TEACHINGS FROM THE DRUM
GYEMK ~LOOP & K'OOLGYET NAH HOOL BIG DRUMS
Song: Gyemk ~Loop Big Drum Honour Song written in
three Indigenous languages starting with Mohawk, Sm'algyax, and Ojibwa translation by my friend, James Shawana
MY DREAM WHILE ON VISIONQUEST A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO
"Listen. can you hear it! The sound is beginning to build in my heart. It is rhythmic, powerful, it comes from the depths of my soul as I cry for a vision. I close my eyes, and see stately guardians all around me (trees), Huge red cedars, they bend toward me as they, too, listen to the heartbeat coming from the centre of Mother Earth. The rhythm is swirling on the wings of the four great winds who reside there. Their breath encircles the trunks of the guardians and dance upwards to embrace the leaves and the fruit.
My drum beats a powerful rhythm.....I listen, and feel it surround me. I can hear the hum at the end of the beat, a split second before the next beat is heard, and I know it is my Ancestors keeping time with me and Mother Earth. My Ancestors awaken and drift toward the sound. I continue to drum, the four-leggeds, swimmers, flyers and crawlers hear my song of peace and welcome. They too, come to join the dance. The sound builds, it is the power of magical connections to the supernatural world. I am connected to all that is in form.
The Star Nation glitters, Father Sky surrounds me in a protective embrace, the pounding rhythm travels up the rays of Grandfather Sun and just before he disappears into a blazing horizon, he kisses his mate Grandmother Moon....Listen. It is happening, I can feel my connection to my higher power, that level of super-consciousness that touches my spirit and brings it into the fullness of its glory. For a blessed and sacred time I have moved outside the concrete jungle, and I am lost in the rhythms of nature. I can do anything, accomplish my dreams, live my life in a manner that pleases my Ancestors. I am home. Nii'sabbat, It is finished. Wilwilaaysk, All My Relations."
THE MAGIC OF "THUNDER WOLF" DRUMMING CIRCLES
In other words, Drums do not know about race, racism, jealousy, hate, resentment, greed, language, genders, gender choice, human diversity. None of that matters, what matters is inclusivity and the sound of one heart beating.
It is a proven fact that drumming circles in businesses improves productivity and teamwork while reducing absenteeism. Drumming dramatically reduces stress through a synchronicity of group 'right' action. Disputes are healed, reconnections are made. Do it, it works!
People from many different backgrounds come together in my drumming circles to create cultural and personal connections through the sheer joy of drumming. Drumming circles are a time for everyone to get together and just be.
Drum rhythms reach deep into the memories of the ancient brain that goes back before recorded time. Drums pulse the wisdom of the ages, they are first in time and first in line. As the drum connects your heartbeat with Noo Halidzoks (Mother Earth), inner chatter is instantly quieted, and a peaceful meditative state is often the result.
Hear Medicine Wheel teachings; your power animals, spirit guides and Ancestors come because they love a good drumming circle! The drums guide you in the direction of connection to those things that really matter. Drums take you to the centre of the earth, where you spread your arms and feel the strength of the four great winds that had their origins there; where your once again connect with which is greater than yourself.
Moreover, the beauty and wisdom of First Nations stories when combined with the music and rhythm bridges the cultural divide in a way that allows for the magic of all Turtle Island's Native people to be celebrated and understood in a positive and uplifting way. Peace on earth becomes a reality. So drum for the Earth, Community, Family, Yourself, and sing like everyone is listening!
VOICE OF THE DRUM
Just like humans, each drum, be it hand drum or big drum, has its own unique voice and vibration, for the simple reason that each animal and tree from which the drum is made have their own unique medicines; their spirits are part of the drum. Rule of thumb, the thicker the hide (buffalo, moose), the lower the sound.
It is usually a seven day ceremony from birth (making it) to waking a drum in a special ceremony. It is, after all, a living being with a soul.
I do not play any of my drums until they have been given their voices in ceremony. I know it is hard to resist playing the drum before it is woken, but part of the teaching is about discipline and honouring the process.
I have had the privilege of waking many drums across Canada, which includes: smoking my pipe, prayers of dedication to the drum, the Ancestors & the Universe; engaging the joyous sounds of other drums as they wake their new family member; tobacco is offered in thanks.
Photos above taken at Bala Community School in Toronto. Eighteen hand drums had been made by Arts for Children and Youth (AFCY) for our use. We could not play them until they had been woken. Some of the students are playing K'ool Gyet Nah Hool in the ceremony. It was a very moving and educational experience for the students and teachers.
Note: Normally, photos would not have been permitted, but because this was an great opportunity to educate, I allowed the camera.
DRUMS ARE FEMALE & HUMAN
The drum represents the universal heartbeat of Noo Halidzoks (Mother Earth) - the universal mother to us all. Therefore, all drums in First Nations Cultures are 'female' and 'human'. The first sound that was heard in the world was her heartbeat. The first sound a baby hears in the womb is the heartbeat of its mother.
The heartbeat is manifested through playing a special rhythm on the drum. This rhythm facilitates healing and realignment of the four realms of human existence (Mental, Spiritual, Emotional, Physical). Listen to the hum that rests between the voice and the drum -- the hum is the spirit of the Ancestors.
Her heartbeat on the drum can be done in a variety of ways, here are two suggestions:
When playing a drum (either hand or big drums), it should never be hammered in an aggressive way, this suggests giving it a 'beating' and one must never 'hit' a woman! The teaching goes even further by suggesting that the drum mallet should not be referred to as a 'beater' because of the aggression contained in the word. There is already too much violence in Native communities. Sandy and I refer to all our drum mallets as "Grandmother's Arms" which is a beautiful description.
Components of the Drum & their connections: The frame is made of a variety of woods that connect us to the 'standing people' (trees); the skin is a gift from a variety of animals (deer, moose, horse, cow) that connect us to the four-leggeds. The sinew used to tie the drum most often comes from the long leg muscle of the animal. It ties the standing people and the human hand that plays the drum to the animal.
THE DRUM WAS A GIFT TO MEN & NOT TO BE USED AS A WEAPON OF FEMALE OPPRESSION. ALAS......
The big drum was a gift from women to the men a very long time ago, so that men could experience the same resonant connection to the Earth Mother that naturally occurs with women as life-givers. Unfortunately, in post-European times women have been banned from the big drum. There is no basis in history, or cultural traditions for such action and behaviour!
It was not the intent when the drum was given that female personal power would go with it!
WOMEN PLAYING THE BIG DRUM
In the twenty-first century, as Indigenous cultures continue to adapt, evolve and move forward, and given the fact that women are taking back the drum which is their right to do because of the lack of leadership shown by men, it is becoming more common to see women big drum groups at powwows. This is a slow evolution because of the fierce patrilineal protection of turf (unfortunately Euro-centric attitudes toward women have been learned well by many Native Men).
There has been much animosity and outright refusal to allow women drum groups to participate at powwows and other Indigenous events. This whole "which gender is allowed to play the big drum" is sadly sexist and borne out of Christian dogma of recent history. There are no Indigenous teachings of any kind, both pre- and post-European contact history that stops women from sitting at a big drum.
If women think they are "offending" men by playing the big drum, I suggest that (a) learn your traditional history; (b) reclaim your authentic voice; (c) to those men who are offended, stop hanging onto territory that is historically and culturally inaccurate. You never owned the drum in the first place; making up rules to subjugate women is not k'ool!
(Photo above: Lakhota Artist, Maxine Noel (left), Shannon, Sandy at an outdoor drumming circle near Stratford, ON)
No one has the right to claim ownership, for the simple reason that the drum is a universal (global) female symbol of healing, harmony, dignity, honour, respect, humility, love, trust, courage and wisdom. Moreover, since before recorded time, women across the world have played drums, kept drums, created songs and celebrated feminine power by playing drums of all shapes and ALL SIZES!
Both genders are entitled to participate in the beauty of those healing rhythms whenever and wherever they choose to do so.
Also, to reiterate, the drum is FEMALE! It is simply illogical to deny women what is rightfully theirs....a female sister! Moreover, as noted below, if we are all given a heartbeat, why is it that women must shut theirs down during important events or ceremonies?
When we gave the drum to men, the gift came with some simple rules:
Alas, as recent history shows, family violence in Native communities continues to be at least five times the national average, a national scandal in any language! Men no longer have the right to the drum. As previously noted, the whole notion of drum ownership flies in the face of even the most basic of Native teachings as regards generosity, sharing and caring for each other.
Sandy and I, for example, do not own Gyemk ~Loop or K'oolgyet Nah Hool. They own themselves. We are their caregivers; they simply let us ride in the van with them as they go to various events to bring their healing messages!
The Haudenosaunee prophecy that states, "when maple trees starts dying from the top, women will take back the drum" is happening all over Turtle Island. The trees are dying, men have not fulfilled their responsibilities and promises; women must now re-assert themselves in order to save themselves, their children, their communities and the Earth Mother.
"Get with it, gentlemen, times have changed, women's voices must be heard by whatever means if Mother Earth has any chance of survival."
Thunderbird Story: Recently Gyemk ~Loop was invited to participate at a powwow in a federal corrections facility. A member of one of the male drum groups was denied access, because the sniffer dog detected drugs on his clothing. In other words, he was using weed, which automatically, in my mind, placed the integrity of their drum into question.
On another occasion, a male drummer was drunk and allowed access to the powwow by one of the organizers, who was also drunk.
At my recent annual Women's Feast, it was reported by two of my guests that they had witnessed drug-induced behaviour by men on a big drum at an Aboriginal gathering in Toronto.
It is distressing, and despairing at the lack of respect shown by some males to the drum and to their cultures. It is an insult to Indigenous cultures in general, given that drugs and alcohol nearly destroyed some tribal communities, and is still ongoing today.
I, therefore, rest my case as regards women taking back and playing the big drum.
GYEMK ~LOOP (MOONSTONE) BIG DRUM'S STORY
As if I didn't have enough trouble with some rigid Indigenous men, over other issues as regards women's place in tribal communities, I had a vision in 2000 while out on visionquest. I was told to acquire a big drum that would help unite & heal women in creating peaceful solutions to the problems that beset them, as well as Mother Earth. As well, I was to write an honour song and make an Eagle drum staff.
I waited for the drum. Moonstone showed herself in all her glory at a powwow in Toronto, in November, 2003. She had been made by a Cree/Mohawk drum-maker for women. He made it because he believed in the healing power of women and wanted to create something to help us heal. Ay-eeah, there are wonderful, enlightened Indigenous men out there.
Looks are deceiving: Although Gyemk ~Looplooks like a powwow drum, she is not in competition with men's big drums; her gentle, yet powerful spirit is needed for other purposes. SHE IS, PRIMARILY, A WOMEN'S HEALING DRUM.
Gyemk ~Loop is a thirteen-sided, 32" in diameter buffalo-hide drum that honours the thirteen full moons in a calendar year. She has been invited to a number of events to help heal dis-chord in communities and among individuals including a number of powwows!!
Men of good cheer and genuine respect for their sisters, came forward to offer support and teachings as regards the care of the big drum. They became "honorary women". Peter (husband); Jeff (Sandy's husband), are on the current roster of honorary women. They don't play her, but they help to move her; she is one big, heavy, beautiful drum.
True to the vision, the pieces for the Drum Staff started to literally fall in place when a beautiful birch tree on my former property passed to the spirit world. It was brought down with great ceremony on September 25, 2004 with Gyemk ~Loop pounding out an honour song.
Sandy and I both contributed four Eagle feathers to the staff. My nieces, Shannie and Erin offered the two Eagle feathers they had been given at their naming ceremonies. Have I mentioned for the zillionth time how much I love my girls?
The first wing feather was offered during a drumming circle at a festival near Heron Bay in Red Rock, ON (August 8, 2004). It was an emotional moment. A wonderful man simply walked up to me and offered it. I explained to the crowd that the feather was not for me but for Gyemk ~Loop.
The eagle feather teachings also say that when one eagle feather is given, another usually follows shortly after. Within 30 minutes, the second arrived from a couple who had written a book about Lake Superior. The two feathers were from opposite wings, providing the perfect balance for the staff. The staff is called the "Heron Bay Eagle Drum Staff." Gyemk ~Loop pounded out her thanks.
K'OOLGYET NAH HOOL (All ONE PEOPLE DRUM)
As if being the keeper of one big drum isn't enough, I had another dream in early 2008 that a second big drum needed to be acquired. Fortunately, Sandy and Kate only winced slightly when I told them. The new drum was to be a Family Drum so that both women and men would be able to play it.
"Oh boy, this is going to be interesting," was Sandy's only response.
Once again I let the dream float in the universe to allow my Ancestors to do their thing. On November 29, 2009, Sandy and Jeff, decided at the last minute, on the last day to attend the Hamilton, Ontario powwow. Well, didn't Sandy meet the same man who'd made Gyemk ~Loopsix years earlier! He'd made another drum as "an all people, family drum." He said it hadn't sold because most of the male drum groups thought it looked a little sissy; it had been painted in the four original colours of human (red, black, yellow, white). Lucky for us we don't have those kinds of hang-ups!
Sandy couldn't get me by phone, and time was running out, the powwow was about to close. What to do, buy it, don't buy it. She walked away from the drum and immediately she was overcome with a thundering headache. (I told her later it was probably a combination of me and my Ancestors slapping her upside the head - "Don't you dare walk away!"). She went back, the headache disappeared, she bought the drum.
She wasn't sure if I was going to be upset because I wasn't there when she found it. "Hey, chickee, we're sisters, you heard my dream, you knew the drum was connected and the rest is history."
Her name is, K'oolgyet Nah Hool (All One People Drum;;anyone who plays her is known as a "K'ool Drummer"!Drummer."
K'ool is 24" in diameter and made of moose hide; she's packed with character and good humour. She is smaller than Gyemk ~Loop and therefore higher-pitched. The voices of the two drums balance each other perfectly.
Photo shows the two drums together for the first time in Kingston, ON. Big Sister, Gyemk ~Loop is very content with the new arrangement.
We had no time to wake K'ool before we left on tour; she was woken at our first stop, which happened to be Holy Cross Secondary School in Kingston, ON. I told the kids that, other than Sandy, we were all meeting the drum for the first time. They were thrilled, I was thrilled. On December 16, 2009 K'oolgyet Nah Hool was born. We sang songs, the tobacco danced and we have a beautiful new big drum to share with all of you.
OWNERSHIP OF THE BIG DRUM, HAND DRUMS -- ETIQUETTE
1. The drum is the exclusive property of the person who made it OR purchased it OR traded for it OR had it given to them as a gift OR prayed for it. It is not community property unless it has been identified as a Share Drum. If the drum belongs to an individual, then permission must be given by that individual for anyone to even touch it much less play it. In other words, look but do not touch unless permission has been given.
2. Keep reminding yourself that the drum is human and one does not fondle other humans without permission! Accord the drum the same respect. In my case, my Sisters, Kate and Sandy are the only ones allowed to touch my hand drum without first asking permission.
3. As noted above, when playing a drum, it should never be hammered in an aggressive way. This suggests giving it a 'beating' and one must never 'hit' a woman! The drum mallet is called a Grandmother's Arm.
4. The drum is a sacred object, therefore, when not in use it should sleep in its own bag made of natural materials, (i.e. 100% cotton, animal hide). Hanging a hand drum on a wall as an art piece to be admired diminishes its voice and purpose. You wouldn't hang your mother on the wall would you? The drum should always be placed skin-side up when at rest as a sign of respect, it is also easier on the hide.
5. No drinking, no smoking, drugs, foul language or any other behaviour that is disrespectful to yourself, others and the drum.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF DRUMS & SHAKERS
PACIFIC NORTH WEST COAST
ANISHINAABE, CREE, MI'GMAQ Frame Drums (12"-18"), as well as most Indigenous peoples (other than Haudenosaunne), the adoption of the big drum. As is the case with all tribes, these communities recognize the drum as the centre of life and Mother Earth's heartbeat. Deer and moose hide are popular choices for the skins.
Water Drum: Originally made out of birch bark and covered with animal hide (moose, deer), it is filled with water which controls the sound. The drums can be as large as eighteen inches high; the norm, however, is around five inches high so they can be held in the hand while played. The dampened hide is held tight by a ring. This drum is unique to the Haudenosaunee and makes a wonderful fairly high pitched sound when played. The Grandmother's arm is a small carved wooden stick between 8"-11" in length with a wider section at one end that strikes the drum. (Photo is a Water Drum that was given to me as an Elder gift).
Traditionally made from Caribou skin with seal or walrus skin wrapped around the handle . The skin was very thin, allow the drum to echo when played. The handle was securely tied, often at an angle to give the drummer ease of playing.
Gilaut (right) is another version and gifted to me. The echo, when played is magical.
"Among the Dakhota and Lakhota (D/Lakota), the drum occupies a position of great cultural and symbolic power. Regarded as a living entity, it is simultaneously understood as a spiritual guardian and a musical instrument, a living tradition and a reference to a past way of life. Consequently, the continued spiritual, ceremonial, and musical duties of those who play the drum, attendant to both the larger community as well as the living instrument itself, have encourage the use of music and dance as an integral part of current D/Lakota cultural education and identity." (Jonathan Ritter, UCLA (http://www.american-music.org/publications/bullarchive/Ritter.html)
SHAKERS FROM MY COLLECTION
Shakers are often referred to as the "tears of the Ancestors" or represent rainwater. In ceremony, one never wakes the Ancestors with a drum as they may be sleeping, a drum would jerk them awake. Instead, Ancestors are woken gently to the sound of the shaker.
Left to Right: Gourd shakers, gifts to me; Horn shakers made by me; Marakas, gifts to me, Anishinaabe Rabbit fur and birch bark, gift to me, Haudenosaunee shaker, gifted to me is my favourite rattle, it is used in all my ceremonies, shows & presentations.
NORTHERN ALTERTA WOMEN ON THE BIG DRUM ROCK THEIR WORLD!
Just so the world does not think that Gyemk ~Loop Big Drum is the only Women's big drum in Canada, here are a couple of photos of the Okistitawan Mista Hiya (Grizzly Bear) Women's Big Drum from Sturgeon Lake First Nation, Northern Alberta. Led by Cree Drummer, Matricia Brown.
The women have been taking their drum into schools, played for Aboriginal Women’s day and performed at a Grande Concert. They have also been asked to play for an Alberta Northern Teacher’s Conference (First Nation, Metis, and Inuit).
Sisters, Gyemk ~Loop & K'oolgyet Nah Hool play and sing you an honour song for your courage in stepping forward.
Always remember, Sisters, the drum, no matter its size, has been ours since before the beginning of recorded time, and we have a sacred obligation and right to play her.
Lut'ak Halaaytn Yugyetk
Drums are basically classified by shape: cylindrical, conga, barrel, bowl, goblet (Djembe), conga.
Africa: Aburukuwa, Djembe, Drun, Berber, Batá, Bougarabou, Ashiko, Ewe, Kpanlogo,
I made the drums shown above, from left: Wolf, Grandmother, Raven Capturing the Sun, Eagle, Dragonfly.
From left: Conga, Doumek (Egypt), Da Gang Gu (China) Djembe (Africa), Dong Son (Viet Nam)
From left: Steel Drum (Caribbean), Tabla (India), Taiko (Japan), Another Taiko Drum, Maori (New Zealand)
"Natives who beat drums to drive off evil spirits are objects of scorn to smart Americans who blow horns to break up traffic jams."
Mary Ellen Kelly
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