Saturday, November 27, 2010

Essay: Got Rhythm?

Rhythm: Gotta Have It

For many years I felt self-conscious about keeping rhythm with other musicians. I thought I lacked a sense of rhythm because a male musician had spread ugly innuendos about me in regard to rhythm, which I won’t describe here. Then I met a woman at a new age shop who wondered why I mentioned that I had no sense of rhythm. Impossible, she said. Then she asked, do you breathe, does your heart beat?

We all have a sense of rhythm. Every creatures on this earth from the dog wagging his tail to the rhythms of Bob Marley’s reggae to the squirrel running in staccato up and down the tree. The fish swimming slowly in the murky pond has rhythm, and as we know, George Gershwin got rhythm too, so did Fred Astaire. If you breathe, if you have a heartbeat, brainwaves, and if you walk, talk, sing, dance, run, crawl, or eat, you do so with rhythm.

Back in the mid-1990s I came across Gabrielle Roth’s five rhythms, which included among them, “flowing” and “staccato,” to name two of them. She too mentioned that everyone has rhythm and to become conscious of those rhythms and use their energy to empower you. Coming from the world of dance and metaphysics, she knew her stuff. And I enjoyed learning about her sense of rhythm and dancing my way into my own.

For many years now, I have felt drawn to percussion instruments from diverse musical traditions. It’s not enough for me to watch master drummers, I feel a strong urge to pick up a drum and keep time, and explore rhythms. As a guitarist, I’ve played rhythm, never the lead. I find myself tapping my hands to music and sometimes drumming on my thighs or table in front of me. The world of beats calls to me. And I notice and listen to a whole range of rhythm from the simple heartbeat of a Native American drum to the complexity of an Indian raga beat cycle or the tapping and clapping of flamenco in full swing.

And let’s ask ourselves just how we define certain musical genres. Disco, Cuban son, salsa, rumba, tango, Native American pow-wow songs, and Indian ragas all possess beat signatures. We know the difference between a rumba and bossa nova by rhythm. Think of any musical style in the folkloric or world music genres and you’ll find a determining rhythm. Sometimes I wonder which rhythms carry the highest vibration and bring us the greatest well-being, but perhaps that varies with each listener.

The rhythms that lift me out of a funk include reggae, Indian raga beat cycles, gentle heartbeat of Native American contemporary songs, bossa nova, and samba. For you, the list will differ. So that leaves me to wonder about our own unique rhythmic signature. Our hearts all beat the same, but what about the dancing of cells in our bodies, or our brainwaves? Do those differ from person to person? And how does rhythmic entrainment fit into the way we listen to music and the way our bodies hear the music? And how does culture determine our sense of rhythm? I often wonder.

I didn’t hear any pop or rock music for the first few years of my life. My parents aren’t baby boomers and didn’t listen to rock music. Sure I probably heard fragments of Elvis Presley or the Beatles in passing, but my father listened to country western music, and my mother played classical, jazz (mainly crooners and swing era), and Broadway show tunes in the home. I didn’t get interested in rock music until I turned ten.

And how I would have loved to have lived Mickey Hart’s childhood when he discovered mysterious music of the African pygmies. Nothing so exotic came across my ears, unless I would have heard music from a far off land on the National Geographic television show. But I knew rhythm and I knew the vast world offered treasures that I would someday discover.

But let’s return to rhythm. I type this essay to a rhythm as I listen to a greatest hits album by Mike Marshall. And if I chose to listen to Bach piano pieces instead, or West African blues, then I would type with a different rhythm, the cells in my body would orchestrate to that music, and my brainwaves, heartbeat and natural rhythms would speed up or slow down to entrain to those rhythms. Personally, I’m fascinated with what I can’t see, but still experience. Sometimes rhythm acts like an invisible force pushing us to explore the world further and deeper.

And you know what? Someday I’m going to get me a drum. Every shaman should have one and I’m no exception.