Friday, August 20, 2010

The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings

Book Review: The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings by Yaya Diallo and Mitchell Hall (Destiny Books 1989)

This book was a joy to read and was all of informative, entertaining, and inspiring. Yaya Diallo grew up in the West African country of Mali in the Minianka tribe. His folk are animists and his traditional training was in musical healing. Much of the book describes his culture and traditional ways with interesting anecdotes.

Learning the drum in Minianka culture requires long apprenticeship where many particular songs and beats are learned. Each work group has different songs and dances. There are ones for the farmers, the smiths, the warriors
and hunters, the herders, the women, etc. One duty of the healer-musician is to watch the dancers and try assess their psychological health by the way they dance. It seems logical that this can be done in a culture that utilizes drum and dance virtually every day. As animists the Minianka work with both the visible and invisible worlds. The culture has many taboos and practices geomancy as a tribal relationship to the earth. The tribe consists of several secret societies. According to the author these various societies perform a tribal function of checking and balancing against any one person or group dominating. Even the tribal chief is considered a regular citizen. Each secret society has its own songs and dances and may even have its own instruments. There are some songs and dances that are played only once in a generation or even once in a century. To me that suggests something related to astronomical positions. The Dogon tribe also from Mali is known for meticulous star knowledge and are written about in the book – the Sirius Mystery. Some consider them descendants of the ancient Nubians and Egyptians. The author mentions them once as being very wise in healing spiritual afflictions.

Work in this society is accompanied by music – the djembe often accompanies agricultural work. Celebrations, rites, funerals, and intiations are also done with specific music and dance. The Balafon – or wooden xylophone is a common instrument. It is said that the balafon accompanied by a flute will draw reptiles including the many poisonous snakes in the area.

The religion of these people refers to a creator called Kle and according to the author is not really polytheistic but an animistic form of monotheism where all is a manifestation of the creator. Music is considered a bridge between the visible and invisible realms. It is said in the healing tradition that if the illness is physical then it should be treated with plants. If it is spiritual then it should be treated with music. The musicians also study herbalism. The author was mentored by his mother in this regard and an elder Uncle/protector named Nangape.

This book is a very good study of a functional tribal society and makes a pretty good general model for those of us who would like to make a new functional tribalism. In the tribal view – the individual and the society are not seen to be separate. When an individual is mentally ill or psychologically imbalanced then the society is also ill and it is the responsibility of all to heal the member. There is a peculiar festival that ensues when a tribal chief dies. What happens is that special war music is played and all the people ritually hurl insults at one another – in order to bring out hidden conflicts, grudges, and schemes. This is done in an intense way for some days as a way to cleanse the village for the new chief so that he will not be able to blame problems on the old chief. There is also a dance called a stick dance where two people in conflict have a ritualized dance with sticks – it is a ritual combat where they settle their differences in front of the whole village. The solidarity of the community is the best defense against demonic interference.

I do not agree with all practices however – too much animal sacrifice. Interestingly, it is said that when taking life – the nyama – or harmful spirit of the victim will haunt the killer. This is often an affliction of hunters, butchers, and warriors. Amulets are worn to ward off nyama. Nyama affliction is also called the slow madness and is associated with depression, alienation, and feelings of remorse. Other practices such as the ritual circumcision of boys at age 10-14 and the surgical removal of the clitoris of girls (practiced in many parts of Africa) are perhaps not applicable to modern society.

The author has a very worthwhile story to tell about his interaction with western society in several ways. He went off to school when the French were running the country in the 50’s. There he was coerced to desist from his primitive tribal ways of thinking and behave like a good educated Frenchman. Later as Mali was liberated from the French he was pushed around while in school by a Marxist government. Then he moved to the city where many of his classmates emulated western values and denigrated tribal animistic ideas. After this he made it to Canada and got a degree as a chemist – and got fully immersed in western culture. He describes a turning point event in his life where he spends three hours getting dressed to go out dancing with a girlfriend – realizing how silly his life had become. After that he gives up chemistry and turns back to drumming. He hangs on the street for a while in Montreal and meets a few other drummers and yogis who like his music. He makes an album that is received pretty well and finally returns to Mali. In subsequent trips to Mali he brings westerners who are interested in the tribal African culture. He reflects that ironically it is white people dispossessed by western culture who begin showing Africans that are trying to emulate western culture - to re-embrace their own tribal origins and traditions. There is some good honesty in these reflections and stories.

There are some nice Minianka sayings in the book. Here is one: “in the craft of music, make your friends your enemies, and your enemies your friends.” He says that this is intended to teach the value of criticism. Watching someone dance is a way to assess their psychological health. “The dance restores the individual to wholeness and acceptance in the community. The Minianka say that the dance is the first occasion where two enemies can share something. Thus in addition to being preventive medicine, dance is a factor of social reconciliation.” Both music and dance are said to be ways to kill the ego. Here is one of my favorite quotes from the book about the idea of Circle:

“The significance of the circle in the Minianka community dances deserves to be appreciated. The circle expresses cultural values. The first value is continuity: no one can say where the circle begins or where it ends. All the people, young and old, are included in this continuum. The circle also expresses equality. All on the circumference are equidistant from the center, and all have a right to be in the center.”

They also say that when there is dancing the spirits will come – the ancestors too. There is a tradition as in circum-polar shamanistic cultures where it is said that the dead reincarnate into the same family. “To die is to become a human seed that could sprout again.” Tears for the deceased are said to water the seeds. Also one sets aside a portion of food for ancestors as in many traditions. Getting back to dancing there are various trances where one becomes possessed by spirits – different spirits are said to be attracted to different rhythms and dances. Spirits in general and specifically harmful spirits are said to be attracted to unbalanced people. There are trance states associated with fetish rites that are thought to be beneficial as well as trances where messages can come from ancestors and spirits. The possessed are sometimes called “fools” but are also appreciated. Sometimes psychoactive herbs and honey-wine are used to assist in bringing trance states. One willingly goes out-of-balance in order to bring knowledge from the invisible world.

This is a great book with much more than I have covered. Great for drummers, dancers, those into magic, those into mental health, and those into tribalism.

Yaya’s story is great also in that he used the drum to heal his own wounds – showing that the techniques he talks about actually work. As an interesting aside – I found out recently that Yaya – now an elder – is living in Kentucky and will be at Wisteria this year (and last) at the Summer Solstice Gathering. I may even try to get him to come to our place for drumming workshops. Cool Aye! I also ordered the accompanying CD where songs of the various types are played.

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