A few weeks ago, I lost a dear, beloved friend, Brindle, who spent over 30 years playing African Diasporic music, and was one of the most powerful women drummers I know. Brindle was the lead percussionist in Pele Juju. Shortly after her passing, she was honored at a drum and dance gathering. When I first arrived, I felt so overwhelmed with grief that I wasn’t sure I could even drum. For her sake, I found the courage to enter the building. As I began to play a traditional life celebration rhythm, Lamban, I felt its healing energy slowly creep up my arms, and into my body. My heart center was activated and my own inner rhythmic life-force brought me completely present with a deep gratitude that I was alive in that moment. A joy filled me for all the special moments Brindle and I shared over 12 years of friendship.
And as I drummed, I heard my mentor and friend, Jules Stept’s words to me, "grief is only part of the truth of what is happening now. Stay true to your feelings, and remember to come back to what is going well, what is true in you right now, and what you are grateful for." As I reflected on these words, my experiences with Brindle, my activation on the land and conversations with beloveds, I realized that when we move through grief and loss through drumming ceremonies it bring us into aliveness and gratitude. As we know, drumming has always been a sustainable form of expression and vibration, and so we can use it a as vehicle to energetically aid us in the process of letting go—a job, loss of home, loss of relationships, death of a loved one, outmoded patterns or any significant loss that is accompanied by grief.
In Indigenous African and Indian pantheons, specific rhythmic vibrations (based in foundational codes or beats), chants, colors, foods, costumery, and theatrics, invoke particular energies that respond directly to our bodies’ resonance, allowing both individual and collective release and upliftment. As we grieve losses, I believe it is important to be intentional, utilizing these primal elemental beats that can energetically re-align the body-spirit connection, and open our heart center, creating a renewed feeling of joy and appreciation of life.
Ceremony to Release Grief
As in all rituals, there is a process.
1. Become present of your surroundings, and carve out a space to have this sacred ceremony. You may bring in photos that symbolize the loss as well as what your intentions and offering at this time. Flowers, and other sacred totems displayed on a clean altar cloth will give you a feeling of specialness.
2. Bring your desired drum(s) be it a conga, djembe, dunun, ashiko, tambour, ngoma, a pot, a bucket (whatever you have really that can provide a percussive sound).
3. Light a candle to ignite the pathway into seeing what is here with us now that we are seeking and to the journey ahead.
4. Pour libations (purified water) in honor of the drumming ancestor lineages as well as our own and thank them for their divine presence, affirming the miracle of life, birth, and new beginnings in our lives now.
5. Invoke and call upon the spirit of the ancestors that you honored, acknowledge the loss and thank its presence, and then the intention that you wish to offer with your drumming in this ceremony.
6. Take a few deep breaths, then once you are connected to the breath, you are ready to begin.
Three Universal Drum Beats That Celebrate Life
The following are three simple universal beats that we all know and I wish to I call foundational vibrations that have been used in ceremony at the core of indigenous rhythms from the beginning of time. These beats create waves of magic, miracles, or “spells” that enter into the spirit and body of the beings invoking the release of loss and transition to bring forth new seeds. When played in succession and repetition, the body receives the vibration and dances itself forward into awareness, release, and celebration.
Drum notation key: Bass or tone sound = GN; Pause for one beat = ^ (Beats together means no space in between; the speed of the rhythm is up to you, however I recommend beginning slowly then moving the vibration in energy and speed.)
1. The first beat is one we hear most often in the indigenous first nation’s prayer songs, the Pow-wow and Sundance. It is the very simple yet captivating one-beat (GN ^ GN ^ GN ^ GN ^). Try repeating out-loud with a chant or affirmation.
2. Then there is the one-two beat (GNGN ^ GNGN ^ GNGN ^ GNGN ^) repeated to create a heart-beat that will bring you back into your body after reeling from loss, and help you to remember who you are.
3. The 1-2-3 beat (GNGNGN without pauses) is the beat upon which much of African music is based, is also referred to as “six-eight” time signature. Without going into the technicalities, the beat feels like a running, horsey movement that is activating.
As you come to a point of closure in the ceremony, go backwards and honor those who came to be with you, the gifts you received and gave, and breathe in silence for a few minutes to be present with this new-found energy. Also honor everyone in the circle in whatever ways you desire in that moment. You may opt to leave the candle until it goes out on its own, anoint yourself with the sacred water and a plant in your midst. Walk in your fullness of life, gratitude, joy and love… in the now! We are alive! We are beautiful! We are creative! We can do anything we put our love and heart into!