A series of short musings on the impact of presence within the world of rhythm.
Culturally Specific Rhythms.
It begins with a single part. A pattern. Your task is to hold onto this part. To get it. The challenge here is that the person sitting next to you has their own part. Different to yours but connected. This challenge increases in complexity the more of you there are. Some culturally specific rhythms in Ghana, for example, might contain as many as nine separate parts. So just imagine 9 of you sitting together and all playing something different. Welcome to the world of polyrhythms. A pathway to the present. The hole into the whole.
I am in a workshop being led by a charismatic female drummer by the name of Angie Amra Anderson, at a festival called the Tribe of Doris. It is 1993. Angie is a woman of power and deeply imbued with the knowledge of polyrhythm. In my mind I am at this time a farily competent drummer and so I have an expectation of what I might learn in this class. We do some warm-up rhythm stuff and then she begins to set up the polyrhythmic lesson. We are going to look at a rhythm from the Ewe people of Ghana called Atsiabeckor. We will be looking at the numerous patterns as a group and then trying to recreate an ensemble version. She hands me a Gankoguai, an iron two tone bell with a thick wooden handle and demonstrates the pattern she wants me to play. It is a 6/8 short bell pattern which I pick up quickly. To be honest, I am a little disappointed. Everyone else has a drum and she is going to teach them all the hand and stick parts. I must play the bell all the way through the workshop in support of this. Boring!
She asks me to start the bell pattern and then sets about demonstrating a four pulse that sits underneath and within the bell part. I lose my way almost immediately. The four is pulling me away from the six. Suddenly I am aware of how much I do not know. My listening deepens. I concentrate. She is playfully smiling at me and at the same time indicating with her body how the four connects to the six. Slowly I find my way with her patience and support and have that eureka moment where not only can I play the six on the bell, I can also mark the four with my foot simultaneously. Polyrhythmic connection.
The moment she knows I know she is into demonstrating the first drum part. I am immediately aware of the gravitational rhythmic pull of each new pattern as she adds them but my foundation is strong and so despite a few wobbles here and there I hold steady. As more and more patterns arrive, I become more free and more natural in my playing. I know that I know now so I can let go and flow. Just play. I am now able to listen to the individual drum parts in relation to my bell. I have a profound experiential realisation about the nature of the whole piece. I can hear all of it. How each drum part relates to the others as well as to the bell. How the conversation works. How the dialogues show up. By holding my pattern long enough for it to just BE without any need for my conscious attention, I am now able to access more information from this space. I am fully present. I know all the patterns and I have not picked up a drum. Wow. Mind blown. Then she adds a song. Everything falls apart again. Time to inhabit the beginners mind once more.
Let’s go back and investigate this process a little further. As I begin to play my pattern on the bell, my focus is individual. My bell. My pattern. Get it right. After some practice I am there and feel comfortable with my role. When the four pattern is now introduced it manifests in such a way as to pull my consciousness towards it. If I go there fully, I will lose sight of my own pattern. If I do not go there at all, I learn nothing but my pattern. I must instead oscillate between the two parts, swinging back and forth, modulating, and discerning where the meeting point is. Where the place exists that I can hear both equally. I must be here in my pattern and there in the other, in equal measures. This happens through the gateways we call ears and through a process we call listening. Focused intentional hearing. It is a process of moving outward from the individual focus on my own pattern to a place where I recognise the other pattern alongside mine, as being a part of a bigger whole. That these two patterns create something else, that results in a new rhythm, which is greater than the sum of its two components. Dialogue consciousness. Rhythmical conversation and connection. Symbiosis. Lifting both payers into a new rhythmical consciousness. Something we call relationship.
As more patterns are added, my consciousness moves out towards the group of patterns and being able to hold multiple points of focus as well as my own ground. Being able to hold my own pattern without needing to be fully conscious that I am doing so allows me to enter the doorway of this polyrhythmic world and hear the multiple connections. I do need enough consciousness of my own pattern to hold it though and here is the point of balance. If I let go completely of my pattern, in this culturally specific context, I will get lost and may impact the rhythm overall, in a negative way, depending on the levels of experience of the other players. Experience, in this rhythmic crucible is everything. You cannot play in a fully connected way until you can. That comes with experience and developing your rhythmical consciousness and with venturing outside the safe harbour of your own pattern into the wider rhythmical ocean, where the waves will send you crashing back to your starting point until you learn how to ride them. There is no shortcut. You may choose to stay in the safety of the harbour and play just with your part. That is a perfectly valid experience. To learn more though you must risk getting tossed and turned in the sea. If you adopt a growth mindset, that is, every experience is for my growth, then the adventure can be an enjoyable one. If you beat yourself up for getting it wrong, it is less so. A good teacher will create a safe space for you to explore the world outside the harbour but as with all things, you make the decision when and how far to go. We are, of course talking about learning to play polyrhythms here, but it does sound remarkably like life.
In a culturally specific context this framework of support rhythms creates a platform for more expression, namely that which we call the soloing. Some solos are fixed in their form and designed to interact with other members of the rhythmic ensemble and some are freer in their flight. Spirit solos if you like.
If you have not got the felt experience of all the patterns and a deep understanding of how they interact, you cannot, in this context solo. It is what it is. In a sense this creates a hierarchical pathway to the summit (Soloist) within such ensembles with a lead drummer or in some cases drummers, given the solo responsibilities in a performative situation.
Learning to solo is a part of the journey out from the harbour and you will at some point be thrown into a live solo situation. For me, soloing always felt like flying a kite, with the soloist representing both the kite and the flier. Let go of the string and the kite is lost. Let go of the rhythm underneath you and the solo will be lost and unable to find its way home again. It is a profound teaching with regards to connection and relationship, requiring you to put your attention on the other, to facilitate the freedom of the self.