Moving into Meditation with African Rhythms

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Dan Bailey leads a drum workshop in Southampton. Michael Heller photos

By Emily J. Weitz

No matter what’s happening at home, when you set down your drum in the circle and drop in to the rhythm, a new narrative begins. Dan Bailey, who learned from Nigerian drum master Baba Olatunji and has been teaching the practice for more than 20 years, carries drummers through this narrative with a joyful hand.

“This is a powerful and healing meditation practice,” Bailey said. “Certain rhythms help you drop into a state of moving meditation.”

Bailey drums along to a meditative rhythm.

Bailey starts his drum talks with Baba’s Warmups, through which he teaches participants the international language of the drum. Sometimes those warmups will lead to full-out improvisational sessions. Sometimes sticking with the warmups is enough to create a collective meditation.

“The object of meditation is to put your attention on one thing, and in this case it’s rhythm,” said Bailey.

Along with his partner, Lauren Chu, Bailey is bringing the deep benefits of drumming to communities all over the world that need them most. As someone who grew up on the East End, he believes in starting at home. Through Giving Rhythm, they have taught drumming from Bridgehampton to the Bahamas to kids who need it most.

“We were working with kids in the Bahamas who struggled with attention,” said Chu, “and one kid got a rattle and started hitting it on the drum, and the teacher said he had never done anything for that long.”

They’re studying how drums can help communities at risk, and they look at drumming as a prescribable antidote to some of their greatest challenges.

“We want to prescribe drums instead of drugs,” said Bailey.

Different rhythms have different effects. They were rooted in different purposes. So if someone was feeling out of sorts, anxious or depressed, or just overwhelmed, Bailey might prescribe a balancing rhythm. He strikes the drum steadily – left, right, left, right, left, right. 1,2,3 1,2,3.

“This balances the sides of the brain,” he explained. “We are programmed to be one-sided. Everything we do is with one hand. To awaken the other side is to balance this out.”

One of his drumming teachers who taught with Olatunji told his students to spend a week brushing their teeth with the non-dominant hand, and doing basic tasks that way.

“It opens up new pathways in the brain,” said Bailey.

The impact that drumming has as a meditation is something Bailey has felt first hand countless times.

“There have been plenty of times that I didn’t want to drum,” he said, “and I literally always come out on the other side brighter. It clears the mind.”

This is a basic tenet of meditation. It doesn’t matter how you come to sit, or what you’re bringing with you, but just that you do it. And you move through it. And you come out on the other side transformed. Chu has also witnessed the transformative energy drumming can have on an interpersonal level.

“It’s good for moving energy in groups,” she said. “If there’s ever tension in a group, the drumming will move the energy. It brings people together and gives a point of community that is often absent.”

Many of the songs Bailey teaches include singing as well as drumming, and this helps bond people together even more. The call and response, the singing in unison, invoking words that have been uttered for thousands of years to bring people together.

“These are probably the oldest forms of art passed down through the generations,” said Chu.

One song that Bailey learned from Olatunji, which he now prescribes as a way to move through depression or self-doubt, is called Aramile.

“Baba said to sing that song any time you’re having a tough morning,” Bailey recalled. “Aramile, aramile, aramile, o ya ya.”

Translated, it simply means, “My whole self is well,” and it’s meant as a healing mantra. When Bailey first studied with Olatunji at Omega Institute when he was in his early teens, he believes that songs like that, and drumming in general, saved his life.

“It took me away from heavy drugs,” said Bailey, “and onto a different path of discipline, focus, self-confidence and teamwork.”

Bailey often hears that people would love to do drumming, but they just don’t have any rhythm. He scoffs at that, daring anyone who doubts their own innate rhythm to try a drum talk with him.

“Everything happens in rhythm,” he said. “If you have a heartbeat, you have a rhythm.”

To find out when and where the next Drum Talk is happening, or to dance to the rhythms of Dan Bailey Tribe, check out their web site at www.danbaileytribe.com.


African Dance Postures

After the first hour of Dan Bailey’s weekly drum talk, people are invited to practice African dance. The drummers can keep playing or they can join in the dancers for a whole other form of moving meditation.

Fanga, a dance that originated in Liberia, means “We welcome you with peace.”

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