Women's Prophetic Drumming Tradition
When they unloaded the drums from their truck, I knew I’d chosen the right group to perform for the school’s Fine Arts assembly (I was the PTA Chair for such events that year). The drums were several feet in diameter, it took two or more people to lift them off the truck and onto specially-crafted dollies. They carefully wheeled them up to the stage and set up for their act.
Though only the lower graders were supposed to watch the morning assembly, it soon became evident that no one in the school could work with the drummers playing. The sound was delightfully deafening. Soon all of the school was crowded into the small multipurpose room, captivated by the sound of the Taiko drummers who were performing their carefully coordinated routines on the stage.
On that particular day that the Taiko drummers were at my kids’ school, I was grappling with the recent death of my brother-in-law to skin cancer. It was a tough blow, coming just a few years after my Dad’s death from cancer. I was emotionally weary, I felt disconnected from myself and from my family because I hadn’t allowed myself to mourn properly. But when the drums started to play, I couldn’t hold back the tears. It was as if a floodgate in my heart had opened and I could acknowledge the hurt inside me. I looked over at my son’s teacher—her father was having some serious health problems, too, and had been through surgery earlier that week. Tears were rolling down her cheeks. I could tell that the drums were having the same effect on her. I marveled at the power of something so simple—a stick beating on a hide stretched over the top of a tree trunk. How could it effect us so?
While I don’t have any kind of definitive response to why drums are so emotionally powerful, I did find a partial answer to my question this morning as I listened to an mp3 from the recent Sunstone Symposium, “Women and the Prophetic Drumming Tradition.”* In this talk, Elizabeth Quick explores evidence from the scriptures and ancient records that show women’s religious roles as prophets and drummers. As I was impressed with the depth of Quick’s scholarship, I also felt a lament that drums are not a part of Mormon tradition. Doe Daughtrey, the respondent to Quick, discusses her personal connections to drums and her own desires to play the drumming instruments that she has collected through the years. As I listened to these wise women speak, I yearned for a bit of beating to underlie the importance of their words, for how can one have a session about drumming with not one drum played? Perhaps it was because, as one sister who asked a question at the end pointed out, wouldn’t drumming cause alarm to our neighbors, or be ‘inappropriate?’
Yet in my mind I can imagine a glorious celebration of women and drums. Sitting in a natural space, a meadow perhaps, each woman holding an instrument. One woman would start the beating quietly, slowly, and then in turn each would join in. Someone would chant or hum or yell occasionally. And perhaps tears would flow. Or hearts would swell.
Yes, I know it’s a new-agey imagining. We are all straitlaced Mormon women who sing hymns in predictable rhythms, sitting in chapels, wearing our Sunday best. But can you fault me for thinking just how fun (even dangerous) it might be if, one Sunday, we each brought a drum? And if we each took time to reflect on our foremothers who were drummers and prophets, and contemplated how we could better integrate their influence into our own worship practices?
If you would like to see part of a Taiko drum performance, you can find several on youtube. Here is one example.
*To download an mp3 of this Sunstone session, go to this page and look for session # SL06124.