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.


Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

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  1. AmyB says:

    A few years ago I had the privelege of being in a taiko drumming performance. Learning the choreography and the drum beats was such an amazing experience. Taiko drumming is like a dance. It is exquisite.

    I’ve also participated in drum circles a number of times. There is something remarkably community-building and unifying about a group of people drumming together. I love the image of a group of women drumming together. I can picture a celebration of women dancing, singing, and drumming together. That’s a form of worship I could get very excited about!

  2. Caroline says:

    I’ve never thought about women’s drumming and prophecy. What a fascinating connection. I definitely want to listen to that Sunstone session.

    Thanks for the great post, Jana.

  3. Kristy says:

    Jana, what a great post. I was at the Susnstone symposium regarding this concept and it was very intriguing.

    My mom, who is an art therapist, recently had my two young daughters over for an art class. The four of us sat in a circle on her art room floor, as she told my daughters about the earliest paintings, found on cave walls and stone cliffs around the world. She then asked them what they might want to draw on a wall or a stone, if it were the only thing they could leave for a future generation.

    Then she pulled out a drum she had made years ago and she told the girls about how the drum was used in ancient cultures. She then talked about how the beating of a drum can reflect the actual sound and the feelings within a beating heart. She passed the drum around, asking my 7 year-old and 9 year-old daughters to each take their turn expressing the rythm and feelings within their hearts. Then she asked them to do it one more time and think of an image they would want to paint on stone.

    I was amazed at how seriously and intensely both of my girls beat that drum–no insecurity–no inhibition. I assumed they both might start acting silly, not taking it seriously, but both of them stared into some distant place and began tapping, knocking and pounding out the most unique, distinct, clear rythms. The experience took them someplace–perhaps to the center of their hearts–and afterwards, they both painted the most amazing pictures on flat pieces of sandstone that my mom had purchased.

    It was a great experience and it only reinforced that there is something very profound about the beating of a drum. Perhaps, as Mormon women, we are afraid to pick up the drum and find our own sacred rythm within our individual hearts. I pray that my two girls will hold on to their unique rythms and always have the courage to pound them out.

  4. Bethany Magdalene says:

    Hi Jana and all,

    I am excited about your interest in my presentation at Sunstone this year! In your post you asked “for how can one have a session about drumming with not one drum played?” You may be interested to know that I did start the session off with the reconstructed ancient music (including female drummers) from Jerusalem’s Second Temple Period that was cited in my talk however, probably for both time and legal reasons, the music was not included in the recording of the session.

    So I just wanted to give people who are reading this thread or who might download the session some resources for further exploration:

    To hear the sound of a frame drum go to http://glenvelez.com/
    To order the CD cited in my paper go to: Ancient Echoes – Music from the time of Jesus and Jerusalem’s Second Temple http://tinyurl.com/n76m5

    To see an actual survival of the ancient prayer and drumming circle check out this film:

    One week after I got back from the Sunstone Symposium something remarkable happened. I rented a recently released DVD, having no idea that it would validate and crystallize all of the material that I had presented in my paper. The DVD is titled Mystic Iran and captures historic footage, of the survival of the prayer circle cited in my paper, as well as the survival of the ancient frame drumming tradition. The ancient tradition cited in my paper has been preserved by female Sufi dervishes and the female film-maker received special permission to film these ceremonies for the first time in history. If you want to see a living remnant of exactly what I have written about and are lucky enough to find this at your local video store or library, or can afford to order it, I cannot recommend it enough! What a coincidence to have come across this precious human document that validates the years of research that I did for this Sunstone presentation. The url for the film’s website is:

    I also just posted the paper and the PowerPoint presentation photos that went along with it to my BLOG:


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