Column: Healing to the Beat of a Different Drum

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Having been raised in both Cuban culture and in Lukumí (or Santeria), it is impossible for me to underestimate the significance drumming and rhythm in both my cultural expressions and spiritual development. They represent one of the fundamental pillars that create “Cuban-ness.”  My godfather used to say “Los tambores de la tierra tienen que oírse en el cielo.” Very loosely translated, this means, “Play the drums so they are heard in Heaven.” The saying speaks to the vigor and ecstasy with which drums must be played during ceremonies because of their deep and raw power. With little exaggeration, their rhythms have changed and sustained cultures as well as brought forth new musical forms to the world.

[Public Domain / Pixabay]

[Public Domain / Pixabay]

Cuban music has been described as the fusion of Iberian melodies and harmonies with the rhythms and percussion of West Africa. It is a creolized blend that takes advantage of the musical strengths of two traditions. That musical fusion began with the horror of slavery. As Africans were forced into imprisonment and diaspora in the New World, our Ancestors brought with them their music and faith.

Despite being forced into Catholicism, our African Ancestors were – with great hardship – able to preserve many elements of their culture and secure it for their descendants. Very soon into the era of slavery, the Spanish Colonial power allowed cabildos de nación, small “national” councils of slaves based on their region of origin. They were created for a malignant purpose: so slave owners and other Spanish authorities could maintain control over the ethnic groups. The first recorded cabildo, called Cabildo Shango, was established in Havana in 1568 CE.

Despite authoritarian social and economic control, cabildos also became a mechanism by which West African slaves could maintain their traditions while resisting 16th Century Spanish cultural hegemony. The cabildos allowed slaves to engage in religious ceremonies including consulting with the spirits and the Orisha. And they were also imbued with African cultural traditions. For example, in order to maintain the traditional value that women hold equal status as men, the cabildos would have three men and three women elected as group leaders, and then one man and one woman as co-leaders of the entire council.

At the same time, cabildos allowed for the traditional music of West Africa to be transferred across generations of Africans in Cuba. In doing so, cabildos catalyzed the fusion of musical genres while becoming the vehicle for African Traditional Religions to survive in the West. And during centuries of tragedy and privation, the drums were played to beckon Orisha, to call Egungun (deceased Ancestors) and strengthen the living.

While African drumming traditions have gained prominence in many of our Pagan festivals, Native American and First Nations drumming traditions have also been powerful and integral in building a ritual atmosphere. Those cultures too have navigated hardship, resisted cultural attack and healed with drums.

Photo Credit:  M. Tejeda-Moreno

[Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

Drums have been a powerful tool for us to connect with Spirit for literally millennia. They are the oldest known musical instrument with drumming artifacts traced to before 5,000 BCE, and the current evidence suggest that the earliest drummers were priestesses. In oral histories, drums have been deeply interwoven with Shamanic traditions. In Greek religion, the Titan Rhea was venerated with drumming using a tympanon, cymbals and the clashing of metal shields with rhythmic mantras. Saxo Grammaticus, the Danish medieval historian, records hammers (representations of Mjolnir) beaten against a drum to protect the community and ward against malignant spirits. Even Psalm 150:4 says “praise Him with drums and dancing”.

In the traditional religions of West Africa, drums, such as the batáhave very specific ritual significance. They are holy objects that are ceremonially prepared for use. Drummers must be carefully and intensively trained. They must memorize complex rhythms, demonstrate their skills, and ultimately undergo special rituals that confer upon them the right and privilege to serve the community as a drummer.

Although the drummers at Pagan festivals may not undergo the ceremonial hurdles of their peers within the traditional religions of West Africa, they are no less skilled or appreciated. Drummers are praised for the magic and atmosphere they help create and are often central to the festival experience. From the ritual use of drums and their ubiquity, it makes me want to deconstruct the importance of drumming and ask if there are complementary benefits to it.

Evolutionary psychologists hypothesize that psychological traits represent adaptive advantages. It is a theoretical lens to understand why certain characteristics are retained while others are slowly lost. Drumming has not been lost. On the contrary, it was retained at great cost. Our Ancestors in the cabildos must have recognized some of the powerful effects of drumming and, therefore, centralized it as an important part of religious experience and cultural celebration.

Indeed, Winkleman (2003) noted the benefits of drumming as a culturally appropriate extension of therapy especially for individuals whose spiritual traditions have drumming as a component of healing. But drumming also represents one of the oldest means for healing.  It has been considered medicine for millennia. And, it turns out that drumming has sobering benefits that range from the obvious to the surprising.

One benefit should come as no surprise to anyone who has participated in a drum circle: drumming improves mood.  Researchers at the University of Minnesota conducted a small study where student volunteers participated in a 45-minute drumming session (Mungas & Silverman, 2014). Before their drumming, the volunteers completed a short questionnaire to assess drowsiness, relaxation, cheerfulness, friendliness, clarity and coordination. Another volunteer group taking guitar lessons served as the control; and they too completed the same questionnaire.

Before the drumming, there were no between-group differences on the questionnaire. In other words, the groups were statistically identical before the intervention. When the invention was completed, the groups completed the questionnaire once again and the drummers reported changes. When compared to the control (and their pre-test scores), the drummers had statistical improvements in their wakefulness (no surprise there); but they also reported statistically significant improvements in relaxation, cheerfulness, friendliness and clarity as well as their sense of coordination. Though it is a small study, the findings speak to to the idea that drumming has an important role in improving psychological states.

[Photo Credit: Kleuske / Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Kleuske / Flickr]

Another amazing benefit is that drumming appears to help cope with trauma. A group of researchers at Bar-Ilon University in Israel explored whether drumming could help mitigate the symptoms of combative stress in soldiers (Bensimon, Amir & Wolf, 2008). This is both difficult and tricky research and, given the small sample, we have to be very cautious understanding their findings.

What they did was offer group music therapy to six soldiers surviving with post-traumatic stress disorder. They had significant and horrifying battlefield experiences and were seeking treatment to help cope with the incidents. The researchers gathered data about which musical instruments during sessions were used including their intensity, tempo and amount of time spent on each instrument. They also gathered data on rhythmic patterns of instruments as well as comments from the participants. The group of participants were given a variety of instruments but took to the drums.

What the researchers found is that while drums were used to evoke and discuss difficult trauma, they were also used to strengthen intimacy, promote feelings of openness, fortify sharing and create connectedness. The drums helped expose survivor rage, as well as help them express it in manageable and therapeutic manner. More importantly, the drums appeared to burst through the isolation and loneliness that disconnect survivors of trauma from others in society.

That last point also brought me to the question of whether drumming produces benefits beyond the emotional, psychological or spiritual. It turns out that some researchers have been looking at that question for some time. One experimental study (Dunbar et al. 2012) examined the effects of drumming on pain threshold. They compared dancing, music-making and drumming to determine if there was any effect on self-reported pain threshold. Participants were given a pain test before and after each activity (an over-inflated blood pressure meter, for example, or holding a frozen object.) One of their findings suggests that active music-making (drumming their case) was able to suppress pain better than passive activities like listening to music. And, while they speculate that the pain suppression might be due to the release of naturally-occurring pain-reducing substances (endorphins), they did not directly measure them. Still, the work points to some amazing effects.

But the most surprising bit of research on drumming to me occurred over a decade ago. These researchers went for blood, literally. They wanted to measure the effects of different types of drumming on a variety of physical markers. The researchers assigned participants to either a control group (relaxation in a circle with reading magazines and newspapers) or a participative drumming group. They obtained blood samples from groups prior to the assigned activity and analyzed the results.

What they found is a little tricky and preliminary; but basically, group-drumming seems to improve immune-enhancing activity in the body at the hormonal and cellular levels. The chemicals that we produce naturally to mount and sustain immunity were found to increase after a session of drumming. In addition, certain cell types that regulate immunity, kill off deviant cells (like cancer) and destroy cells infected with viruses were found at higher levels after a drumming session. While I personally approach these last set of findings very cautiously, they are no less stunning and point to how our Ancestors healed on many levels..

Our Ancestors taught us that the drums could speak to our spirits and our bodies. They taught us that drums build community and strengthen bonds within us and between us. They help us break through our challenges, sustain us through change and guide us to embrace our gifts. They taught us that drumming can heal.  As we approach Midsummer and, indeed, throughout the Festival Season, there will be much drumming. And our Ancestors are whispering, “Go take your Medicine”.


Bensimon, M., Amir, D.  & Wolf, Y. (2008). “Drumming through trauma: Music therapy with post-traumatic soldiers.” The Arts in Psychotherapy, 35, 34-48.
Bittman B.B., Berk, L.S., Felten, D.L., Westengard, J., Simonton, O.C., Pappas, J., & Ninehouser, M. (2001). “Composite effects of group drumming music therapy on modulation of neuroendocrine-immune parameters in normal subjects.” Alternative Therapies in Health And Medicine, 7, 1078-6791.
Dunbar, R.I.M., Kaskatis, K., MacDonald, I., & Barra, V. (2012). “Performance of Music Elevates Pain Threshold and Positive Affect: Implications for the Evolutionary Function of Music.” Evolutionary Psychology, 10, 688-702.
Mungas, R. & Silverman, M.J. (2014). “Immediate effects of group-based wellness drumming on affective states in university students.” The Arts in Psychotherapy, 41, 287-292.
Winkelman, M. (2003). Complementary therapy for addiction: “Drumming out drugs.” American Journal of Public Health, 93, 647–651.