After having talked about the artwork and the process behind this track, I took a long break because I was swamped with recording and other commitments. But now, it is finally time for me to talk about the social and cultural context behind this piece. While this has been a difficult post to write, I feel it is important, because this is an experience that I feel I'm not alone in having, but not many of us are able to talk about it for whatever reason.
I am going to be talking about some difficult subject matter, so ahead of time, CW: racism, sexism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, child abuse.
I mentioned in the description of The Drummer's Prayer that my parents forbade me from doing anything that infringed upon their image of me, including but not limited to playing drums. It was not "ladylike" -- that was the word they used. My image as their daughter was so tightly controlled that it was unbearable, and I often faced physical, mental, and psychological abuse for even pleading to be given a chance to drum. The description I wrote for The Drummer's Prayer, if you follow the link, should give you a good gist of what it feels like to finally be free to play the instrument that calls out to my heart the most.
In previous posts, I mentioned that I grew up in maritime Southeast Asia (not naming the country, at least not yet). The country of my birth, at a surface level, was a melting pot of many different ethnicities, belief systems, and origins all joined together as one country. Beneath that surface, however, lay a deep-seated, systemic hatred of anything other. This hatred was enshrined in the country's constitution, where one ethnicity would be given indefinite affirmative action in all fields -- in education, at work, and at home -- without any sunset clause. Other ethnic groups, minorities, who did not have that affirmative action to rely on, would be set aside. If they did not have the privilege of money to mitigate the fact that they were marginalised by the country's constitution, they would simply be left behind.
This was, and still is, the social climate of the country of my birth.
Despite this social climate, it was routinely drummed into us through our curriculum, through mass media, and through other means besides, that we were part of a successful social experiment, a true melting pot. Those of us who did question this constant barrage of propaganda, those of us who were brazen enough to highlight systemic inequalities and injustices in my birth country, would be taken away in the night to God knows where to be imprisoned without trial, tortured, and interrogated. Any insistence on the promises made to us about our freedoms of speech, assembly, and/or religion would be met with this same treatment. This happened to a few of my friends.
In the face of all of this, minorities across faith traditions stood together. Some became advocates for social justice. It was in this backdrop that I grew up, and it was notably in this backdrop that I had my formation in my Catholic faith, a huge influence on this piece. Because of all the enduring persecution, my faith formation was deeply rooted in social justice -- though I still had a lot of learning and unlearning to do later on when I was bundled out of the country of my birth.
Even still, I couldn't really take pride in the culture of my birth country. I just couldn't.
I've long struggled with my identity as far as my ethnic and geographical backgrounds are concerned. Some of you who know me know that I am a cultural vagabond, constantly wandering and attempting to understand the cultures and traditions outside of my own, in part to find belonging -- in large part because I grew up with abusive traditions in my own ethnic culture. As such, you may find musical influences from various different cultures: I programmed my vibraphone like a set of kulintang, and early on in the piece, I beat out a rhythm that seems to be shared across a host of different cultural traditions. The throaty, nasal vocals are reminiscent of Bulgarian choirs. These same vocals coupled with the drums are reminiscent of dikir barat, a Malay / Thai choral singing tradition. That drum solo in the end is deeply rooted in my foundations as a jazz drummer, and we all know just how rich Black American musical traditions -- including jazz -- are.
But all of these elements seem to be bound together by the lyrics, which I wrote as an expression of my faith. And as a final nod to that same faith, I rang the tambourine for a prolonged period towards the end, so that it would be reminiscent of altar bells. In mainstream Western Christianity at least, altar bells are used to make a joyful and solemn noise, most often when the Eucharist is presented on the altar.
All of these elements join together in one cohesive whole -- or at least, I hope they do. This piece is an expression of my innermost desire to pray through the drum, and hopefully have others join in that same prayer. It is an expression of joy at the freedoms I currently have. It is a wish to share that same joy with others. I poured so much of myself into this piece that even now, I feel like I'm going to burst.
There's another side to this prayer.
For, you see, in many Western church congregations (especially Catholic congregations), there is an insistence that the music must be done through means of this one instrument; all the others are to be frowned upon, and there should absolutely be no drum usage in church!
In a way, this piece is a sort of rebellion, an affirmation that I've been given the gift of rhythm, and it would be a shame to not use it, especially in prayer. People used to brand the drum as "savage" and "uncivilised" -- no, seriously, I've actually heard this from the lips of some parishioners and clergy -- the racism and xenophobia on display! -- and I remember feeling dejected when I was told this, because I remember wanting to pray through the drum ever since I was a toddler. Even if this attitude is less prevalent now, many congregations and people are still used to the old ways of making music, and so there aren't many opportunities for people like myself, with our seemingly heterodox instruments, to make music to our Maker publicly. I mean, imagine the backlash if we just marched in one day and said, "Folks, we're not gonna use the pipe organ today. We're just gonna stick to the drum and voice!"
So, in the absence of opportunities, I made my own. I wrote songs of prayer that made heavy use of the drums. Three-year-old me would be proud to hear songs like these, I'm sure of it.
To me, this is also very special because during the thick of the pandemic here in the UK, when we were in lockdown and my fiancé and I could only watch broadcasts of the Mass on Sundays, I felt moved to take my drum in hand and pray through it, much like I yearned to do when I was a young child. I often didn't have the words to express what I was going through or what I felt I needed, and so the drum sang where my lips could not. My fiancé was privy to these prayers, and often encouraged them. The Drummer's Prayer feels like a culmination of these small prayers.
Although I've listened to various drumming traditions from around the world, this desire to drum doesn't seem to be rooted in any one tradition. As far as I can tell, that one's just me. That's just my heart on display (please be gentle!). I look to other traditions for understanding of how to use my passion for the drum, because my own cultures -- both the ones I was born under, and the one I have adopted -- have by and large stopped me from blossoming as a drummer.
This is where we're at. I hope that one day, not too long from now, I may have a positive development to this story. But right now, I'm afraid this is all I'm leaving you with -- it's something that makes my heart break. If all of this reaches you, the listener, and you get to hear The Drummer's Prayer with a new set of ears, that's all I can hope for, and I am grateful.