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What History Has to Say about the Drum Circle

Zach Dederick is the resident percussion expert at X8 Drums. He spent his formative years as a drumset drummer but found his calling after immersing himself in a study of West and Northwest African musical culture. The djembe drum’s rhythm, energy and presence has since hopelessly hooked him to the instrument. He now spends his time sharing his experience with others online and through community drumming and live performances.

For many people, perhaps most, the term “drum circle” represents a flaky and cliché-ly hippie venture. It evokes images of dreadlocked white kids ringing a bonfire at a barter fair or jam-band festival and cacophonously bopping away on their djembe drums while under the influence of some exotic psychotropic flora or chemical. And while I’ve participated in many a drum circle that definitely broadly conform to that stereotype (generally minus the cacophonous part), it’s a shame that they are so often dismissed as peacenik self-indulgence. Drum circles can prove a fun, relaxing, inclusive, bonding and sometimes therapeutic undertaking for even the squarest stuffed-shirt.


On the other hand, any number of drum-jam adherents I’ve encountered have suggested and/or are under the impression that by participating in drum circles they are perpetuating and memorializing an ancient tradition. Generally, the ancient traditions which are presumably being upheld belong to either African or Native American cultures. That belief too is a misnomer. The pedigree of the drum circle is hardly ancient and can be traced all the way back through the mists of time to the late 1960s and early 1970s, where it was created and popularized by the counterculture. That it was largely initiated by ‘60s/70s bohemian protest crowd certainly contributes to the enduring association with hippie types.

For the unfamiliar, drum circles are a group activity in which a number of people gather (often in a circle) and play percussion instruments as a group. The most common instrument played is the earlier-mentioned “djembe” drum. The djembe is a West African creation of skin stretched tight over a “goblet” shaped drum and almost always played by hand. There are a number of different categories and sub-categories that populate the world of drum circles but two chief classes under which the rest generally fall. Those are: the facilitated drum circle and the community drum circle.

The Facilitated Circle

Unsurprisingly, facilitated circles (otherwise known as “conducted”, “guided” or “led” circle) are those in which the participants follow the lead of one or several facilitators ( aka “conductors”, “guides”, or “leaders” accordingly). That facilitator sets the rhythm and style of the circle for the circle’s other members. There are a number of reasons facilitated sessions are undertaken. With a group of beginners, a facilitator will sometimes be employed to introduce the new drummers to the concept and basics of a drum circle.

Drum circles and comparable group rhythm enterprises are also organized for therapeutic purposes and those often have facilitators. The therapeutic value of drum circles is said to lie in the exercise (even if it’s moderate) engaged in while drumming; the social and emotional benefits of a group activity, the opportunity to meet new people and make friends, and the intimacy and fellowship inspired by performing together. When drum circles work, and they generally do, those involved find an almost unconscious place in contributing to the group rhythm and that rhythm becomes soothing and inspiring to the point of a sort of aural/full body meditation. That effect is key in the therapeutic process, according to the practitioners, and is largely the reason anyone participates in a drum circle- whether it’s guided or unguided, overtly identified as therapeutic or not.

Some circles are also led by a facilitator as a show of respect to the facilitator. That’s particularly the case if the facilitator is someone of renown in drum circle… circles- someone like Mickey Hart or Kalani.

Community Circles

Community circles are the type with which most people are familiar. Also known as “communal” or “free-form” circles, they take place without a guiding facilitator. These un-modulated circles involve everyone participating both finding and determining the rhythm of the circle throughout its incarnation. Every member improvises for the entirety. Communal circles can also incorporate instruments other than the djembe and its cousins, including didgeridoos, pipes and pretty much anything else. Associated dancing is also fairly common.

The Drum Circle’s Place in History

As mentioned earlier- the drum circle as we know it is not the relic of some ancient tribal ceremony. While drums and related percussion instruments were certainly used by the African and Native American tribes most often associated with drum circles, the most common instrument employed by both tribal communities was the human voice. Drums were more often used as, appropriately, a means for establishing the rhythm of a ceremony, ritual or celebration.

However, that doesn’t mean that the two concepts are unlinked. In a strange example of life following art (or an artistic misconception) modern American Indian scholars and shamans have incorporated drum circles into their ritual. The “Medicine Wheel” drum-based prayer ceremony has found a place in the culture.

Drum circles have also been coopted for any number of pagan, neo-pagan, neo-tribal, druidic, Wiccan and generally shamanistic modern traditions. It’s not a surprising inclusion, because even if drum circles as such aren’t an ancient practice, they represent the coming together of like-minded human beings for a celebration of life’s rhythm and our ability as a species to work together harmoniously. And there’s no aspiration or activity older or more admirable than that.



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