Stand up. Take a step in place with your right foot, then step with your left. Right, left. Right, left. One, two. And you have a pulse. Add a verbal “Ta!” on each step and “Kay!” in between, clapping on each “Kay!” and now you have rhythm. “The pulse is what ties everyone together,” Barbara Gail said.
Gail came to New College on April 3 to teach a workshop on playing the djembe, a West African drum made of wood and animal hide or synthetic materials. The workshop was aimed at teaching people how to play in a drum circle. Students sat on chairs arranged in a circle by the bay in front of College Hall.
After the attendees got a feel for what rhythm and pulse are with the stepping exercise, Gail talked about drum circle etiquette, using words like “family,” “unity” and “togetherness.” She emphasized that in a drum circle, members should tap into the collective pulse to create a suitable rhythm without overshadowing other instruments. “Instead of competition consciousness, which is what so much of the world is about, this is about complementary consciousness,” Gail said.
Gail brought out djembes for each of the 12 students present and talked about the proper way to hold the drum for the best sounds. Then the drumming began. After going over several basic djembe beats, Gail led the group in a series of rhythms. The group split up, with both sides playing different rhythms. “If you loose your place, you have a whole family to support you,” Gail said.
Gail is half of the instructional duo known as The Rhythm Inlet. Both her and her husband Jeff Hanna—the other half of the Inlet—regularly teach workshops and lessons on playing different percussion instruments. “We like to bring rhythm into people’s lives and that’s how we came up with the name The Rhythm Inlet,” Gail said.
The Rhythm Inlet started out in a barn in Maine, where Gail and Hanna opened a studio in 1995 intended for dance lessons. “I was opening [the studio] up to other teachers [so] lots of other people could teach all kind of things from yoga to Tai Chi to whatever, including African drumming,” Gail said. “I had already started taking African drum classes and I enjoyed it … and I noticed that when I invited my African drum teacher to come teach in my space, that was one of the most popular classes. And I knew I was good at the drumming and I enjoyed taking the lessons, so I decided I wanted to start teaching.”
They began teaching workshops at schools and moved on to selling and fixing instruments as well. In 2005, after spending the past few winters in Florida, the pair opened shop in Nokomis. The Rhythm Inlet offers both private lessons and one-time group workshops, with prices starting at $11 and $20, respectively.
“This is my social movement, this is my social transformation,” Gail said. “The drum circle is the first church and the first nightclub. Early forms of worship used drumming for community and for union and to praise the divine … and it was a form of entertainment. I think that modern society can really learn a lot from the benefits of drumming and today the medical community is finally catching on. There is more and more evidence of drumming boosting your immune system, they’ve done tests with HIV and cancer patients and actually their immune system is being boosted. [It works for] mood elevation, for people dealing with grief or depression, so a lot of therapists are using rhythm in that way. For autistic kids, because this is a nonverbal form of communication, so everyday adults can find another way of being with people without having to talk and yet we are still in community. It boosts self esteem.”
For Gail, rhythm is an innate part of life. “We live our days by rhythm. First of all, we were all growing in our mothers’ wombs … developing in there to the pulse of her blood,” she said. “We all had that very intense rhythmic training … and all of our sense perceptions were developing to that, your entire being was developing to that for eight or nine months. And then we’re born into this rhythmic world with the cycles of the sun and the moon and the stars. We live our lives to rhythm. You have to be at your class by a certain time …. you have to be a doctors appointment at a certain time … we live our lives by the clock a lot of the time, so we live our lives to rhythm.”
Gail said that playing percussion instruments can be one way to tune back into that natural rhythm. “Some days we feel like we’re going with he flow and everything’s great—we’re in the rhythm, we’re with the pulse—and that’s a really good day. And then something will happen that will totally throw us off and it’s not a good day. You just feel like you’ve been completely thrown off focus and just cant get it together and tomorrow’s another day, thank goodness, ’cause today you lost your rhythm. So that’s what we practice in drumming — you fall into rhythm and you fall out of rhythm and when you fall out of rhythm, how do you fall back in? Just that practice alone teaches us how to fall back into the rhythm in those kinds of days when we lose our rhythm and lose our way.”