In the emerald forest which has known little change since the beginning of the world, a traveller, wishing to penetrate the leafen veil of the past, sat in a dug-out canoe. On jaguar skins he sat, together with the chief, while two native men operated the paddles. In another canoe men armed with bows and blow-guns sat together with a drummer, who awaited an order that would engage his critical skills. Two upright forked sticks rose from either side of the canoe in front of him, near the centre where he sat. From these sticks a frame was secured, angling towards him and fixed to a horizontal bar which crossed the width of the canoe bottom at his feet. Across this frame were lashed four vertical pieces of capipari wood of varying thickness, each hollowed out with a longitudinal slit and decorated with finely carved designs. The traveller noticed the chief give a signal, and the drummer, seizing skin-covered mallets in both hands, commenced to beat out a complex rhythm of four notes on the drum slats. The sound was awesome and the still forest around the small party resounded with its echo. He repeated the message several times, but receiving no answer from upstream, the canoes advanced another mile before stopping to try again.
Very faintly came a reply from some invisible source. The traveller leaned forward eagerly from his jaguar seat. He knew that the village towards which they were headed was at least five miles upstream, and he was deeply anxious to catch the gist of the message conveyed by the distant rumbling of the rhythmic beats. The message that had been sent by the drummer in the canoe was: "A white man is coming with us; he seems to have a good heart and to be of good character." The answer that came back along the waters of the river and through the darkly overgrown jungle was: "You are all welcome provided you place your arms in the bottom of the canoe." With this, the small party paddled briskly ahead, and at the end of an hour's work, made a sharp turn in the river. Before them in a large open space on the opposite bank, perhaps five hundred Indians had assembled to await their first glimpse of the fabled and feared 'white' man. Their chief, a large man adorned with squirrel tails around his waist and the brilliant scarlet and blue feathers of the arara parrot upon his handsome head, stood in front with folded arms. The traveller sat in stunned silence while the canoes glided towards the bank and were secured at its edge. The two chiefs greeted one another and a dozen brown arms reached out to assist the pale khaki-garbed visitor. As his feet touched the soil of the shore, the first thunderous rolls of the drum, whose muted pulse they had heard at a distance five miles downstream, formally announced their arrival. Looking over the sea of faces confronting him to the source of the sound, the traveller saw a powerfully armed drummer absorbed in complete concentration as he beat his unerring mallets against an enormous tree drum resting on a raised platform at the edge of the village clearing.
If the traveller could possibly have possessed any doubt as to whether he had lifted the leafy veil of the past, it was engulfed by the enormity of sound that emanated from the drum. Like others who had dared to attempt to penetrate the primordial, he was confronted with its power in the form of omnipresent and insistent sound. Contained for a moment within the shape of the instrument, it seemed to have emanated from everywhere and nowhere. It seemed as though it had always been and was now merely bursting forth in a fresh wave of expression. The drum is the archetypal symbol for this sound, no more eloquently depicted than in the hour-glass drum which Lord Shiva holds aloft in his right hand whilst dancing at the centre of the world. Buddhists look upon the drum as sounding the Voice of the Law and hearken to the Drum of Dharma, whose beating awakens the ignorant and slothful. Primordial sound exists as a timeless potential in such drums and need not necessarily be confined to the archives of modern iconography or the untrammelled and 'primitive' reaches of a lost world. The resplendent intonation of creation might be heard in the cultured environs of a native village just as surely as in the barbaric night clubs of modern cities or in the temple sanctuaries of dying religious faiths. One cannot be certain where in the world or under what conditions one might hear its haunting voice.
The Plains and Woodland Indians revered their drums and took great care of those which they believed to contain the Voice of the Great Spirit. Drums with thunderbirds depicted upon them were treated as sacred communicators of His word, and various ceremonial drums received enormous respect during their use as well as when they were resting or being transported. Among many tribes the Grass Dance drum was treated as a representation of the world. Members who surrounded it and played it during a ceremony were thought to be 'standing in' for spirits that hover around and guard the earth. The old legends tell that it was first given by the Great Spirit to a Mdewakanton Dakota from the 'mystic lake' area called Tailfeather Woman. Because such a lake does not exist in the physical world, people think that it must have been the place of a great spiritual vision through which the drum emerged into the world. Tailfeather Woman's revelation taught that the drum was to be passed on from tribe to tribe in accordance with the will of the Great Spirit. It was to travel clockwise and to be kept no longer than four years at each tribal gathering place, during which time the Drum Dance ritual was to be learnt and a replica drum constructed. Thus, the drum passed to the Mandan, the Hidatsa, the Ojibwa, the Menominee, the Fox, Potawatomi and Shawnee, among others. In every case, peace was established and the circle of brotherhood affirmed. Even today Drum Dance members believe they are 'sitting in' for the various spirit helpers of the Great Spirit, a belief which causes them to enact their roles with great seriousness. Their leader watches the ritual and corrects it on behalf of the holy drum, whilst the leading female dancer re-enacts the vision received by Tailfeather Woman when the Great Spirit drew her forth out of her hiding place in the lake.
Shaped on a wooden barrel, the frame of the drum is covered with a skirt decorated with dream symbols received in visions. Being a representation of the world, it is feminine, but women are forbidden to touch it at any stage of its construction. When played, it is only by men, who place the legs at the four cardinal points like the pillars often depicted holding up the universe in Buddhist traditions. As in the cultures of Africa, Oceania and Asia, the wood used for the drum is that of a sacred tree, a 'world tree', whose trunk conducts the sap of life from the unseen to the visible world. Beating upon the skin which once covered the heart of a consecrated animal, the native drummers begin the slow, dignified pulse-beat which marks the antique throbbing of the Great Spirit within and upon the fertile sphere of His own making. Thus, it is believed, the Mother Earth will sympathetically bring forth life, and the women of the tribe, like Tailfeather Woman before them, assist in its birth and propagation but not in its design.
Looking at the evidence presented by the ancient Indus Valley script, scholars have noticed that the origins of the great god Shiva can be found in the guise of a pre-Aryan shamanistic ascetic. This is in accord with the rich ideas associated with the Maha Yogin who acts as the supreme mediator between heaven and earth. Shamans of all levels and degrees of knowledge echo this function in their attempts to act as mediators between human beings and the invisible realm. Using the drum as a means of translating their own power into rhythm and sound capable of summoning supporting spirits, shamans go into a trance state and are transported to the spirit world. Drummers smeared with specially prepared paste are thought to be able to drum diseases down-river, away from those they are afflicting, and medicine men try to call forth 'allies' capable of diagnosing the cause of illness or guiding them to medicinal herbs.
In the damaru (drum) of Shiva one can perceive the interlacing triangles of the two worlds between which the Great Lord acts as the archetypal bridge. The downward-pointing triangle represents the watery realm of the yoni, the upward-pointing triangle the lingam. Where they overlap at the centre, creation begins, and when they separate, dissolution commences. With their coming together in the hour-glass-shaped drum, the primordial causal sound (nada) comes into being, inspiring the epithets bestowed upon Shiva in his Nataraja aspect such as 'Da' (meaning, simply, 'sound') and Nadatanu ('consisting of sound'). From this sound comes the Word which is the Law, the pulse-beat of the hidden spiritual heart of the cosmos from which all forms of life derive their vitality. From this voice made melodious by the substance principle of the manifesting world (drum), all speech finds its source and all communication its energy. It is because they have glimpsed something of the implications of this that so many people have cherished the drum as sacred and surrounded it with great ceremony and celebration. For in its voice lies the vibratory timbre and potential rhythm which is the basis of all magic and spiritual transformation.
Having a voice, drums can talk. The whole world has heard of African 'talking' drums. And yet most people, if one asked them, would venture an assumption that this 'talking' was really communication by some sort of Morse code. "Not so!" say those who know. Tympanophony observes the precise pitches and tones of syllables existing in a given language. As the famous H.M. Stanley noted while passing through the drum language area along the Congo, "Their huge drums being struck in different parts convey language as clear to the initiated as vocal speech." Another early visitor to the Congo described how the particulars concerning the wreck of a mail steamer seventy miles away from the mouth of the river were communicated by relay drums within an hour's time. He claimed that "a good operator with his drum sticks can say anything he likes upon the drum in his dialect. .. . The drum language, so called, is not limited to a few sentences but, given a good operator, and a good listener, comprehends all a man can say." The linguistic elements capable of conveying the morphological properties of such tongues are: accent on a particular syllable, stress or emphasis on a particular word in a phrase, pauses, stops, punctuation, duration of phrases and speed of utterance. In most African languages syllables maintain a fixed tone wherever they arise in a phrase. Thus a listener in the Kele language can distinguish the difference between lisaka (a marsh), lisaká (a promise) and lisáká (a poison), as well as, one would hope, between liála (fiancee) and liala (rubbish pit). So also the Lya Ilu (Mother of Drums) of the Yoruba, which has an octave range and can produce the glides so characteristic of their language, beautifully intones the subtle distinctions between oko (husband), okó (hoe), oko (spear) and óko (canoe) in the hands of an able drummer.
Many of these talking drums are similar to the Lakele slit drum design. They are fashioned from large 'camwood' trees which are ritually cut, sectioned and hewn out through a long slot left on the side to be played. One side of the lips of this slot is rendered thinner than the other, producing a deeper, male voice. The thicker side produces the female voice, which is higher and often called 'small'. The Ashanti, however, use skin-covered, barrel-like drums for the purpose of talking. One high note and one low note drum are used in pairs and partially suspended from a frame so that they sit upright at a slight angle, awaiting the impact of elegant adze-shaped sticks held in the hands of one who has inherited the privilege and skill necessary to bring them to life. For they are living beings, these drums, and great care is taken not to desecrate them in any way or fail to observe proper ritual in their use.
If the traveller who visited the emerald forest of the Amazon had been paddling up a coastal river of one of the isles of the New Hebrides instead, he would have been startled to see great ten-foot-tall slit drums set up in 'groves' outside each village that he visited. Like ghostly giant sentinels they stand, each having a mournful face etched upon it, each linked with a dead ancestor and capable of being brought to life in a thundering orchestra of atavistic power during important religious ceremonies and sacrifices. Some, weighing well over eight hundred pounds, lean in huddled gatherings as though they possess certain affinities for one another. Others stand in a dignified solitude, slightly to the side, scowling down at anyone who would be so foolish as to go there without having proper business. To communicate between closer islands in the South Seas, the Lali, or slit drum which lies on its side, is used. These are not talking drums but part of a telegraph system which best communicates in the early morning or late evening when the air currents are settled, their sound being carried over water considerably further than over land. The messages they convey are not dissimilar in essence from those one might hear along the Amazon or the Congo. They announce a trading expedition, perhaps, or send out a warning, one of the most common being that related to war. One only need recall the war drums of North America or the drummer boys enlisted by military forces going back to the time of Xenophon to realize how frequently the drum has been associated with war. The ancestral drums of the Hebrides, the Grass Dance drums, the talking drums – all these that are imbued with spirit and kept for other purposes have heard and been witness to the aggressive beat upon war drums. Even the Vedic hymn to the sacred drum of Indra uses the language of war:
Europe had been largely bereft of drums until the thirteenth century, when the Arabian kettledrum was brought back from the Crusades. It was not long before it became an instrument used to announce weddings and festivals and, more often than not, the alarms of war. The military importance of the drum became so marked that if the enemy's kettledrum was captured, the battle was considered won, for there no longer existed the means of signalling the troops. The reply to the entreaty of a captured drummer who begged for his life on the ground that he carried no weapon conveys the critical role the drum had come to play in war. For he was told that, though he did not carry a weapon, his drumming had enabled scores of his fellows to use theirs with deadly effect, and for this he must forfeit his life. Even the word 'drum' is connected with military life through the office of what came to be known in the sixteenth century as the drum major. The origin of the term seems to come from the Old German (trom, drom), which was closely connected with the word slag, meaning 'to beat or strike'. In the English army this relationship between 'drum' and 'beat' took on a more concrete expression, for the drum major was not only responsible for the drummers and their maintenance of the drums, but had to superintend the flogging of soldiers and court martials which were held at the drumhead. The sound of the beating upon the skin of the drum, synchronized with the terrible thud of the whip across the skin on the back of some poor conscriptee of the Crown, was a harsh use of the drum's voice, a terrible expression of the law it symbolized.
The idea of primordial sound and its manifestation through universal Law found a strange and almost unrecognizable parody in such practices. Though few would associate it primarily with corporeal discipline, for many in the world the drum became firmly linked in their minds with uniforms, marching and aggressive displays of ethnic or national assertiveness. One may wonder if the compelling beating of enormous parade drums pounded along the pavements of Pasadena contain anything of the power and cadence of universal Law. Is this what makes the hair on one's neck stand on end when one hears it? Is there something sacred in that booming sound, even on the streets of California? Among the Ashanti the question would not arise, for there are clear rules as to what is a secular context and what is a sacred context and when indeed it is appropriate to awaken the spirit of the drum. It is well known that a husband does not talk of his wife on the drums at his home (one can imagine the relief!). But it is quite appropriate that he praise her on the drum in the dance arena. A drummer of the talking drums cannot criticize his chief, but while drumming he is the Creator Drummer or the Divine Drummer and can say what he likes, being protected by the Sacred Person's Law. Every Ashanti knows of these ancient edicts and responds accordingly. They know that the drum of a god or a chief cannot be used to announce the affairs of commoners and that the formal drum language of a collective ceremony has four parts, beginning with the Awakening and ending with the Proverbs of the Drum.
Sacred drums are often painted for the purpose of divination as well as evocation. In Lapp mythology constant references to magic drum oracles describe large disc-shaped drums with figures of gods and denizens of the underworld painted on the skins. Shamans, placing a brass ring on the skin as they drummed, routinely succeeded in inducing a trance, during which they would travel to the spirit or god upon whom the ring had settled. It is perhaps in this sense more than any other that the drum is connected with religious ritual. Supplication, evocation and divination are all aspects of religious practice, often accompanied by drumming, but it is the ecstatic experience of the shaman, dervish, voodoo cultist or Ghost Dancer which is directly affected by the drum. The key to trance and ecstasy is forged in great part by the steady rhythm of some kind of drum, and in this fact lies one of the most powerful aspects of the drum as a symbol of primordial sound.
The drum held aloft in Lord Shiva's hand at Chidambaram marks the first beat of the cosmic heart. "Thy dream of me – 'twas I coming into existence – 'I', the pure sound of the antique heart setting the rhythm, the very unfolding cadence of the world to be." Through His damaru the rhythmic pulsation of life thus begins, and as he dances to its beat, it is sustained. In His form of Nataraja, Shiva holds creation, destruction, hope and release. The world goes on like the unending beat of time, but the ecstatic release of rhythm is always potentially there. While it is Shiva's foot held aloft that gives release, it is the pause that precisely provides the essential element producing rhythm. If the rhythmic dance of the Lord is the source of all motion, then motion itself is some sort of mighty cosmic pulsation perpetuating itself throughout a Mahamanvantara. Against this background, it is easy to see why human beings find release in rhythm, why they drum and whirl themselves into trances and rock themselves into mental oblivion. For vast masses of humanity, the only release from the oppression of materialized minds is through abandonment to some sort of hypnotic recurring rhythm.
Some rhythms, beaten out loudly and indefatigably, can release powerful floods of joy, passion or anger. The gates to unexamined primordial desires are opened, and the body begins to twitch in its unconscious efforts to express what is welling up in the astral nature. The passions and desires registered in the broader astral world can be thus focalized in an orgiastic dance circling around drummers hunched over their instruments. Or the steady beat may be more like that envisioned by Thoreau, who tried to live his life according to the deeper rhythmic pulsation he sensed in natural cycles and within the longings of his own soul. The beat which one hearkens to may be quite complicated; there are those who effortlessly operate in a poly-rhythmic mode. In a collective context, an outstanding example of this expresses itself in African drumming, where two or even five rhythmic patterns are played simultaneously and synthesized by a fundamental underlying beat. As long as all patterns coincide on the first beat of the fundamental cycle as it repeats, the whole intricate system expresses overall harmony.
Probably the most complicated and difficult to master of all rhythmic systems is that produced on the Indian tabla or mridangam. Whilst the mridangam is a two-headed drum played with electric rapidity and complexity of rhythm in accompaniment to the traditional Carnatic music of South India, the tabla is actually a pair of drums played side by side with the right and left hands. Called respectively the daina and the banya, they both have dark 'eyes' in their centre which produce a dampering effect. Different areas of their surface have different sounds, yielding a combination of at least five fundamental tones which can be struck with different parts of the ball of the hand and the fingers. The strokes of the right and left hands are all defined and named, and the combinations and variations of these are unlimited in scope. It is small wonder that even rhythmically gifted individuals spend long years in order to master many but not all of its possibilities. Without attempting to go into the whole theory of rhythm in Indian music, one can appreciate something of its mathematical potential by listening to certain ragas which seem to depict the gradual descent of spirit into matter at the dawn of cosmic manifestation. The great process percolates through the highest levels of inaudible sound, wherein dwells the loftiest and subtlest pulse-beat of the invisible spiritual heart. As the entire unfoldment rushes downward towards the waiting stage of the manifest world, the drum begins its staccato marking of event and sequence in time. Gathering strength and power, the drum ushers in wave upon wave of energies, gods and elemental beings. Buffeted and marshalled by the drum's insistent pace, they rush about and interrelate in what comes to be seen as a whole, delicately interconnected design.
As with African poly-rhythmic patterns, the talas (distinctive groupings of fixed numbers of beats) act as the fundamental patterns with which all rhythmical variations must coincide to sustain this wholeness. They act as a basis, a ground against which the intervals of the sruti and the sequence of notes of the svaras define themselves and express their meaning. Back and forth, back and forth, the masculine and feminine heads of the mridangam as well as the tabla 'speak' to one another, roll forth their fecund beat in intertwined sequences as the basis for each new stage of evolution reveals itself. If one imagines this great process in terms of Shiva's damaru, the male and female drumheads can be seen as the bases of two triangles barely touching at their apexes. Softly, the inaudible drumming on each of them moves them into slightly overlapping conjunction with one another, which increases as the beat becomes stronger and the process of manifestation unfolds. At the meeting point between them, creation begins, and as they overlap to form the hour-glass, time comes into existence with the still point of eternity captured in the exact centre of the diamond-shaped area of their interpenetration. No more perfect expression of the essential energy that lies behind all phenomena exists than in the sublime form of Shiva Nataraja. Those who envisioned it millennia ago must have soared onto the highest Akashic heights at the centre of the cosmos, wherein its ideal form resides. No earthly condition or experience could suffice to explain its transcendent truth and beauty. Time and Eternity are reconciled in every line and epitomized in the alternating phases suggested by the damaru in Shiva's hand. Extending out over vast reaches of space, its pulsating rhythm sets the key pattern of arcane mathematics in a primordial and universal tala.
Gathered around the sublime Maha Yogin, who appears in the guise of enlightened Sages and great Teachers in the world, the fortunate ones perceive within their hearts an echo of that fundamental beat. It is not just that they would try to become drums upon which this rhythm is struck, but rather that they can seize the opportunity to discover their own unique rhythm and learn how to bring it to its fullest expression while synchronizing it with the universal tala manifested through their Guru. Through meditation one can come gradually closer to understanding the nature of this archetypal rhythm, how its cycles repeat and what sorts of complex combinations of pauses, sequences, emphases, phrasings and flurries are involved. One can come to glimpse something of the pattern, but one cannot nor should one try to imitate it. For it is a unique reflection in the world of that design in sound that establishes the perimeters and possibilities for a particular phase in soul evolution. Its inspiration conies from the still point at Chidambaram and pours like a flood of notes drummed in rapid succession through the hands and fingers of the Teacher.
Those who are intuitive may sense in this the language of the constellations, the stars and planets brought into a rhythmic code for the sake of anyone who desires with all their heart to bring their own unique rhythm into synchronization with it. Thus, just as the heart beat of every human being is characteristic of his or her vast journey as a soul, so too the complexities of that journey find a unique metabolic expression in the rhythm which is native to them. In each of these rhythmic patterns there is the truth of sound and the truth of the pause or still point which interrupts it and breaks it up into a pattern. By meditating upon the purest tone, the tonic note which expresses the timbre of one's true individuality, and upon the still, silent points wherein one's highest spiritual potential rests in anticipation, intuitive seekers can recognize and bring into play the finest fruits of soul evolution which they have to offer. If this is truly done and the rhythm they rediscover in themselves is unadulterated with unwonted glides and slurs or asymmetrical accretions, it will certainly synchronize with the beat at each beginning of the fundamental rhythmic cycle of the great Teacher of the age.
In this subtle sense, each human being is like the drum of the world which can be played with their own hands to produce their own unique expression of primordial sound. But there is one cosmic rhythm, one inaudible pattern, which beats behind all these and which gives them all their reflected validity and power. Those who hear the beat of this distant and silent drumming at any point
in human history are few, and those who have the wit and intuition to recognize who they are, are fortunate indeed to have found them. Such rare beings move in unexpected places in the world. Just as the sounding of the primordial note of creation might be heard at any time or place, so also the Great Teachers of Mankind, whose rhythmic thoughts continually refer to that unchanging keynote, may be found where least anticipated. Wherever such a one may be, disguised in the trappings of the modern world or seated on a jaguar skin before the barrel of a sacred drum, the beat which decides the metrical movement of their life will be silent. One might imagine oneself toiling long and hard through the jungle of life and finally breaking out into a clearing. There one may encounter a solitary drummer seated in stillness with his sticks in his hands. In front of him rests a great drum. It is difficult to know whether it is a talking drum, a telegraph drum or a war drum, for it has all the characteristics belonging to these types and yet seems limited by none of their specialized functions. One could imagine that drum representing the world and being passed clockwise as an emblem of peace. One could also imagine it coming alive and calling down the gods in heaven or the elemental beings hovering around the world. But the drum in the clearing rests silently, and the Master Drummer makes no move to strike it.
One might then sit at the edge of the clearing, waiting and watching, with one's ears straining to catch a sound. The Drummer makes no move, the drum's skin does not vibrate, and yet, slowly, one begins to hear a light but penetrating pulsation which fills the clearing and dances through the trees and vines around- Subtle accents and pauses reverberate in complex cycles, coming in waves across the clearing and doubling back in poly-rhythmic designs. Soon others appear at the edge of the jungle, breaking free of the trees, at first not hearing the rhythm but drawn towards the form of the Silent Drummer. Many begin to arrive, struggling through to the clearing, each bringing with them their own small drum. They all look and strain their ears and settle down, at last, to wait and understand. Some of them begin to hear the dancing rhythm of the Silent Drummer, some do not. Others begin to take up their drums and express their own tempos, beating with their hands or sticks in a cacophony of varied rhythms. The silence and the waiting have made them restless and they do not know how to harmonize their beats. Some who have heard the silent rhythm take up their drums and try to imitate its cadence, stopping and starting and attempting to move their arms and hands in a way that they think will produce the rippling cadence that they hear. But they lag and strike false notes and fail to pause in the right places. They end up contributing to the cacophony of disharmonious rhythms filling the clearing.
Wise seekers who have toiled long and hard to arrive at the feet of a true spiritual Teacher will intuitively realize that they cannot imitate the cosmic rhythm as it pours through their being. They will remain silent and listen until they understand the fundamental underlying message of his beat and grasp something of the pattern of its repetition. Then they will strive to bring their own drum into tune and use the tonic note, the initial beat of the master pattern, as the unchanging reference point for their own rhythm. Time after time they will cycle through their own pattern of beats, but they will never fail to bring it continually back into synchronization with the great tala given forth by the Teacher. Thus in poly-rhythmic textures, greater numbers of drummers can come together and express a beauteous and harmonious correlation of the parts of one whole. Gathered together around the silent, still and yet thunderously dancing form of Lord Shiva as Nataraja, as Nadatanu and as their embodied Guru in the world, such privileged ones can come to reverberate, in every aspect of their being, with the pulsating rhythmic will of the great cosmic heart.