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The connection to spirit: Is the medicine drum a tool or an instrument

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

The drum - as it was given

One of the things that really amazed me when I first heard the calling of the medicine drum, was how broad and old its history was. Interestingly, the medicine drums were given an important position in the communities that had drums. What's even more interesting is that this all happened on every continent that we lived on, without the people on separate continents being able to communicate with each other regularly, or perhaps at all. To me, this means that the drum came into existence through our ancestors, because it resonated with something already in us.

Norwegian shaman drum at museeum
FOTO: FOTO: SOLVEIG NORBERG / NRK. This is the Folldals drum, owned by Bendix Andersen and Jon Torchelsen in Namdalen in Norway, that was forcefully confiscated by the missionary Thoms von Westen in 1723. He gathered info about the drum and its symbols and used his knowledge in an effort to exterminate all the drums. Only about 70 drums in Europe survived.

The difference between a medicine drum and a musical instrument is most likely a modern separation

I believe that as time went by, we separated the function of the medicine drum into two:

  • a musical instrument

  • a tool for healers, medicine men and women, or what you might call shamans.

Shaman drum in forest
My Reindeer drum in the Norwegian forrest

This separation has expanded all the way to modern times, and most people who encounter a drum for the first time today, will most likely look at it only as a musical instrument.

However, when I imagine the medicine drum at its origin, I find that the modern view of musical instrument vs healing is washed out. What I mean is that I am not sure if the difference between the two, in the context of a spiritual experience, existed at its conception. Allow me to elaborate. When I was younger I was watching a documentary called: The Spirit of the Rainforest, where a botanist and linguist travels into the Peruvian rainforest to meet with the indigenous tribe called the Machiguenga. During his stay, the film crew records the tribe singing to the spirit of a poisonous root, while they are stirring it around in the river water. Many years would pass and more life experience was required before I understood what I saw in the documentary as a young, fascinated boy back in 1994.

Watch the scene in the documentary below at 42.26.

What I came to realise about why they are singing is that they want the plant to voluntarily let go of its poison and give itself to the need of the tribe, which is to get fish. This act of singing to the spirit of the plant is related to our ability to sense a push or pull when entering the forest, hunting, fishing or cutting down a tree. The song also functions as a sacrifice. They offer something pleasurable, something of value to the spirit of the plant before picking it up. A sacrifice can also be tobacco, meat, dried fruit or other things that hold value to you.

But, another thing, which is even more important is that everything the Machiguenga do is connected to spirituality. In other words, it's not about being connected spirit, or being spiritual as we might say, on certain occasions, in retreats, in prayer or while drumming. It's about being connected to spirit in everything you do. Every day!

The gift of melody

This led me to the realization that when we humans started humming our first melodies it most

likely accompanied our daily tasks. I can imagine one of our early ancestors having to walk a long distance for food, water or visiting family. During the trance-induced rhythm of walking and breathing in sync with the heart beat, a vocal sound might naturally join in. It would have helped him relax and feel safe, but also made the journey feel like it went by faster, which is a common experience while being in a trance-like state of mind. Today, science is catching up to these ancient practices and provides a data-based explanation of the deeper meaning of song and melody. It has also been scientifically shown that singing or humming can Lower cortisol and has an effect on anxiety levels.

Now, pay attention, because this is a BIG one! Singing in a choir or vocal group, which we might say is a modern label for “singing with your tribe”, even has the ability to synchronizes the heartbeat of everyone participating in the song! Now, just think about this; one of the most important factors to achieving rapport with someone is to breathe in sync with the other person. The breath is controlled by the heartbeat. So, if the heartbeat synchronizes, then the breath synchronizes too. This means that when our ancestors sang together during labor, while travelling or around the campfire, it had a tremendous bonding effect, which made them all feel more connected to each other. This would of course then lead to a stronger tribe. No wonder why certain musical scales and melodies are like a geographical fingerprint of a tribe or even a nation.

Belonging to a tribe is a fundamental part of our experience. To be supported and being able to support others has always been in us. Its part of who we are as a pack animal. The separation from others, which brings about the feeling of loneliness, is a huge problem today. This is why we are now making a serious effort to reunite the tribe of those who have heard the calling of the drum, ancient wisdom and spirit. Together with wisdoms bearers and teachers we will both preserve and share the teachings that will help us find back to our true nature.

Then when we developed words, songs would become a tool for memorization. This means that if you knew the song of the bow, then you knew how to make a bow. If you knew the song of hunting, then you knew how to hunt. If you knew the song of weather, then you knew what to look for to see if rain was coming. If you knew the song of how to dress your child to protect it against the cold, then the child would also learn how to dress itself by learning the song. This method of using songs to teach is still present in our kindergarten and school education.

So my point is this: in the beginning, when we were completely emerged and surrounded by nature, we were much more sensitive to being guided by spirit. From that standpoint, the habits and rituals that emerged from us were also deeply connected to spirit. A melody wouldn't be labeled as music, and a medicine drum wasn't necessarily labeled as a tool. They were both a doorway to a deeper wisdom and guidance that we found, and still find, both useful and necessary to this day.

If you would like to start your journey into the depth of the healing drum, you are welcome to consider the amazing and truly powerful drums that we make. Our drums are used by practicing shamans and others who enjoy the healing powers of the drum.

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