Sitting on my desk in front of me is a book that changed my life. That is not a claim I make for very many books. It provided well-researched in-depth confirmation of what was to me back then just a theory – namely, that rock music is a door to the occult world via percussion. Only later would I go on to see this substantiated via Michael Ventura's historical and critical essay on rock, Hear That Long Snake Moan. But the first and still most complete treatment of the fact is found in this book.
In 1965's flower-powered San Francisco the music was rockin'. From the foment of Haight-Ashbury's free love and easy drugs came a band that would play two thousand concerts and sell thirty five million albums in the next fifty years – the Grateful Dead. Originally called the Warlocks, they changed their name after discovering another band existed by the same name. Fronted by Jerry Garcia, by 1967 they counted among their number a young drummer named Mickey Hart.
Mickey Hart, born in 1943, came of age in the Sixties and embraced them with all the vigor and enthusiasm of youth. He remained with the band for the totality of its existence. In 1994 he and the rest of the band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As the decades passed Mickey grew to become a world class drummer. Over time, as he traveled around the world playing with the band, he began to collect drums. His drum collection gradually developed into first a fascination and then a full blown obsession with the history of percussion in ancient cultures all around the globe.
In 1998 he published the results of his more than three decades of research as Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey Into the Spirit of Percussion. It is a painstakingly researched synchronization of the best of Western Civilization's doctorate level research and the myths and legends of ancient cultures. The Library Journal in a recommended review of it said in part, "His spell-binding drumming stories come from his studies and travels and his consultation with anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and students of mythology, Joseph Campbell among them."
Mickey Hart owns more drums than any man in the world. He has played them in private and in public for tens of thousands of hours. He spent decades collating the legends, myths, and stories surrounding their use for millennia. No man on Earth knows more about drumming than Mickey. It would well behoove us to pay attention to what he says.
With today's lengthy post I will attempt to get you to do so. It consists mainly of a series of selected quotes. The purpose of these to establish in your mind the validity of my contention that rock music is a door to the occult via percussion. You may still disagree with me after reading this but you cannot do so from an uninformed perspective. You will only do so from a stubbornly obdurate one.
…from Chapter One: The Call of the Drum
-To all those who feel the power of the drum and don't know why.
-The most distinctive damarus are made from human skulls.
-"I hope you have been most careful, Mickey Hart. This is a drum of great, great power. It wakes the dead you know."
-It takes commitment and apprenticeship to learn how to find a drum's sweet spot. But once you do, the potential arises for contacting the drum's second voice – one I have come to think of as the spirit side of the drum. Exploring the spirit side of the drum has been the major adventure of my adulthood, if not my whole life.
|Damaru skull drum|
-For almost as long as I can remember, playing the drum has stimulated certain changes in my consciousness.
-These instruments are capable of releasing certain energies that you contact only when you play.
…from Chapter Two: The Garden of Percussion
-He [James Blades, author of Percussion Instruments and Their History] would mention, for example, that the frame drum was played by North American shamans when they sang their power songs, but then offered no further information about the relationship of drums to shamanic power.
…from Chapter Three: The Hole in the Sky
-The last time I saw Joseph Campbell [author of The Way of the Animal Powers, mythologist, an intellectual follower of the more crass and evil Aleister Crowley] a few months before his death in 1987, he was as enthusiastic and entertaining as ever, inviting me to his home in Hawaii so we could finally sit down and crack open the mystery of shamans, the animal powers, and the drum.
-In his now-famous formulation, Joe used to put it this way: "Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before."
-He knew all about drums and ritual. He knew that you didn't find a shaman without finding a drum. Years earlier he had edited Maya Deren's classic account of Haitian vodun (or voodoo), The Divine Horsemen, remarking in his preface that nothing he had read had quite prepared him for Deren's personal account of possession trance, particularly "the power of the drums as they drove the god into the body of the devotee."
…from Chapter Six: Portrait of a Drummer as a Cold Warrior
-Just before enlisting I had discovered the music of Babatunde Olatunji, the Nigerian drummer who lives in New York. It was my first exposure to the mother rhythms from West Africa that later mutated into my tradition, becoming rock and roll. All I knew then was that whenever I played this music at one of Raphael's parties, the room would transform. It was as though the rhythm of the drum was calling up something from these sleek cosmopolitan bodies that had been asleep.
-One leave I traveled across North Africa. In Morocco I stumbled into a village that was celebrating the hashish harvest. The drumming had been going on for days, accompanied by big, loud, double-reed pipes. Everyone was smoking hash. In the square, dervishes danced themselves into trance, pushing thin, razor-sharp skewers through their cheeks. Someone told me that if the dancers felt pain, they weren't truly in trance.
…from Chapter Seven: Among the Ethnos
-When anthropologist John Roscoe came to Banzanhole, he found, at a little distance from the royal kraal, a small enclosure in which stood the hut of the royal drums… In front of the bed or stand was a row of pots belonging to the drums in which the daily offering of milk was put… The milk was placed there in the morning and remained there until nine or ten o'clock at night, by which time the drum spirits would have drunk their fill… Offerings of beer and cattle were made to the drums by chiefs…
-I played them on stage during that tour and when I got back to the Barn I discovered I couldn't stop playing them. They sent me into a deep trance state full of vivid hallucinations.
-During our first conversation I had told Fred [Lieberman, a professor and ethnomusicologist] about my belief that drums were intimately connected with altered states of consciousness. He'd said, "Percussion and transition." [link to the pdf] This, it turned out, was the name of a little debate that had been going on in social sciences since the last sixties when the eminent British anthropologist Rodney Needham had published a small essay with that title in the journal "Man", calling attention to the fact that percussion was almost universally used during such rituals of transition as birth, puberty, marriage, and death when the spirit world was called upon for guidance. Needham asked, "Why is noise that is produced by striking or shaking so widely used in order to communicate with the other world?" Fred and I picked up Needham on one of our feeding runs in the library. What fascinated me was the picture that emerged of the way information was shared among intellectuals. Needham hadn't pretended to know the answer; he was posing the question. The next issue of "Man" included several reasoned responses to Needham. A couple directed his attention to an article published a few years earlier in the field of acoustics, "A Physiological Explanation of Unusual Behavior in Ceremonies Involving Drums", [link to the pdf] authored by a psychologist named Andrew Neher. Studying drumming in a laboratory setting, Neher found that he was able to "drive" or "entrain" the brainwaves of his experimental subjects down into what is called the alpha/beta border, which means that a majority of the electrical activity in their brains was pulsing at a rate of between six and eight cycles per second… And it was this overload which helped induce trance.
…from Chapter Nine: Portrait of a Drummer at the Edge of Noise
-At the end of the set we all embraced, wordlessly. [Jerry] Garcia later told me that everyone had felt it when I finally synched up. Suddenly, with two drums pounding away in the back, they had glimpsed the possibility of a groove so monstrous it would eat the audience.
-There was a physicality to the music that I hadn't noticed before. After a particularly loud set people couldn't walk or talk right; their speech was slurred. Sometimes head colds vanished.
-The band had rented a former movie star's castle in the Hollywood Hills, an enormous spooky building with damp concrete walls and winding staircases. Billy and I moved our drum pads into an empty room and stayed there for days. Employing some intensive hypnotic techniques I had learned, Kreutzmann and I now attempted to lock up at a deep level. We'd play for hours: I taught Billy what I knew of the rudiments, and he taught me how to rock.
I had heard, of course, of the phenomenon of rhythmic entrainment that rock and jazz musicians call "the groove." I had even fleetingly experienced it, but Billy taught me to trust in it, to let it draw me in like a tractor beam.
-A lot of these rhythms couldn't be married to the backbeat, but some mated pretty well; even when the rhythmic match went nowhere, there was always the One [a particular style of rhythm from India]. Every time we hit the One we got a little higher; the group groove grew a little deeper… Possessing that information allowed us to manipulate the echo to deepen the audience's rhythmic involvement.
Mickey Hart became good friends with a drummer from India named Zakir. Here is a bit of Zakir's story:
When I was seventeen I went to my first chilla, which is a ritual retreat. A musician is supposed to do three of them. A hut is prepared for you in a remote region, usually near the village of your guru's ancestors. For forty days you live in the hut, doing nothing but playing music.
The first one I did I thought would be easy. I bathed, recited the proper mantras, and then played my instruments for fifteen hours. A breeze. A drummer can take one rhythmic cycle, or tal, per day, or just play one tal for forty days.
By the second day the vibrations of the constant drumming were beginning to work on my consciousness. I saw things in the music that I'd never seen before, new combinations, new patterns. By the third day, however, I was starting to get bored. By the morning of the fourth day I did not want to touch my table. I forced myself to play. From the fifth day on I have little memory. I don't remember when I took a bath or ate. As soon as I began playing the visions would start. Everyone who does a chilla has these visions. They are an extension of the emotions, so that if I felt good, then these visions would be good. I'd heard stories of people who had had many bad experiences in life and when they went to do chillas their hallucinations were so scary they screamed – and the chilla was broken.
…I would have kept playing in this trance state perhaps forever if my father hadn't come to bring me home at the end of the fortieth day.
[Regarding his second chilla] The first ten days were like before, though now I was expecting visions. On the eleventh day, however, something strange happened. My table changed shape. It became a different instrument. It looked like a cross between a table and a big conga drum, except it also had eyes and a mouth, and it started talking to me… It reappeared throughout the next thirty days, sometimes terrifying me, always fascinating me. "It's an instrument," I kept telling myself. "An instrument can't hurt me; it's just a musical instrument. Why would a musical instrument want to hurt me?"
[Mickey's comment to Zakir about this experience] "Zakir, relax, it's okay, it's the groove! Let it move you."
…from Chapter Ten: Shaman's Drum: Skeleton Key to Other Worlds
-The warmth of the fire is said to burn away the fog from the novice's eyes, so they can see their spirit allies and learn the songs they are supposed to sing to them.
-When the ritual is about to begin, the shaman picks up his drum, warms it over the fire to give the skin its proper tension, and then sits down with it on his left knee and strikes the rim with his drumstick. All conversation ceases.
The shaman begins the first song, an invocation to the spirits. After each verse, everyone present sings a rhythmic refrain. As the song progresses the shaman begins to call on his spirit allies. He names each of them and describes their power and the services they have rendered to the tribe. He tells them how he sees them leaving their homes and coming to his isolated spot.
The drumming becomes softer and the song is interrupted by the sound of the spirits, grunts and whistles, and the whirring of wings… The dialogue between ancestor spirit and ally is heard by all since it comes out of the shaman's mouth in the form of screams, grunts, and yells.
The drumming grows thunderous. Suddenly the shaman leaps to his feet. He sways from side to side, bending low and straightening, then he "looses such a torrent of sound on the audience that it seems everything is humming – the poles of the tent, even the buttons of those present."
Throwing his drum to his assistant, the shaman's song rises to a scream and he begins to dance, pantomiming the journey of his ally in the underworld. He whirls and spins, he foams at the mouth, then he drops down and lies like one stricken. He is in deep trance. Having joined his ally in the underworld, he is no longer in this time.
Urgently his assistant grabs the drum, warms it over the fire and begins to beat it vigorously, calling to the shaman not to get lost in that dangerous land. Look at the fire, he yells. Listen to the drum so you can find your way back!
The drum becomes louder and louder. Suddenly the shaman screams. He leaps to his feet and begins dancing for the return of his chief ally. Presumably he now knows the nature of the bad spirit that is causing his patient's sickness.
-The word "shaman" comes from… individuals in the tribe who can enter into a trance in order to commune with the spirit world.
-For the shaman, the drum is not so much a musical instrument as a vehicle for transportation.
-…to be perfectly honest, what first caught my attention with regard to shamans were their drums. Shamans are drummers – they're rhythmists, they're trance masters who understood something fundamental about the nature of the drum, something I badly wanted to learn.
I noticed, as I began to study the anthropological debate over percussion and transition, that most of the examples of percussive trance fell into two broad categories. In the first, drumming was used to summon the spirits or the gods down into the body of someone other than the drummer, usually a dancer. This is known as possession trance. The classic example is vodun, where the spirits – called the loa – are said to descend and mount the bodies of the dancers and ride them like horses.
The second type of trance is shamanic or "communion trance," the opposite of possession trance in almost every way. In a communion trance the spirit or soul of the drummer is said to ride his drumbeat like a horse up to the spirit world, where he transacts business in an active rather than a passive way.
-…shamans are people who have developed techniques that allow them to enter esoteric states of consciousness. In modern psychological jargon, they are individuals who mastered lucid dreaming, clairvoyance, clairsentience, out of body travel – the whole spectrum of what psychiatrist Stan Grof calls "nonordinary states of consciousness." Shamans can be thought of as individuals who have learned how consciously to enter some of these states and then bring back to this reality the information they obtain there.
-…it does, however, take a healthy, robust mind to go into trance, with ease, on a regular basis. People in different ethnic groups distinguish very well between those who are mentally ill and those who are shamans.
-Among the Ainu of Japan, a woman falls with a traditional female nervous disease… if she succeeds in curing herself – that is, drives the bad spirit from her body – then a good spirit will come to live near her. The spirit might be that of a snake, a fox, or a caterpillar. When the woman enters a trance state, this spirit will speak to her and tell her the nature of the illness of those who now come to her to be cured.
-Not only do the shaman's receive their songs from the spirit world, but most of the instruments they play as well. According to the Warao of Venezuala, the gourd rattle they use in their rituals was obtained many years ago from the spirit of the South by an ancestral shaman: "During his visit he received the sacred fire rattle and was given instructions about the creation of channels of communication with the supernatural so that he and his kind might never lose contact with the gods of the cardinal directions."
-The Khakass shaman does not make his own drum. In a trance he receives special instructions from the "masters of the holy mountain", which he then imparts to the members of his tribe who are responsible for building the drum…
-The birch handgrip is called "mars", meaning tiger, and it represents the master spirit of the drum. These are the eyes of the tiger. It is through those eyes that the shaman's spirit allies enter and depart from the drum. When they are inside the drum, the shaman enjoys their power.
-The shaman now takes up his new drum for the first time and examines it to make sure his instructions have been precisely followed. Then he goes into trance and rides the World Tree to show his drum to the Lord of the Universe, who in turn makes sure that all his instructions have been carried out. If the drum is approved, then the Lord of the Universe assigns the shaman his animal allies.
-When the shaman's drum dies, so does the shaman's power, and frequently so does the shaman.
…from Chapter Twelve: Africa: The Invisible Counterplayers
-Frobenius [early 20th century ethnologist] felt that the Yoruba of West Africa were the most spiritual people in the world. I don't know about that, but I think it's safe to say that Africans, particularly West Africans, are probably the most rhythmical, in the sense that an awareness and appreciation of rhythm is the mainstay of their culture.
-African rhythm, he [Erich von Hornbostel, early 20th century musicologist] wrote, was "syncopated past comprehension."
-Not all possessing spirits are Orisha [what West Africans deem to be good, ancestor based spirits], and you don't want to be possessed by just any spirit, so great care must be taken that only the correct spirit takes up residence. The way this is accomplished is with the drum. Particular rhythms are supposed to attract particular spirits. An Orisha like Shango only comes when he hears his rhythm.
The most powerful trance rhythms belong to secret societies, which handle all communications between this world and the spirit world. The Yewe secret society of West Africa has seven different types of drum rhythms that accompany the sect's seven special dances and attract seven different spirits.
-Not much has been written about what goes on during these initiation rites, but bits and pieces can be found in literature, particularly in some of the New World appearances of the possession sects, like candombe, vodun, and Santeria. Some of these sects seem to have discovered ways to keep their young initiates in trance for months.
-McCall's [David, author of West Africa and the Eurasian Ecumene] thesis that the West Africa possession trance cultures were actually a remnant of the Neolithic mother goddess tradition reminded me of something I had read in Gilbert Rouge's Music and Trance. In his chapter on the ancient Greeks, Rouget had gone to great lengths to prove that many of the ecstatic religions that had so annoyed Greek rationalists like Plato were in fact possession cults. The Greeks had known four different kinds of trance: erotic trance, poetic trance, mantic trance, and something Socrates called telestic trance. According to Rouget, this last trance, which comes from the Greek "teletai", meaning ritual, was a possession trance. Amidst frenzied dancing, which Pluto in The Republic banned as "unfit for our citizens", the spirits of the cult came down and took up residence in the bodies of the dancers.
What Rouget had not bothered to explore was the interesting fact that all of these possession cults – the Corybantes, the Bacchantes, the cult of Cybele, the Dionysian cults – were all surviving fragments of the ancient goddess religions, all of them trance possession cultures in which drums were probably the driving mechanism. At one point in the play "The Bacchae", Dionysius cries out, "O my sisterhood of worshippers, whom I lead with me from barbaric countries… Raise the music of your own country, the Phrgian drums invented by Rhea the Great Mother, and by me."
-Was there, immediately prior to Western "history", a drum-driven possession trance culture that worshiped the earth in the form of the Great Mother? Suddenly a lot of things clicked into place.
-I remembered Gimbutas writing that there was "an intimate relation between the drum and the mother goddess."
-It literally disappears from our history, is all but wiped out, except for the bit of it
– if McCall is correct – that withdraws into the West African forest, nurturing a culture that Leo Frobenius will one day call the most spiritual of the world.
- When slave ships began plying the waters between the New World and West Africa, everyone thought they were just carrying strong, expendable bodies. But they were also carrying the Counterplayer culture – maybe even the mother goddess culture – preserved in the form of drum rhythms that could call down the Orisha from their time to ours. In the Caribbean and South America, slaves were allowed to keep their drums and thus preserve their vital connection with the Orisha, though the the sudden mingling produced new variations like candomble, Santeria, and vodun.
-And out of this severing came jazz, the blue, the back beat, rhythm and blues, rock and roll – some of the most powerful rhythms on the planet.
…from Chapter Thirteen: The Brotherhood of the Drum
-It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment when I awoke to the fact that my tradition – rock and roll – did have a spirit side, that there was a branch of the family that had maintained the ancient connection between the drum and the gods. I suppose it was a little like meeting some long lost cousins and realizing with a start that these are your relatives, that you are rhythmically related, and in drumming that's the same as blood.
-[quote from Babatunde Olatunji, famous Nigerian drummer] But the most important rhythms in Yoruba land are those that communicate with the Orisha… There are several ways of celebrating these Orisha. Sometimes we make sacrifices at the shrine of the Orisha and offer them gifts. Or else a feast with drumming and dancing is planned, and as we chant and dance, some of the people will become possessed by the spirit, of, say, Ogun or Shango and be transformed to a higher spiritual level.
-[still quoting Olatunji] But when I got to college and first turned on the radio and herd, "When I love my baby, every time it rains I think of you and I feel blue", I was so stunned. I remember thinking, hey that's African music; it sounds like what's at home."
So there it is – a summation of the book that is sitting on my desk that changed my life. What I had long suspected about rock music and its present connection to an ancient demonism had been proven in excruciating detail. And not by some wild eyed ignorant Baptist preacher, but by the rock drummer of our age who knows more about drumming than any other man on the planet. I will leave you with one last quote from Mickey Hart. I urge you to let it soak in for a while…
None of my friends talked about shamans, and yet that's what we were all trying to become, without knowing it.