Hello! Though it's still above 105º here in Sonora, we can feel Autumn change in the air. It's about time!
For my current class with Liz Warren, Telling Sacred Stories, I want to refer to an experience at a Bronx bembe--the one recounted in Sensitive, the opening poem of my book, The Drummer's Path. . I shared that got published back in 1994. This morning, searching my hard drives for that article, I came across the interview below, conducted eighteen years ago on this date, September 16th, for an online martial arts magazine. The online magazine is gone; I trust what we had to say you'll find interesting.
William Reed, the interviewer, asks pointed questions re the convergence of martial arts and traditional drumming; re spirit and culture; and more. We touch on breath, Capoeira, drum circles, sensitivity, Kung Fu, taiko, "primitives", healing, history, Riverdance, and more , Enjoy!
The Drummer's Path: an interview with Sule Greg Wilson, by William Reed -- SEPTEMBER 16, 2000
The following interview was conducted by William Reed on September 16, 2000, with Sule Greg Wilson, drummer, dancer, folklorist, and teacher and student, who has studied drumming under Baba Ngoma, and other masters of the authentic rhythm traditions of Africa and her Diaspora. He has performed with many of the finest artists and groups in the field, including Babatunde Olatunji, the International Afrikan-American Ballet, Africa in Motion Dance Theater, and the Bennu Ausar Aurkestra.
As a folklorist he has explored the cohesion of lifeways and music from the cultures of Africa, India, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific. His book, The Drummer's Path, is a compelling guide to the principles and power of traditional African rhythms for dancers and musicians. A practical guide for percussionists, this book also contains fascinating insights into the history and spirit of traditional drumming, interwoven with personal anecdotes that show how the tradition lives on in America today. He presents twelve fundamental principles for performing African and Diaspora music that have striking parallels to the martial arts, including breathing, posture, ambidexterity, peripheral awareness, use of Chi (Ki) energy, and respecting ancestral lines. In this interview we look more closely at those parallels, and consider ways in which martial artists and drummers might learn from each other.
Also available is The Drummer’s Path: African and Diaspora Percussive Music, from www.SuleGregWilson.com. This audio companion to the book draws from rhythms of the world, playing music ranging from Zimbabwe, Brazil, Mali, Cuba, Ireland the U.S. and India, including chants, drum solos, dance compositions, and traditional hand, body and instrumental percussion.
RHYTHMS OF THE RACE
Reed -- Genetic experts say that the percentage of the human genome that determines racial differences such as hair and skin color is in the range of .01percent. If genetically we are 99.99% the same, then there is only one race, the human race.
Yet if ''race'' is a myth, it has a powerful hold on our consciousness. Do you think rhythm can help us see through the veil?
Wilson — First off, it's obvious: we're one people. If we weren't one blood, there could be no "mating between species". However, there are differences between peoples. Much of it, I am sure, is due to environment. I have heard people speaking, and turn around, and they look totally different than the stereotype image that their "accent" called up. However, to really know what People an individual is of, watch how they move. I have seen this: African people all over the world move like African people. Extrapolate as you will.
[Note: the following passage takes for granted the body/energy reading senses developed by martial artists, yogis and, to a different degree, dancers and body workers. You know, you can tell by a person's stance and aura, their breath, by the way they move-or don’t—whether they've trained, whether they’re ready and/or able. Once they begin to move, you can tell from where in their body they're projecting-and obtaining-their energy.]
There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon of "body language".
Number One: science tells us that nearly 90% of communication is with gesture, posture and tone (and tone is just a refinement of the state of vibration reflected in the posture). This non-verbal, gestural language is what we learn first, watching, listening to and feeling those around us, and imitating their moves. It is our primary mode of sharing. Posture is how we put people at ease or en garde. This same postural assimilation begin with us in the womb, as we slosh around to the rhythm and sense of balance, relaxation and cooperation emanated by our mothers, and those around her.
Number Two: there is physiology. I've seen films of European people doing Asian martial arts and African dance, Asians doing African dance, and Africans doing Asian and European arts. No matter who's doing “someone else's" arts, it doesn't look/vibe the same as the originating people.
That’s not in any way intended as a value judgement, merely an observation.
However, the physical vehicle is a big factor whenever I counsel a person on which particular drum to play, dance style to learn or martial arts discipline to approach. I look at their body type, their structure, and how they "wear" their body. You see, each art form, be it martial, venusian, solar, or saturnial--is an expression of the people that created it. Picture an Ainu doing a Maasai dance, where they uncoil and leap into the air for hours on end, suspending gravity and stilling consciousness with song and movement and unity. Think of Kareem Abdul-Jabarr "fighting" with Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon". If Kareem had used fighting techniques that optimized his body type--as Lee did--who knows what might have happened?
Part of my family came from Majunga in Madagascar, and settled outside of Frederick, MD, about 180 years ago. My aunt went back to Jerusalem, Maryland a few years ago, and the old timers told her that the way she moved was like one of her people; wow.
This brings us to bloodlines. As a Shinto practitioner lights incense on behalf of those from before, as each village calls on its patron or matron saints, just as the Shona dance for their Vadzimu, as the Neville Brothers sang, "That's my blood, down there!", people walk with certain ancestral forces.
It doesn't matter whether a person wants an ancestral force attached to oneself, the Lidloti attach themselves to people they perceive that can help them in their work.
Another reason folks move and vibe as they do is because of the bodies they have. Look at different ethnicities: they are not built the same. Such differences are easy to see in the hip structure of women of different tribal groups: Somali and Thai, Yaqui and Finn. Also, different gene pools have different arm and leg and torso lengths. I assume that musculature must also have its subtle differences. What movement style, which martial art best suits your physiology? Are you going to master close-in work if you’re lanky and leggy? Boxing’s hard if you have no reach. Think of a T-Rex trying to use a punching bag. No; just bite.
Reed -- What do you think of grassroots efforts to experience traditional rhythms such as Drum Circles?
Wilson -- A Drum circle is not an "effort to experience traditional rhythms". Drum circles are a venue created for "white folks" to do hand drumming without having to submit to a "sensei" or "sifu"--to a traditional hand drum master, and by corollary, imbibe traditional ("African/Black") culture. Drum circles are a Euro-American, middle/upper middle class invention, not "grassroots".
Learning hand drumming—just as martial arts—is not isolated techniques. It is learning the Way of the Drummer, and of the People from whom the drum came. Perhaps "Drum Circle Folks" feel that learning traditional drumming is antithetical to Euro-American culture. Otherwise, why exclude themselves from the hand drumming tradition that’s been going on in the U.S. for at least the past seventy years?
If you do want traditional rhythms, go to the dance classes, community events, and take part in the ceremonies where they are played, in social context, as it is done in Africa and beyond. Funny thing is, time and again, I’ve heard drum circle enthusiasts express their puzzlement over why African people don’t join them in their soulless paradigm.
They don’t realize the debt they owe to the U.S. Africans and others who have been playing hand drums throughout this century in this country (U.S.) and beyond; for thousands of years. Would you try and invent a new martial art, with no training and no lineage?
Reed --Tap dance has enjoyed a popular resurgence, with Savion Glover performing at the Super Bowl, the Tap Dogs at the opening of the Sydney Olympics, and RiverDance on long-running world tours. Is this a sign of increasing rhythmic awareness worldwide?
Wilson -- Now, remember: I’m a historian, as well as an artist. Tap dance is now popular among Euro-Americans because most of the old masters among the U.S. Africans that developed it have passed on (see the response above). Now that the Masters are gone, the enthusiasts can do it "their way", without homage, without learning the language of the form, (all African forms [including blues and jazz and dance and R-&-B and tap] are actually languages—a deep responsibility).
As to RiverDance, that’s Irish percussive dance (which has taken much from U.S.African traditions). The African tap dancers in the show I saw on video [Lord of the Dance] were modern dancers that knew some tap, not tap dancers.
The show was staged so that the Irish would "win". That’s okay; it’s an Irish show.
I’m glad that tap dance is continuing, but you’re asking me to be happy that Kenny G is playing, when I danced to Charlie Parker, live.
Is it "a sign of increasing rhythmic awareness"? I’d say it’s a sign of increasing rhythmic acceptance among Euro-Americans and those that follow their trends. Again, see the above.
Reed -- Ritual drumming leading to trance can be liberating for those involved, but scary to those who don't understand it. You write that drumming has been banned in history, or branded as voodoo and primitive superstition. How do you personally educate people about it?
Wilson -- See my next book (tentatively titled "Powers of the Days" or "On Spirit’s Path" or "Classroom Earth”—which do you think is best? Do let me know), which is, fundamentally, tips and exercises on maintaining a spiritual practice in the everyday world. In it I explain that one man’s "angel" is another man’s "evil spirit”.
All the hoopla about "voodoo" is not about the Creator and one person’s relation with that Power, it’s about maintaining a market share for a particular brand name (i.e. a religion), and, thereby, control over a segment of the population.
Hand drumming was outlawed in the U.S. not just because of its ritual aspect, but mainly because of its military applications. Africans were using drums to communicate in war against their attempting enslavers, and to call forth warriors on nearby plantations by playing their traditional martial music. The Angolans and Mande percussionists could communicate across miles, before Europeans could get their horses saddled up and their powder horns down.
As to folks’ prejudice about “voodoo", in the book I explain about “trance states”—how people go in and out of them every day. I explain that the media portrays "voodoo", by taking aspects of Voudoun, a Dahomean/Haitian religion, and mix it with Anti-Christ, Wiccan, and negative magic. The layman doesn’t know which is which, just that it is portrayed as something no one wants to mess with. It’s hype.
Also, if you are willing to have an open mind and read the history of religion, you’ll find that much of today’s Christian symbolism and doctrine came from the Kamitian (Ancient Egyptian) canon: Madonna and Child, Virgin Birth, Father, Son and Mother (Holy Spirit). The first Christian monks were Ethiopians, adepts adapting the traditions of their forebears, the Kamitian and Nubian priesthood, to this more “westernized” iteration.
By the way, the world "primitive", really means “that which came first". In our modern, disposable, "new and improved" society, "that which came first" is a pejorative. But, flip that: that same concept could also mean "those that have had the longest time to practice, and to learn from mistakes". What does “primitive" mean to you?
Reed -- You found your rhythmic roots in the African tradition, yet you have also studied world cultures. What other traditions such as Asian, Native American, or Celtic, can people look to and find their rhythmic roots?
Wilson -- First, is there such a thing as a way of life that is not a “world culture”? That term is so limiting. Let’s see: there’s Euro-American Pop music, then there’s “world music". Ouch! Euro-Americans don’t consider themselves part of the world? That’s a real shame. Living that way must be very lonely.
I’ve studied Irish, Native and Asian music because that’s part of my immediate family: my great-great grandfather was Irish and my great-great-great grandfather was from Madagascar; my grandmother was half Choctaw. My nephews are half-Fulani. I have half-Japanese and half-Dutch and half-German and half-Puerto Rican cousins. I also have Chinese and Mexican cousins out there somewhere that I know of but I’ve never met.
Just as one should examine their own physiology when choosing a martial art, they must listen to their inner ear, their heart that draws them to a particular culture’s sound, or groove. Then, as I speak of in my book, “The Drummer’s Path", you approach that music with an open heart and hand. If you strive to learn of that rhythm’s foundations and sources with honest interest, the road will open for you to learn the information you need. This is a spiritual truth.
Reed -- How has your knowledge of history and folklore affected your awareness of the present and feelings about the future?
Wilson -- I believe "Sankofa", that knowledge of the past informs the present, and future, and "Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” The present is the cumulative moment of all the events, thoughts and intentions of the past. If one does not recognize those past intentions, get wise to them and consciously re-direct them, they will continue on whichever path to wherever your “less-wise” self-in-the-past sent them.
Reed — Soldiers crossing a wooden bridge are told to march out of step, to avoid creating a rhythm that could collapse the bridge. In Aikido we use the rhythm of moving together to ''collapse'' our opponent. Are there any parallels to this in drumming?
Wilson -- When a solid rhythmic foundation is laid by accomplished accompanying drummers, the lead drummer may then "vamp" on that foundation, and create any energetic space they wish, be that to enlighten or distress a listener/dancer. This has been done to me, and I’ve done it to others.
Master drummers "cut" across the time pulses created by the ensemble to stress the pulsations passing through the listener. Pray you are before honorable musicians, that when they massage you from afar, their auras are clean and they are at peace.
Reed -- Ritual is used in the martial arts to unify the group, instill discipline, and train the subconscious mind. What is the role of ritual in drumming?
Wilson -- Ritual is a set of practices designed to institute a certain feeling, a state of mind, a certain "vibe". In many cultures, drums are used to create a feeling (think of the sound and feel of muffled field drums, played at a funeral). Some drums must be spiritually empowered, through ritual. Some are "born" through ritual. Japan’s taiko drums are made a certain way from a certain tree and covered with specially grown cattle skins, and on and on. Yoruba bata drums, once consecrated, may only be played by initiated drummers.
Ritual changes brain waves, altering (expanding or narrowing) one’s perception of interior and exterior reality. It is a universal power that unifies and instills significance. See my next book for more on that.
Reed -- Some martial arts do special types of ''percussion'' training for energy focus using sticks, bells, and chanting. Derived from Zen and Buddhist meditation practices, the emphasis seems to be on drawing power from stillness, rather than expressing it in dance or movement, and the rhythms are not complex or syncopated. The Zen approach is to find stillness in action, and action in stillness. Is this something you also experience in traditional drumming?
Wilson -- Oh, yes. It is wonderful, when playing with an experienced ensemble, what can happen, not only in the room at large, but within oneself. Most African traditional music: strings, singing, drumming or winds, is played to invoke a certain feeling. When the air becomes electric enough to lean into, the music becomes self-propelled, and you are in stillness, amidst the hustle of breath and sweat and lactic acid and pain and 360º awareness. It is good.
The same can be true with dancing: when the music and spirit direct you, the dancer can just sit back and enjoy the ride, while their body emotes through the room and the music. Just as when your kata or real-life responses become automatic; the body does what it has to do, while you direct it with the ease of a feather in the breeze.
Reed -- Capoeira is an African Brazilian martial art, blending, music, dance, and spirituality. How would you compare it to Asian martial arts?
Wilson -- First off, Capoeira and Shaolin and Okinawan arts are similar in history. They all grew from persecuted peoples that developed the art for self-defense, in secret. It became a mark of cultural and spiritual pride and solidarity to hold on to the tradition.
Capoeira--Capoeira Angola--is a continuation of African martial arts, a function of African cultures. To speak broadly, in African cultures all directed action on earth is in the name of Spirit, because your life and one’s Way of Life is a gift received from the Ancestors, to be held for a moment, then passed to the Children, the Ancestors returned. In Capoeira, before one enters the roda, the Circle of Caopeira play, you say your prayers, calling on the powers of earth and in the spirit of the great Masters of the Art. Before you step in, you sing with the music being played. The roda and actions within it are directed and controlled by music.
Music is a wire, a conduit of the power of the Spirit and the People, a sinew that glides through the players as they spar and smile and smite.
Some folks say that without the berimbau (one-stringed musical bow), there is no capoeira. The vertically-held bow is a down-dish, a transmitter and receiver from Earth through us to Sky, and back again, circling the roda and encompassing all in view, making them part of the game. They clap, they sing, they "oooh" and "aaah" and laugh and gasp. They, too, are the music and the power of capoeira.
True, Asian arts I’ve seen (Wu Shu, Wing Tsun, Aikido, and others) have their flow, their rhythm. But rare is the Art where such a spirit of community, and community of Spirit is integral to its practice. Also, capoeira, as often played, is--as an old-time tap dancer might say--a “cuttin’ contest”, where the best players demonstrate for all those gathered that they are just that—the best. This is shown, not through slamming and maiming and death, but from obvious control of the energy flow of the circle, being there to easily cause harm as their fellow player lifts their head or places their foot—if they wanted to. Often, the Masters don’t connect; all the congregation can see what could have been; that is enough. Unless the situation calls for more.
Then, in true application, capoeira is not circular, as aikido or kung fu can be, it is spherical, moving in all and any directions as the orisa Obatala, garbed in white, which reflects all colors, adapting to any and each situation, maintaining itself innately, but seeming to be complementary to whatever is before it.
Reed -- Breathing methods have always been considered an important part of martial arts training, enabling you to tap into a limitless source of Ki energy. Are there any parallels in how drummers approach breathing?
Wilson -- None of my drumming teachers consciously taught me about breathing, but I’ve observed and intuited and meditated on it. My work in yoga and dance and drum and Chi Gung and martial arts has shown me practices that demonstrate that breath is the control. I share aspects of how to use breath, when I teach. Good breath comes with centering which comes from stance which comes with consciousness of energy which comes from good breathing. See “The Drummer’s Path" book, for a chart or two.
Reed -- Though your book focuses on African and Diaspora drumming, you make frequent mention of Oriental concepts such as chakra energy centers, yin-yang, Chi (Ki) energy, and acupuncture energy channels (meridians). Are there strong parallels in energy concepts between traditional drumming and the martial arts?
Wilson -- There are no "parallels". There is only one way the body works. We are each individuals, but we are all cast from the same mold. The equipment works the same way. Be it Volvo or Ferrari, it’s got an engine, drive shaft and wheels, and needs spark, fuel, coolant, filters and oil.
When drumming, especially ritual drumming, one must have done one’s energy work enough that the same ashé (spiritual force, energy) that is affecting the participants is flowing through you, harmonizing your output with their needs and perceptions. The drummer must also be grounded enough to not be taken off point by the flow of energy, staying focused on the task at hand. This means awareness of breath, posture, one’s own breathing, the intended result of the ceremony, and the persons conducting it. It’s also better to be aware of what’s supposed to come next, as well as the spiritual state of your fellow musicians. It’s a lot to juggle; it’s a lot of fun.
RHYTHM TRAINING FOR MARTIAL ARTS
Reed -- Kodo is Japan's most famous Taiko drum group, doing as many as 130 shows a year around the world. Yet New York-born Leonard Eto, Kodo's leading drummer and music director for eight years, left the troupe at the age of thirty-seven after a tour to West Africa in 1991, after seeing the fluid motions of an African village dancer. He then left the highly disciplined and almost militaristic training regime of Kodo, in pursuit of a more graceful and less strained approach to drumming. His work was featured in the film ''The Lion King,’'and he now tours with the American troupe Pilobus Dance Theater. Is there a lesson here for the martial arts?
Wilson -- The lesson is: to be effective in power, one need not be brittle in force. Some laugh at capoeira, believing the circling and movement to be ineffective. Are the movements of a cobra ineffective? What is the reason behind its sway? Tell us why the lioness circles. The same as in capoeira.
Movement enthralls, especially sinuous movement. We humans are hardwired that way. As one moves fluidly, contacting more air molecules than if rigid, one may more easily charge the atmosphere with your energy. Flexibility means less pain. I have found that people trained in rigid styles of dance, music, martial arts, writing, interpersonal communication (and more) have fear. Rigidity is unnatural; it is antithetical to life. The energy of the world is ebb and flow, give and take. To suppress oneself enough to be locked down tight demands much, much superego action. It is violence inflicted upon your energy body, which wants to be free to flow.
Those locked down forced themselves to believe, against the messages from their bodies, ”that it was good for them”. Imagine their chagrin, embarrassment, anger and resentment when they see others living in the free flow of life! "Hey! I thought we weren’t supposed to do that!" I am proud of Eto, to learn that he was willing to grow, and adapt, as Jet Li had to do in "Fist of Legend".
In Phoenix, and in Miami, I had opportunities to play taiko drums with teachers of the art form. Taiko percussion demands pinpoint concentration of energy to send your force through those big sticks down that fat drum shell to resound the air inside. Through these experiences I was prepared by the Creator to play, in energetic concord, with the wife and students of Kenny Endo, Hawaii’s taiko master. Three taiko drums—with sticks, are a different type of force than a single slat cone, “ashiko-type” drum. But, we understood each other, and had an amazing, enriching experience. By the time we were finished, we had a whole crowd around us, sharing in the energy.
Reed -- Martial arts have been closely tied to drumming and dancing in history, but not often associated today. Have we lost an important connection?
Wilson -- As martial arts have become westernized, industrialized and commercialized, the ritual aspects have been shorn off. People now learn techniques, not the reason for their development, their use and their longevity. I have worked with martial artists, playing traditional warrior music as they run their students through their katas. It has gone well.
Martial arts is "drumming and dancing". Isn’t that what Muhammad Ali did—drum on Sonny Liston and dance around George Foreman? The unwillingness of modern martial artists to associate with drum and dance is partially because of the common association of classical European American concert dance with “effeminacy". The cultural assumption has been that "Real men don’t dance"; they just fight.
A true martial artist must be a healer and a fighter, must use that same energy for peace and harmony (dance) as well as defense and offense. What are you afraid of? Until you have faced it, named it, and dealt with it…..what you are afraid of your fear. Until then, you don’t know what you really are.
Reed -- Percussionists often master a variety of instruments, ranging from bongos, congas, djembe, dunun, timbales, maracas, slapsticks, gongs, caxixi, tambourine, cow bell, kalimba, spoons, bones, quica, bodhran, ashiko drums, dumbek, marimba, triangles, shekere, hosho, berimbau,…whew(!) Did I miss anything? I assume that the list of rhythms you can play on each one is even longer. Do you think martial artists could also benefit by training across disciplines?
Wilson -- Every musician, every artist, anyone proficient in any art, craft or skill needs be thoroughly grounded in one discipline. Thoroughly. From that mountain, the student may then see other mountains, other disciplines, and understand, from their height, how difficult the next climb may be, and how fitting that climb is to one’s skills.
The more challenges one faces, the more whole one can be. African religions are touted as "primitive" and "polytheistic". No; everyone knows there is one Great Creator. Africans understand that you eat and digest one bite at a time. Eventually, the meal will be done, with finesse, and digestion.
The goal is oneness. As different parts of oneself are exercised, they join and make you strong, peaceful and whole.
Reed -- In Japanese, one talks about the ''bone'' (kotsu-knack) or ‘'breath'' (kokyu-timing) of a technique, to mean the essence, trick, or hang of it. If you are not a musician, dancer, or a professional percussionist, what are some good ways to ''get rhythm?''
Wilson -- You’ve already got rhythm; "Who could ask for anything more?" Just recognize it. Do you walk? Do you breathe? Does your heart beat?
The best way to "get rhythm" is to "get sensuous". I didn’t say go get freaky. I instructed: realize your body, get to know how it moves, works and responds. Listen to your heart beat, listen to your breathing as you walk down the street or go through your workout. Make your movements an expression of your breath, for that’s what they truly are.
Breathe to music. Walk to music, and as the music changes, change your pace. Listen, and respond.
Reed -- There is a difference in being consumed with an art, and being consumed by it. Getting too deeply into your discipline can cause health problems and isolate you from other people. What do you think artists should do to maintain mental, physical, and spiritual balance?
Wilson -- Remember: the lessons of the world come to us in the world because of the world, not in spite of it. If you didn’t need lessons, you wouldn’t be on Classroom Earth©.
In my own priesthood training, I was isolated and extreme, so extreme that I alienated nearly everyone that was not next to or ahead of me on my narrow, narrow path. This did not have to be, and does not have to be, for you.
However, to not take this lesson the hard way demands bigness of heart, courage, conviction and maturity, a maturity I learned only through that process.
Practically, keep in touch with your family. Talk to them, and to old friends who "knew you when". Let them laugh at you and make fun of you. It makes you strong, it makes you flexible, it makes you not take yourself so seriously. Note: I did not say “don't take the Work seriously; oh, no.
The Work is this moment’s Path of Life. But lighten up. When you’re on the other side, you’ll thank yourself for it. Ashe, amen.
Thank you so much for allowing me to speak with your readers. Ashé!
For further information you can contact Sule Greg Wilson by e-mail at: Open@SuleGregWilson.com