Maybe it began like this: a million years ago, give or take, our hero heard the thump-thump of the heart of the woman he was caving up with. He echoed it in his mind, then palmed it on his knee, then sticked it to a stone.
The relationship didn’t last (old story; she got involved with some Neanderthal). Still, our pining hero continued to recreate the sound of his beloved’s heartbeat. From love, drumming is born.
Or maybe: the woman grinding seed in a bowl with a piece of wood got her groove on, 4/4 time, accent first and third, watch Harry for the bridge. Or maybe: to motivate warriors for the impending war, somebody beat a circle of animal skin stretched over a hollowed-out log.
We’ll never know if love, food, war, or something else was rhythm’s catalyst. But if then was even vaguely like now, rhythm has informed, driven, reflected, and evolved us since we first knew blood, sweat, and tears.
Rhythm weaves around and through us just a surely as we create it ourselves. The clack of high heels on pavement. The bump of wheelchair wheels over sidewalk seams. The double click of a mouse. The bounce of fingers on a keyboard. Brushing our teeth. Our inhale and exhale. Trash pickup is Wednesday and Saturday. The leaves turn and fall every autumn.
Sometimes we’re unaware of all this. The arts help remind us. Some 50 minutes into the movie “Koyaanisqatsi,” we see a speeded-up pulsing of vehicular and pedestrian traffic on Park Avenue, set to a frenetic score by Philip Glass. There’s not a drum to be heard, and yet the choir and high woodwinds percuss, reflecting the ebb and flow of Manhattan’s peculiar rhythm.
In “All That Jazz,” Roy Scheider repeatedly pops pills, showers, and demands “It’s show time, folks” of his frazzled soul. All this to Vivaldi; again no drums, but the weary throb of his life is palpable.
And what beat did Jackson Pollock hear when he created those bursting, intense drip paintings? Maybe he took a cue from Edvard Munch, who wrote, “I painted the picture, and in the colors the rhythm of the music quivers.”
Oh, and there’s music itself. Listen to Fleetwood Mac’s oddly exhilarating “Tusk,” recorded live at Dodger Stadium with the University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band. Listen to Ravi Shankar at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, his sitar’s dialogue with the raga player entrancing the audience.
Listen to Gary Peacock holding court at Birdland this past February with Marc Copland at the piano and Bill Stewart on drums. Half a dozen times during the 90-minute set, Peacock opened his eyes and turned from his bass to smile at some nuanced touch of brush or stick that Stewart had exacted on his drums. I admired those moments because a conversation was taking place inside the music they shared with us, and we were eavesdropping.
Plato said, “Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.” Lionel Hampton said, “Seemed to me that drumming was the best way to get close to God.” Whether from blood, sweat, tears, joy, or the secret places of the soul, modern drumming seems ever more vital. We’ve got Lionel Hampton and Plato confirming this.
Back to our caveman scenario for just a moment. Maybe he didn’t hear the sound of his ex-gal’s heartbeat. Maybe he heard his own heart and recreated it to become the world’s first drummer.
That’s not selfish. That’s just a guy, communicating, telling a story.
Written for Modern Drummer magazine.