I open my eyes, at some sense of trying to hold onto something. To reality. As if, if I were to close my eyes I would slip… Floating too far into the thick chasms of the unknown. That I’d be somehow annihilated by raging bliss.
My heartbeat quickens. My minds flung into memories of ancient. Thump. Thump. Rum. Rum. Roar. The call echoes…
I close my eyes. I surrender. I fall into my breath, my feet carrying me to nowheres of somewheres.
I’m called back to a time epehlweni (during my initiation) where I first truly experienced the voices within and beyond the drum. It was one of the many training sessions – which formed part of my daily training regime – I would have in a day. There were up to five routines in one day beginning at 03:00 am.
Ubaba (my spiritual father and mentor), nogogo (my spiritual grandmother, and spiritual mother to ubaba) beckoned the spirits of the ancestors through their enthralled playing of the drums. Everyday, chaperoning me to the other side.
I surrendered into weightlessness and in that ‘lecture’, I recall transitioning past my own doubts, self-control, and imaginations. A spark from the center of my soul crept out into the physical to take me by the hand. That I may chant with it: on the prisms of the Now; the mad hallucinations of the future; and the urgent thesis of the past. With the voices of my ancestors drummed up, I touch whispers on the other side.
My first recollection of the hypnotizing power of the drums was back eNdunduma, in Clermont in Kwa-Zulu Natal. I was visiting my grandmother and family during our regular visits during school holidays. As children we were playing amatins (yes,tins) – an inventive popular game of stacking tins and eliminating them one-by-one. The aim was to strategically throw a homemade ball from a distance at the tins, from top to bottom, until only one remained. There were two teams competing and the team that conquered the remaining tin won – organic loxion science. The ball would be made by stuffing rags of cloth – we’d all adventure to collect – into amagusha (one of our mothers’ old pantyhose) and tightening them into the shape of a ball – ushumpu. The humidity was thick, always relentless in sticking to our skins like nostalgia to an old friend. The air was full, it clogged my nostrils, but I knew I was home…
As we played, there was a reverberating call of something powerful tugging at me. I couldn’t ignore it. I tried. I remember experiencing my spirit running before me toward it. I followed its desolations, its scent pungent, in trance curving up an embankment headed for a smoke of celebration. There were drums bellowing, their voices battled inside my chest: an intense, dizzying euphoria turned at my heart. I’d never forget it: the dusting of the men’s baritones meeting with the ululations of the female elders. There was animal hide at the men’s waists, and as crowns on their heads. There was jumping, there was pride and stomping, and there was singing and clapping. I’d never experienced anything like it (accept sonically as a nine year old child when I’d get into my fathers music collection and reveling upon the pulsating sounds of Mkhulu Jabu Khanyile and Bayete for hours) but all of my heart recognized it.
I’ve always floated on the peripheries of the unseen, understood something unknown. Often times I felt I was receiving communication and guidance from those others couldn’t see. Other times things far beyond my age would make more sense to me than they would to my mother. As a young child, I would offer her counsel. That day eNdunduma, I saw and heard from those I recognized, not from here, but from where it is I knew I was from. That place where the scent of flowers is created, where the birds learn their song, and where my great-great foremothers break bread with the Gods. It’s what I’ve come to understand as the astral world – the non-physical realm. The metaphysical spreads.
I heeded my spiritual calling – ubizo – in 2016. It was after I’d been hospitalized for two weeks that my soul accepted this assignment… Inside, a mysterious meeting with a wise male nurse convinced me to stop running. Umkhulu (the old man – I call him this because I believe it was the elder in him that recognized the elder in me) came to me as I sat in the common area after breakfast one morning. I was scheduled to have a head scan the following day. He was rather awkward and precarious as he tried to begin this conversation… to deliver his message as it were. ‘They will not find anything the matter with your head’, he told me. ‘My elders were calling me for the work of healing’, he went on, and I would have to find the root of my tribe. My health would come along the road of initiation, and not in this hospital. It was there that I surrendered to this reality. I would go and thwasa (be initiated as a traditional healer). Umkhulu had been sent to me – ingilosi lam, my angel.
Western medics have been unable to understand and diagnose my illness. After seeing homeopaths, a neurologist, a Kinesiologist, sitting for a 10-day silent meditation retreat, going vegan, juicing, journeying on ayahuasca a few times, and dyeing my brain for a head scan…
Things pointed in one direction. I’d forgotten how to live, I ached to return back home (the place that was not this one, where I’d often visited as a child, that I’d had glimpses of in dream/medicine states, or while in deep meditation) and, sunshine no longer brought me joy. I had most of the symptoms I would learn were symptoms only much later. It had been a long time coming…
The calling can be described as when a person is chosen (possessed) by the spirits of the ancestors (amadlozi (isiZulu) or amathongo (isiXhosa)) since (before) birth to become a traditional health practitioner (a sangoma/shaman).
Ukuthwasa means to blossom in isiXhosa. It is when a master Sangoma that they either dream, or are guided to trains the person with the calling. One usually leaves their home and family to live with a master shaman where they are put through physical, mental and spiritual exercises.
These stringent exercises exhume an initiates innate ability to connecting with their Ancestors, recollecting their unique spiritual call, gifts (their medicine), and role in this physical experience. This mystery is buried within our DNA. As spiritual beings, having a human experience, all of us are capable of tapping into abilities beyond what is normal.
Trainee initiates have to learn several modalities: an intensive study of the plant world; various forms of divination (numerology, cosmology, bone throwing…); with the most significant part being the ‘diviners dance’ – ukugida (isiZulu), ukuxensa (isiXhosa): trance dancing to the rhythms of the drums to enter altered states of consciousness and make journeys to alternate realities; a lesson on transcending and straddling worlds. And this is why sangomas are referred to as such. SaNgoma – uza’ngengoma (you come bearing song).
Shamans around the world enter these states on the sound waves of the drums vibration, tapping into ancient wisdom and power within those worlds, bringing it back into this dimension to heal and to build what is needed within communities.
To call the drum a powerful ‘instrument’ would be to misunderstand it. It would be to create a thin veil between you and the worlds it holds. It would be to shrink its rapture, and to perhaps dishonour its role.
Some cultures have described the drum as representing the earth, what with its radial lore; it’s rhythm the pulse and heartbeat of Mother Earth (Gaia); that rhythm or sonic vibration we recognize awakens something deep within, igniting sensations in the body as we get a heightened understanding of the universe, transcending space and time. The drum is an oracle… a priestess: a guide inward.
Rhythm is a universal vibrational language. Sound is energy. It is the vessel through which we harmonize and balance the energies of the earth. The sound frequency produced affects the mind and the entire spectra of the human emotional range, allowing us to develop a oneness of feeling with the rhythm, the single heartbeat, of the universe.
We connect with the frequency that governs all of nature, a vibration that evokes in us, our truest nature. Also, we’re made of 90% water. When sound waves reach a liquid surface, they transform them in a negative or positive way. The intention you send on the sound wave (beating of the drum) is vital.
In his book, The Shamanic Drum: A Guide to Sacred Drumming, Michael Drake gives this scientific explanation: “the sound of drumming creates strong, repetitive neuronal firing in the auditory pathway that could block out other sensory stimuli.
Multiple sound frequencies, recurring at an even, steady rate, tend to block the left-hemispheric processing of the cerebral cortex and simultaneously to activate cerebral electrical rhythms not ordinarily employed in the brain in normal conscious awareness.” The repetition raises the vibration emitted.
Drums are more than just instruments. They are the intuit and conduit for trance travelling. Historians have stated that they’ve been a mainstay for tribal cultures for millennia and have been used for spiritual and sacred ceremonies to punctuate the significant moments.
They have the power to affect natural elements (I’ve heard many accounts of them chasing away bad storms), ward off danger and bad spirits, and to heal the sick by working with and directing (universal) energy. I read somewhere that it was the first instrument used by humans, as it was the first melodic telegraph.
During consultations, I’ve witnessed individuals deemed ‘possessed’, eyes rolled back, kicking, throbbing and spinning, find calm along the sound waves of the drum. I know people who’ve been diagnosed schizophrenic bipolar, and cast out as plain crazy go and thwasa, there they’re transported to the other worlds, and back, returning fully ‘within’, themselves. What is that word? Sane. Those crazy ones… They needed to be reminded of who they are, rhythmically. I was one of them.
Drums are used in celebration of births, marriage, as well as to accompany the spirits of the deceased to the other side. Long, long ago, during times of war, Zulu regiments would beat at the drums and chant, evoking the spirits, calling on the gods for protection, foresight, and strength. They’d summon the spirit guides first, and then attack. This is still done even in western processions, but for different reasons. Shamanic drumming has the same heart, mystic workings, and understanding, throughout the world.
My disease (what manifested as an illness for years): was the ‘calling’. My symptoms: included swollen feet (to an extent that I couldn’t wear shoes sometimes), debilitating headaches (with no relief from the strongest treatments), and deep depression. I isolated myself – not intentionally. There was a foreignness and strangeness of being, in this realm, that steadily intensified. I entered dark physiological and psychological spaces. My prescription: was the diviners’ dance (it still is and will always be). My healer: the drum. My medicine: the vibration, that sonic energy.
Essentially, it’s that vibration that attunes your body into a state of receiving: healing, guidance, and incantation. The drum introduces you to dimensions within yourself, which are within the universe. It creates and invisible space for us to step into. To be transported to the seen and unseen, the known and unknown worlds.
The spirit and energy behind the drum, and the intentions they hold – either good or bad – are an important part of the initiates’ journey. Each beat vying for the light or for the dark. They work with the person d(tr)ancing, to safely carry them to their place(s) of healing.
The trance traveller also feeds the ‘drummer’ life force – draining or uplifting; they must let go and surrender to the sonic vibration. It’s about praying on the energy emitted at both ends. The drum: the great Orisha; the vehicle to the spirit world. The university. The curriculum. The book.
I have now graduated. I am learning and slowly peeling away the layers of indoctrination, habit (thoughts and actions), beliefs, fears, and systematic brainwash. I am a living memory of my Ancestors, who prayed for me to be here, at this time, in this role. I’ve heard them say that nothing softens the wounds of your ancestors like the sweetness of your existence. My spirit is smiling.
Upon graduating, my spiritual father taught me the ancient science of making drums; the ancestors were true scientists. Using the still moist skin of our family’s Brahman bull – a massive beast of sterling black with a flush of golden brown – we knitted together three masterpieces. Each drum is made using a round piece cut from the skin of the beast, it’s placed on either side of the rim of a car and held together by weaving strips of skin, into the rounded piece, along the edge of the outer radius of the rim. The drum embraces the spirit of the cow and our prayers over it, the memories of the ceremony, and all of what was whispered and drummed into me while in training. The drums are our own shamans for communicating with the other side, so as to draw knowledge for use in this realm. I give thanks to the spirit of the cow for its grace.
When I feel anxious, overwhelmed by the madness of this world, or that I’m stretching past the fringes of my own imagination, I call on my drum. The healer.
I’m learning to be a spirit in this human experience, to accept my many selves, to live within their dreams and my own, and to hear and follow the guidance. In his book of essays, A Way of Being Free, Ben Okri speaks on the seers, the storytellers, and the shamans: ‘they risked their sanity and consciousness in service of dreaming better futures’…
Well, here I am. Dreaming on better futures, and risking my sanity…