Drumming and Spirituality

     I’m going to deviate from my normal article this month. Instead, I’m sending out an email exchange I had with one of my colleagues, Matt Meyer. All of you (we) atheists and agnostics will find interesting ideas within, so don’t discount it as propaganda until you’ve read it. If you disagree (and I hope you do) feel free to email me a response and I’ll post it up on the site.


     "The Message of Music" is a sermon that was written by Matt Meyer to be given at a Unitarian Universalist church on a Sunday morning in February. Matt is a former student of Don Skoog and a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. He has studied abroad in Cuba, Ghana and Central America and currently lives as a drummer, music educator, and worship leader in Boston, MA.
     Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion that encourages each member of the congregation to develop their own theology, based on their individual life experiences, as well as drawing wisdom from fellow spiritual seekers and the worlds religions. It encourages people to ask questions, continually seek new ideas and spiritual practices, and share their experiences with each other, so that everyone may learn from each other and be more purposeful in their lives.

The Message of Music

     While studying drumming in Ghana this past summer, I was interested to learn that we would be spending a week studying the northern Dagara music right outside of Accra, Ghana's capitol, which sits on the southern coast of the country. Why not study Northern music in the north, I thought? For one, our teacher had his set up his studio in the South, nearer to the capitol, but there was another, more political reason as well.
     It seems that several years ago a king in the Northern region was assassinated, and there has since been a struggle between two families competing for rulership of the region. Civil war hasn't quite broken out, not yet at least. And its not terribly dangerous to hang out in the north either. So again, why were we confined to the south? Well, for us, the reason was not political, but rather musical. Drumming had been banned in the North. You see, drummers in that region use talking drums which, although they serve many purposes, can also be used to insult your enemies with more power than words ever could. Compared to shouting at someone, the drums are more articulate, reach deeper into a person's being and past and, as you've heard today, they are louder and can be heard quite far away. Also, because drummers tell the history of their people, teaching the history from one side or another can give legitimacy to one group, over another and fuel rivalries. Drumming had been banned in order to cool tempers and prevent violence.
So, I've been wondering, Is it true that drumming can be more articulate than words? Are people in other parts of the world using drumming and music to tell their stories in a way that can't be done by speech alone.
     I think they are.
     While meditating on this, I was listening to a Paul Simon album, when a line of his caught my attention. “Some stories are magical, meant to be sung. Songs from the mouth of the river, when the world was young. Some stories are magical, and are meant to be sung.” But, being a UU, this brought up more questions than answers for me.
     Which stories are so magical that they are put to music? When is music used as a device for storytelling? What's the purpose of storytelling? And to get really broad here, What is the message of music?
     Religion was the first place I looked. The religions of the world, and ours specifically are saturated in storytelling.
     I will always remember my first year at a Unitarian Universalist camp. One morning, one of our counselors shared with all us, the story of his recovery from alcoholism. I imagine it was a hard story to share, but he did it because, he said, our stories are the most powerful and meaningful gifts that we can share with one another. I didn't really understand what that meant, for a very long time. But as I look back on those subsequent years of spiritual development I realize that hearing the stories of others, and understanding the struggle and advances in the lives of my friends and community members is, more than anything else, what has helped me to come to an understanding of my own life, and what role I play in it.
     One of the best examples of storytelling that I see in my daily life is the five minutes of sharing our joys and concerns with one another every sunday at church. I love this part of our service. Not because every member of every congregation is a particularly eloquent speaker. I certainly don't know every person that steps to the front of the congregation, even at my home church. But there is something very powerful in the sharing of our stories with one another. It is the most democratic part of our service and, I think, the most Unitarian Universalist part of the service. It is our experiences, our trials and success, that make us human, and it is the sharing of those stories with one another that makes us a spiritual community.
     When people ask me to explain this unusual religion of mine, after I go through all this stuff about no-one being able to hand you the answers to life, every individual figuring things out for themselves, there always comes the inevitable question. So what then, could you possibly do on sunday morning at church? Can’t you be an individual at home, sleeping in late?
     Although I grew up UU, for a long time I just didn't know the answer to that. What do we do on Sunday's? What does the minister talk about? But a few years ago the answer came to me. We share the struggles and the discoveries of our journeys, with each other. Every week I choose not to sleep in, because I might find someone who wants to share an idea that just might make sense to me too.
     But wait, what about the music? In Santeria, the prominent religion in Cuba, the drums actually say the names of the Orishas, or gods, while someone sings over them. Sometimes the singer is praising the gods, and sometimes mocking them, in order to bring them down into the bodies of those present in the ceremony.
     Every day, Millions of Muslims all over the world recite and chant verses and whole chapters of the Koran by memory, while standing with their hands on their chest.
     In Judaism, the chanting of the Torah is a tradition that dates back to the era of the first temple, over twenty-five-hundred years ago. Some think the Torah is chanted so as to be easier for children to learn, thus helping to preserve the accuracy of the scriptures through the generations. Consistency in these most sacred of texts is so important that a specific person, called a Gabai, is appointed to stand next to the Torah and correct any mistakes in the sound and pronunciation of the words as recited by the leader.
     But the messages of music, certainly are not restricted to holy settings alone. On a journey to discover the messages in music, there are many places to begin searching for meaning. To turn on the TV or radio, it would quickly become obvious that the purpose of music is to show women as objects to be attained by men as symbol of status.
     A better example, I think, would be found by searching the history of social movements seeking justice. The descendants of those Ghanians and their talking drums would sing spirituals while working as enslaved people in this country. Because those drums, which were such powerful tools of communication were banned in this country, they would sing in code. “Wade in the Water” was a directive to follow rivers while making your escape, so that the dogs would not be able to track you. “Follow the Drinking Gourd” was gave the direction of which way to run to get to freedom.
     In 1988, during the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, Miriam Makeba, one of the country's finest musicians said this of music's role in the struggle for justice. “In my home, from which I have been exiled for almost thirty years now, my people are separated by the evil laws of apartheid from an full and free life. In our struggles, songs are not simply entertainment for us. They are the way we communicate. The press, radio and TV are all censored by the government. We cannot believe what they say. So we make up the songs to tell us about events. Let something happen, and the next day a song will be written about it.”
     The traveling bards of New England and Ireland fulfilled similar roles for their people. Before newspapers or TV, they were responsible for turning the latest news of the day into a song and bringing it from town to town, often with diplomatic immunity from political conflicts. Their function was not only that of a newspaper. As far as I can tell, they were the centers of culture in their time. Carrying on the stories of their people from one generation to another. The story of King Arthur, was passed from bard to bard for hundreds of years before it was ever put into book form.
     This tradition was carried over to the new world and is quite visible in the popular songs of the revolutionary war. There were songs that told the story of the Boston tea party and songs that mocked the british losses. “Yankee Doodle” was originally played as a british marching song, but was appropriated by the rebels, who would then play the song at British surrender ceremonies sort of throw it in their face, which became a source of pride for the bourgeoning country.
     New England's folk tradition permeated many aspects of our culture. The rhythm of Sea chanteys brought speed and efficiency to the crew of our boats. Other songs related the stories of marriage, farming, courting new lovers, and even finding work in the lumber yards of Maine. There is even a tradition, also dating back to England, of the infamous murder ballads, that told the stories of some of the more interesting and crimes committed in the community over the years.
     But what of our time? What about our country, in this century? Is there any music around, whose message is not consumerism, heterosexism, or the oppression of women, like we find on almost every radio and tv station? I'll admit, you have to look, or I should listen, for a moment, to find it, but let me give you some of my favorite examples.
Arlo Guthrie, it seems, one day wanted to let people know that he opposed the draft. Do you think He went to a protest or made a speech, or wrote to his congressman? No, he wrote a song. Well, maybe I should say he wrote a story with some musical accompaniment. It's called “Alice's Restaurant.” It's about half an hour long, it goes in circles, has countless tangents, and takes for ever to get to the point, and it's absolutely brilliant. It even includes complete instructions for building an antiwar movement.
     So, back to my original questions. Is this then, the message of music? How to protest the draft? How to end apartheid? The story of King Arthur. How to insult your neighbors grandparents using a drum and only a drum?
     No, I don't quite think so. Music is used for so many purposes in every culture in and in every time. It is sometimes sacred and sometimes secular. It is sometimes for storytelling and sometimes without words. With so many functions, is it even possible that music can have a message? Contrary to all this evidence, I’m going to argue, Yes. Not just because my sermon depends on it.
     Have you ever felt a beat to a song that was so powerful, your body began to dance, or at least tap a bit, without you having given yourself permission to do so? Have you ever heard a song so beautiful that it seemed to reach out a grab something deep inside your gut, that you didn't even know was there? Perhaps it moved you in a place so deep and universal, that an attempt to explain it in words left you silent and puzzled.
     There are times when a rhythm or a melody seem so natural and make so much sense to me, that I know the creator of that piece has a little bit of me inside and a little of them inside me, in order to have expressed my own experience so eloquently.
     This, I believe, is the message of music. That it can sometimes, if only for a moment, bring us to a place where we know that we are not alone in our experience of this world. A place where the differences between us fade to nothing. Where the separation between inner and outer fades as well. There are times when this music runs so deep and its inspiration so large, that no human hand could have created it. At best, they can only provide a pathway, a medium, for this inspiration to come to us from a place that is indeed larger than you or I. A place that is sacred.
     My spiritual friends, the message of music is not a means of escape from this world and it is not the soothing of broken hearts or the celebration of love found. The message of music is that we are connected to each other and every other living thing on this planet. The message of music is a call to action. It is first, a realization of our reliance on one another for not just love or companionship, but indeed, for survival. And it is second, a call to radically change the way we act towards one another.
     Our spirituality as UU's is not a spirituality of interdependence and connectedness on Sunday mornings from 10:30-11:30am. It is a knowledge in our hearts that the trees cut down to produce our mail order catalogues means less air for you, me, and everyone else on this planet. Our spirituality is not a spirituality of just caring for those who are closest to us when they are sick. It is acknowledgment that the clothes we wear were made by people who have no system of health care in place to protect them from the dangerous work conditions that our own dollars demand.
     To me, Unitarian Universalism is a spirituality of purposeful living. It is the knowledge that neutrality is myth in this world of political tides and turmoil. Your life has serious consequences in the lives of coffee farmers, clothing makers, union workers, social workers, diamond miners, forest destroyers, physicians and politicians, storytellers, and peacemakers in every part of the world, either by your action . . . or by your inaction. When there are systems of oppression that wish for you to not speak out against them, silence can be deafening in it's message.
     I believe there is music in the way we talk to each other. I believe there is divinity in our relations with one another and in the stories we share. I believe in the interdependent web of which everyone of us is a part. And I believe that the more stories we do share with one another and the more actions we take to recognize our place in that web, the more whole we become, as individuals and as a community.
     May it Be So.

Don’s Critique

     My problem with sermons is that they generally take an anecdote from daily life and analogize the meaning into a moral lesson. In your case, you find a personal spirituality in drumming and from that you draw a larger agenda which reflects both your religious beliefs and your political ideology. While I find it hard to dispute your message (more people should translate their beliefs into political action), the act of connecting a story to a moral by way of an analogy almost always rings falsely for me, even if I agree with the premise. It’s based on the assumption that the congregation shares those same values and will hear the message sympathetically, uncritically.
     A fundamentalist Muslim, a conservative Christian, or a Ghanian would probably draw a very different conclusion from the story of the Dagara drums. People see meaning in light of their beliefs––different beliefs, different meaning. I see the power of music as a neurological issue. Its effect on the mind and spirit are profound, but that power can be, and is, used to convey any and every message: antiwar or support our troops, racial tolerance or white supremacy, respect for women or dork that whore! Just because you or I see a certain meaning in a story doesn’t mean that others will. A conservative minister might draw a completely different moral from the story and truly know that God feels the same way because people believe what they want to believe. Your sermon will make people feel good if they agree with you or uncomfortable if they don’t, but it’s unlikely to change their views because the underlying analogy is an assumption, supported by emotion rather than reason. Is your viewpoint valid for others? That depends on from where they’re viewing that viewpoint.
     For me, it’s a long stretch from drumming spirituality to left-wing politics. Even though I agree with you, I doubt that your logic would sway anyone who didn’t. And I think it’s way more important to engage in dialogue with those who differ from me than to preach to the political choir. If you could present your thesis based on fact rather than analogy, and present it in such a way that those who feel differently might see the value in it, you would do more to bridge the gap between us and those who disagree.
     What do you think?

Matt’s Response

     It is the goal of this sermon to share my experiences with music and the wisdom and inspiration I have gained from my life and education as a musician. I recognize that every individual draws something different from their experiences with music, just as every individual draws something different from their experience as a human being. It is not my intention to tell anyone what is right or wrong or what to do with their life, or even what music means to them. I do hope that the story of my own inspiration from music will speak to something inside of those who hear or read the message of my writings, and inspire them to seek more peace and justice in their own lives, through a connection with music.
     Because Unitarian Universalists don't use one book or one prophet as the source of all our spiritual wisdom, we all draw on our own experiences to seek an a better understanding of what it means to be human. Everything I know about life or death comes only from what I've learned up until now in this lifetime, and my views of the divine, of relationships, and of music will inevitably change as I learn more about myself and others over the course of time.
     This piece was written for a very specific group of people at a specific time; A Unitarian Universalist congregation, at worship on a Sunday morning. Although some might say I am preaching to the choir, I would argue that that is the job of preachers, and the importance of organizing, rather than preaching to, the choir is not to be understated. I believe that all people, religious or not, have the potential to ever more active and purposeful in their own lives, and that music is a reminder of that potential––of what could be.