world, music was tied closely with spiritual and religious practices. Most every religion and spiritual practice around the world has employed music to express and deepen one’s faith.

For example, early Christian carvings, sculptures and paintings regularly show angels playing harps or drums, hymns are sung at nearly every service, and music has become an important addition to a church’s identity. Even my Midwestern, conservative Lutheran church had a band that played contemporary Christian music to praise and honor God. Other Christian faiths such as Baptist and Evangelical, often put more emphasis on praise with music than my highly conservative Lutheran upbringing. In fact, today the super-churches often spend enormous sums of money on their musical stages, equipment, and musicians. 

Music touches us deeply and allows us to express ourselves, so it makes sense that it would be part of our connection with the sacred. However, many of us in the West are suspicious of music that feels too tribal. And nothing sounds as tribal as a beating drum. And it’s this association with tribalism and drumming that this woman spoke to. Her visceral response was that of fear. 

Given the Hollywood images of tribal drumming associated with voodoo and the prevalence of voodoo in the consciousness of most New Orleanians, it made perfect sense. And because of this I came prepared to answer her question.

I should say that this woman’s question also spoke directly to my own concerns when I studied the traditions and developed my techniques. And it wasn’t the first time I was confronted with others’ suspicions of the drumming, especially when it was also connected to the sacred and spirits.

Several years before, when I was first exploring using drumming for calm, I worked with a 4-year-old girl with a condition called, agenesis of the corpus callosum (ACC). This rare condition, occurring in roughly one out of thousand people, is where the bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain doesn’t develop. 

This child, Lily, had developmental delays, anxiety, and sleep problems, not unlike other kids that I played for on the autism spectrum. Due to my success with Stacey, I was asked if I could help Lily. She was a very anxious child, tantrumming often, especially when asked to transition from one environment or activity to another. She also had a very difficult time getting to sleep and woke often at night. I had seen that I could help calm and also suspected that, by extension, may be able to help with her sleep.

I played live for Lily in the same manner I had with Stacey and, like with Stacey, observed Lily calm down as I played. Her parents and I were encouraged so I made a tape of rhythms that they could play when she was anxious and when she went to bed. Lily fell asleep while the drumming tape played the first night and by the end of the second week she was sleeping through the night most nights.

But then I ran into a glitch.