As I mentioned in the last post, Deb got me a wonderful Christmas present this year: a beautiful djembe drum. It's hewn from a solid piece of Indonesian mahogany, and has great decorative carvings on the side. Deb got it from a far off (and far out) guy in California who spends his days surfing and tending to his, er…., exotic herb garden. But he also plays and skins and tunes and sells drums. And he carves messages into the bottom of them.
One could reasonably wonder: On what occasions could a pastor and Ph.D. student in worship possibly make use of a drum? More than you'd think, as it turns out:
1) I played in a drum circle on New Year's Eve at the home of our good friends the Keeleys. Around the hour of our arbitrarily designated transition moment from one year to the next (because of small children we don't wait for midnight), we made a small drum circle -- me and Bob and Bryan and Meredith's boyfriend Calvin, and whoever else picked up some sort of percussive noise-maker. The movie here is from early in the night; later on Bob found a great groove in 5/4 and we worked that for a while. It's a much better way to spend New Year's Eve than getting smashed on champagne and kissing whoever happens to be close by at midnight.
2) Then this past Sunday I played in our church, for the first time as designated percussionist. I've played guitar and clarinet and recorder before, but this was quite different. While everyone else was trying to hit or tune the right notes, worrying about the key modulation on verse four, or just finding their place on the page -- I sat there with an empty music stand at my side, and a drum in my lap, trying to find the groove. I'm not so worried about owning it just yet. Just trying to find it.
A djembe is great to play because it's so versatile, with both a deep, resonant boom when struck in the middle, a sharp snap when struck towards the edge of the drumhead, and lots of other sonic possibilities in between. Helping me find the groove Sunday was my colleague Greg Scheer, the music pastor at our church. Like me, he enjoys inventing the fun onomatopoeic words percussionists use to describe the sounds we want to produce. The shaker, for example, makes a "shukka shukka" sound. And, as he told me Sunday, when you use nylon brushes on the djembe, sliding and slapping them on the drum head, you might be looking for a groove that sounds like this: "whooka sh-sh thuuk thuuk, whooka sh-sh thuuk thuuk." (This phrase © 2007 Greg Scheer Music, ASCAP).
3) It turns out Greg is also the leader of our church's drum circle, which meets this week Thursday night. I can't wait. Now, I know all the jokes about drum circles and male bonding. After all, I went to grad school in the 90s. I know about Robert Bly and feminist backlash, the myth of Iron John (or Iron Ron) and the news stories that tell, in a chuckling sort of way, about male-bonding retreats: gangs of sweaty and hairy men, dragging their sons into the woods at astrologically propitious times to howl at the moon, tell stories of the hunt, and bang on goat-skin drums. But Greg tells me the church drum circle is not like that. Our drum skins are sheep, not goat.
Anyway how cool is it that our church has a drum circle? We are about as far from "alt" worship as you can find, but the last time I did a drum circle in church was in L.A., at a very emerging congregation called "Tribe." One of the unique things about Tribe is that when they worship on Sunday evenings, everyone gathers in a large circle in a dimly candle-lit room, and grabs a drum. (The worship leader is a professional percussionist).
Though there is a bit of an electronic keyboard providing some harmonic structure, it is the rhythm that channels and focuses the congregation's energy Godward as they drum and sing their praise and prayers and Psalms during the first 20 minutes of worship. It's visceral and different, and exactly right for this congregation. I don't know if I could do it every week, but it was pretty great a few times last year.
So thanks to Deb, I now own the drum. And thanks to Bob and Greg and others, I may someday own the groove. Right now, I'm enjoying just leasing it.