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The long cultural journey behind my drumming

Much of my rhythmic influence does not come from popular influences (or, incidentally, whoever is touted to be the hottest new drummer in town). It has encompassed a whole journey of listening, learning, and understanding other cultures and traditions. I'd like to talk about it today.

Ahead of starting this post, I need to put a disclaimer: I'm doing my best to find the right images to accompany this post. Some of them are going to be my own, but most of them are going to be stock. I'm admittedly struggling to find the right stock images at this point to illustrate parts of this post. It is not my intention to put some cultures front and centre and disregard others. If you could recommend good free stock images to illustrate parts of my post that are missing images, I'd be grateful. Thank you.

This is a picture of me at the studio at Soundskills Brookfield, posing with a medieval, rope-tensioned drum before recording. A mic is positioned right above the head I am going to beat. Much of the image is greyed out except for me and my drum; I am wearing a Stuart tartan dress with white accessories and have studio headphones on my ears.
This image was taken at Soundskills, the creative centre in Brookfield, Preston, shortly before I beat upon that medieval snare drum.

Early years

The first drum patterns I remember having ever heard, aside from the one my mother beat out for me on my toy drum that one time, were two kinds: the beat of marching drums, and the steady, sure beat of First Nations drums. I was three years old and did not understand the nuances or the contexts behind any of this. I only remember that their sounds called to my heart. It was around this time that I began to drum in prayer, too.

I found it hard to find belonging in my own ancestral cultures, let alone the rhythm patterns of my own ancestral cultures. I am of both North Indian and South Indian descent, but somehow, it was hard for me to relate to the kind of drumming I heard from my own diaspora. Was it abuse that caused this? Or is it something I cannot yet put words to?

A Chinese, Southern Lion dance under way.
Since I do not have any photos of the lion dances in the neighbourhood where I grew up, here's a stock image of a lion dance.

I also grew up in an area with a sizeable Chinese diaspora. During those times, every Lunar New Year, I would hear the drums of the lion and dragon dances. The rhythm patterns for those were among the earliest things I would play back by ear, but I made sure to do so when I was alone, or that I could do so silently, on a pillow, without anyone listening in, because (for reasons that I already went into in previous posts) my parents absolutely hated the idea of me playing drums, and expressed this hatred in the strongest possible terms.

Late adolescence / early adulthood

In the years that I did not have regular access to a full set of drums, i.e. before 2017, I spent many years listening to and internalising various traditional drum rhythms from around the world. Not only that -- I even did my best to understand some of the contexts behind them, e.g. why and when they are played. I started with what I was familiar with -- the rhythms for lion and dragon dances -- before branching out into taiko, pungmul, the Aztec huehuetl and teponatzli, the Hmong four-sided drums... and then, before long, I branched out into other different drumming traditions, and went down the kind of rabbit hole specific to the traditional drummer searching for identity and belonging. I do not fully understand the contexts behind these rhythms, but I understand them at least a good bit, and always make the effort to dive deeper, to understand more.

While I was at university reading law, someone close to me at the time recommended that I try out the bodhrán, as a means of keeping the beat while waiting for a chance to play the drum kit. I listened to its sound a good bit before ultimately setting aside a chunk of my student allowance to buy my first bodhrán online, a crude and simple 18" one. Listening to the beat of the bodhrán also instilled in me a love of Celtic music -- my love of which was one of the things that drew me to the love of my life. My late father-in-law was a bodhrán player, and an award-winning one at that, who was given at least two medals from Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the global promoter of traditional Irish music.

A medal from the Irish traditional music promoter / board, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. It is made of three sections. The first section is a Celtic cross, the four ends of which have a bit of knotwork embossed upon them. The second section is an outer ring with repeating swirl patterns. The third section, the centre circle, is a blue-green and has the logo of Comhaltas, a stylised C, in a silver colour of some sort.
This is one such medal from Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. It must have made my late father-in-law proud.

My love for European folk music led me to explore the music of the Middle Ages. I stumbled across an untranslated PDF copy of Orchésographie by Thoinot Arbeau, which I understood immediately, as I speak French. I ended up diving deep into medieval music, especially pilgrim songs from the Llibre Vermell de Monsterrat, as well as the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Many of these songs have percussive accompaniment. In a previous post, I mentioned the stigma surrounding drums in sacred music; many medieval pilgrimage songs seemed to buck that trend despite perhaps being looked upon as debauched and profane.

This made me light up. Finally, some songs in my faith tradition that unashamedly use drums, I thought. Shame I didn't have anyone to play and sing these songs with, but I beat the drum to them in the silence of my room. My husband -- my then fiancé -- gave me the gift of a medieval snare drum for Christmas 2016; the one you saw at the start of this post is a later, more durable iteration of said drum.

That same drum was my gateway into kit drumming, for it required the use of drumsticks. It became regular practice for me to play grooves on the medieval snare, and then try and adapt them to the drum kit whenever I had access to one.

Recent rhythmic exploration

I started training for the drum kit in 2019, opting to go down the jazz route. I still have plenty to learn, but I am slowly being schooled not only in the playing techniques, but also in the history and spirit behind jazz, and the hardships and discrimination endured by many jazz musicians. Perhaps I need to explore this in a post at some point in the future, along with some videos of me playing.

It was only in 2021 that I finally felt somewhat ready to explore the drumming traditions of my own cultures (and of the surrounding Indian subcultures; for context, I am, at least, of Punjabi and Tamil descent).

I vaguely remembered my paternal grandmother leading the songs of joy at the wedding of a family friend; I'm almost certain that it was she who played the dholki that one night. Buoyed by that thought, I went and looked up some of its rhythm patterns, before then exploring a drum I prefer by a long shot, the nagara and its variants. I prefer deeper drums, and most such drums tend to be quite deep-sounding.

Image I found, of the Rajasthani variant of a nagara. Just try to imagine the powerful sound coming from this.

Many nagaras descended from the Middle Eastern naqqara, which are much smaller kettledrums (fun fact; our timpani also descended from the naqqara). Many regional nagaras -- though not all of them -- grew in size and served as war drums in their own right. Every region has its own variant -- Punjabi nagaras differ from Rajasthani nagaras, Assamese nagaras, etc. That's quite a rabbit hole to go down, if you're interested in looking up videos.

As you can imagine, I've internalised many of the beat patterns here too, and I'm happy to throw them into my improvisation now and then. I do dream of handling a nagara at some point, though I suspect that it's a far-fetched dream. The least I can do is borrow the beat patterns used for it.

Final thoughts

The art behind my drumming is the art of many people who have gone before me. It is the culmination of all the feelings and passions of many people of various different ethnicities. I seem to not only channel my emotions and desires when I beat the drum: I channel the hopes, thoughts, and dreams of those around me. It becomes a sort of prayer. In the course of that prayer, I'm fully aware that the various languages used to express musical concepts are different and often not mutually intelligible. My drumming seems to be a product of these various musical languages that don't seem to mesh.

Playing the rhythm of a different culture -- sensitively, of course -- helps me walk with the people of that culture, if only for a little while. It opens up a window into the way they express themselves, and why they do so. It's a form of empathy. I hope that when I do so, the people of that culture might say, "I'm glad you're taking the time to walk with us." No thanks is necessary, because I don't deserve it. I'm only a drummer, and I feel like an itinerant one, at that. My only claim -- which is probably a terrible one to make at a time when many people are reconnecting with their identities -- is that these many different sounds have all seemed to find a home in me, and have shaped my understanding and sensitivities as a drummer.

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