Thursday, January 29, 2015

Drum spirits and real church

Paradise Island, Bahamas

After my last workshop at the ashram, I walk up the beach to the Atlantis resort in quest of some tiger food. The closest I come is a Caribe Spicy burger. A little black kitten jumps up on the windbreaker I have placed on the next chair and waits patiently until I share my late lunch with her, breaking off pieces of burger from the side not coated with jerk sauce.
   On the way back, there is an empty lifeguard's chair, the perfect throne for me to occupy while I watch the Atlantic waves and feed more of my spirits with a good cigar. A dark-skinned man approaches me. I recognize him from the ashram. He appreciates the cigar, telling me that another of his teachers, Malidoma Some, was often to be observed smoking a cigar in breaks from his workshops. We agree that we must feed our spirits, and different spirits require different sustenance.
   He tells me he is a drummer, and assisted Babtunje Olatunje, the renowned Yoruba drummer, in some of his performances at the Esalen Institute, where I am teaching again in April. He is eager to explain how he dreamed his way to a prize drum, made in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) over a hundred years ago. It has an unusual design, featuring huge hands and a pair of female breasts and other fertility symbols below the drumhead. In one of his dreams, he saw the shape of those great hands, clasping something unseen, and was told by a voice that he must take up drumming.
    After the message came again, he found himself in an antique shop in California filled with artifacts from many indigenous cultures. In the African section, he discovered the drum with the hands and the breasts and was certain it was the one he had dreamed. he ran his hand across the surface in a glissando. This sent out singing vibrations through the store that brought the owner running to see, "What was that?"
     Of course, my new friend wanted to buy the drum but he was a poor student at the time who did not even own a car. Playing another drum in a pop-up concert, he earned enough in donations to lay down a deposit, and then unexpected helpers came to enable him to complete the purchase - an anonymous benefactor, a generous reduction in price by the owner.
     "The drum was calling you," I commented. "And its spirits like you. They made everything possible."
     He agreed. "I know I am the custodian of this drum, and that those who came before are playing with me and through me."
     The conversation continued in this vein. I told him some tales of my own connection with spirits of Africa, especially the Yoruba. 

      He told me he had discovered an old, abandoned church nearby - "only the spirits live there now" - and after we parted company I set off to take a look. The atmosphere about the church was slightly sad and eerie, and I decided not go through the broken doorway.
     Then, just behind the church, late sunlight fell on a remarkable tree, a grandmother banyan. I approached her with reverence, offering the last of my tobacco. I knew that this tree is the real church, ancient and ever-living.

photos (c) Robert Moss

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