Drum class keeps the beat alive

NEIGHBORS

March 02, 2004|By Dana Klosner-Wehner | Dana Klosner-Wehner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE WALLS and floor vibrated; the drummers concentrated, some head down, some with eyes closed, feeling the rhythm.

At the basic hand-drumming class at Columbia Art Center in Long Reach, students leave their worries at the door and immerse themselves in West African hand-drumming.

For an hour and a half, the six students at a class last month held large, hourglass-shaped drums called djembM-is between their legs, slapping the drum heads in unison.

The sounds conjured images of a faraway landscape and dancers moving wildly to the beat.

"Drumming is a way to empower people and build self-confidence," said instructor Jonathan Murray. "It builds community and relieves stress."

Murray, who lives in Wilde Lake, introduces drumming techniques to people of all ages, from church groups to employees of corporations.

He said he has been "seriously drumming" for 14 years. But his interest in percussive sound goes back to third grade, when he learned to play the snare drum at Bryant Woods Elementary School.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, Murray lived for two years in a small village in Nepal. That's when he renewed his interest in drumming.

"Every culture has a drum they use for a variety of purposes," Murray said. "Drumming is a lens through which to view the world."

In addition to drumming technique, Murray teaches the history and traditions that go with the patterns of sounds.

"In West Africa, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, there is a rhythm," he said. "When a woman gives birth, the drummers wait outside. When they hear the baby cry, a certain rhythm is played."

There are rhythms for weddings, funerals and events such as the fishing harvest, he said.

After studying with well-known hand-drumming instructors and learning Middle Eastern, Latin and African drumming, Murray moved back to Columbia.

"I have a passion for drums. I feel that they are powerful tools capable of channeling human energy into a positive and creative force," he said.

Students need to learn the basics before the channeling can begin.

Each tap on the drum has a syllable, Murray told his students on the second night of class. Each syllable tells how the drummer's hand should be held and which part of the drum should be hit.

"The first sound is `gun' [pronounced goon]," Murray said. "Use your hand like a mallet. Place your fingers close together and hold the thumb up, out of the way. Strike in the center," he said, as he demonstrated the booming sound. Other sounds include "go do pa" and "dun," Murray said.

Each syllable tells the drummer whether the hand should be open or closed, whether the drum should be hit in the center or toward the sides, and whether the left or right hand should be used.

The class recited the sounds: "Gun, gun, go, do, go, do, gun, gun, go do," they chanted in unison.

Then the drumming began.

It started slowly; then Murray stepped up the pace. It wasn't long before the six beginners sounded like experts.

"That's the beauty of drumming: It's an activity that's accessible," Murray said. "Anyone can walk up and do it. It doesn't take a lot of training."

But not everyone found it easy. "It's harder than I thought," said Jacqueline Rude of Long Reach. "[But] it's a lot of fun, and it's a great way to get your aggressions out."

Drumming was not a new experience for Delia Realmo DeSoto of Long Reach. She recently moved back to Columbia after living in Africa for five years.

"In Africa, I was part of a drumming team," DeSoto said. "I had a good ear, but I didn't know the technique. My sounds were muffled. [Murray's sounds] are clear. It's awesome to think, when I go back to Africa and they say `Where'd you learn to play like that?' I'll say, `Columbia, Maryland.'"

For Mechell Dickens of Long Reach, drumming was a dream come true.

"I wanted to play drums since I was in third grade," she said. "It's very therapeutic to come from a hard day at work and beat on a drum, especially on a Friday night. You get out all the stress from the week."

"I smiled through this whole class," said Rick Nichols of Clarksville. "There's a good spiritual thing about it. When I'm playing drums, time stops."

"I love being able to share this feeling," Murray said. "My mission is to connect people with power and rhythm and help them empower themselves - and don't forget to have fun!"

The next basic hand-drumming class will be held at Columbia Art Center next month.

Information: 410-730-0075.

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