The healing power of the drum


Drums and various drumbeats from around the world were heard at Queen’s Park on the first June weekend of 2010 as part of the celebration that helps wake Toronto up in preparation for the summer.

The drum is recognized as the oldest musical instrument and on Saturday, June 5 and Sunday June 6, Queen’s Park was transformed into a global village with the sound of drums from Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe. The people of Toronto owe this spectacular awakening to a group led by a man who has brought the drumbeat of the world to Canada via Trinidad.

The 11th Muhtadi International Drumming Festival is the brainchild of Trinidad-born Muhtadi, who is the founder and artistic director of the annual festival which “celebrates the drum, its universality as an art form and its presence in all cultures around the world”.

The image dominating the main stage of the drumming festival recognized Africa as the place from where the drum grew its roots (and where humans originated) then branched out to people of various ethnicities and places around the world.

The drumbeat is the human way of imitating the heartbeat, remembering that our mother’s heartbeat is what we heard and felt for the first months of life while in the womb. Small children respond to the beat of a drum by moving to the rhythm because we never lose our response to the comforting sound of our mother’s heartbeat. The beat of the drum has the ability to unite people of different cultures from around the world and Muhtadi has definitely tapped into this to make the drumming festival an awesome success for 11 years.

Academics and traditional grassroots healers across cultures have recognized and acknowledged the healing properties of music including drumbeats. Researching and acknowledging the healing properties that connect the heart and musical rhythms in his book, The Heart’s Code: Tapping the Wisdom and Power of Our Heart Energy, White American psychologist, Dr. Paul Pearsall, wrote:

“There is no more obvious evidence of connection between our heart and energy outside the body than our heart’s response to musical rhythms. Our heart is the metronome of our body’s biorhythm, and health happens when we are in rhythm within ourselves, synchronized with other living systems and moving to our preset beat rather than trying to respond to the driving beat of the stressful outside world. Healing, then, becomes the ability of our heart to improvise and develop its own new rhythms to the chaotic rhythms that continually emerge in our daily life.”

African-American author and member of the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy, American Folklore Society and the Herb Research Foundation, Stephanie Rose-Bird has written about the healing properties of the drumbeat in her 2010 book: The Big Book of Soul: The Ultimate Guide to the African-American Spirit, Legend & Lore, Music & Mysticism, Recipes & Rituals.

Drumming has been an integral part of the lives of Africans from the continent and the Diaspora. Even the centuries of enslavement and colonization did not destroy our connection to the healing of the drumbeat and the rhythm of our ancestors.

On June 5 at the drumming festival I watched as Ras Leon Saul, a man who was educated at Queens College, (a school that was once Guyana’s most prestigious colonial bastion of education) playing the djembe drum as if he was communicating with our ancestors.

The powerful rhythms of the African drums played at ceremonies (kwe-kwe, kumfa, naming and transitioning) throughout Berbice may also have had much influence. I have to acknowledge some bias since Ras Leon and I both hail from Berbice, Guyana and acknowledge our connection to Kofi, who led the Berbice Revolution in 1763 (

Kofi was an Akan man born in Ghana, a place from where many of the enslaved Africans in Guyana were taken. The djembe is the most popular of the African drums in the Diaspora probably because the majority of Diasporan Africans are descended from people who were taken out of West African countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Senegal and the Gambia.

West African rhythms gave birth to Caribbean and North and South American rhythms and even dance steps. The so-called Latin dances like the cha-cha-cha, bolero, mambo, samba, etc., all owe their existence to African rhythms. Although in many of the Latin American countries an African presence is not acknowledged, enslaved Africans worked and died throughout the region and their descendants continue to survive mostly on the fringes.

In the Caribbean countries where the descendants of enslaved Africans have fared a bit better than their counterparts in Latin America, the influence of their African ancestors has not been completely ignored. The African influence on calypso and reggae is acknowledged by most Caribbean people.

In the U.S. the influence of Africa on popular contemporary American music is also acknowledged. Several books including children’s books tell of the history of African contribution to the music of America. To Be a Drum, written by Evelyn Coleman and illustrated by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, begins: “Long before time, before hours and minutes and seconds, on the continent of Africa, the rhythm of the earth beat for the first people”.

African-American actor James Earl Jones reads the book here:

Buy the book or borrow it from the library but share this beautiful and educational story of the African drum with the children in your life (your children, grandchildren, neighbour’s children, children in your community etc.) Be a drum!

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