Heeding The Call Of The Drums

It's Wednesday evening, and Bruce Silverman is calling the Sons of Orpheus men's group and drumming troupe to their sacred space, a whitewashed loft alongside an expressway in Emeryville, Calif. He sets up a steady thump on one of the six large congas at the far end of the room, and men begin to appear, as if the drum itself and not the clock had summoned them from offices, campuses and construction sites all over the San Francisco area. Other drums join in. The beat grows louder; it picks up speed, turns into a rushing river of sound that divides into streams and strands into which men toss the bright plinks of bells and chimes. Thirty or 40 men line the room now; they dance, they chant, they invoke the Spirit of Deep Masculinity, the West African god they call Hepwa. The six mighty congas fill the air with their rhythmic thunderclaps of percussion, demonstrating at least one elemental truth about men: they like to make noise.

Silverman, who has been leading the Sons of Orpheus since they were organized four years ago, occupies one of the fastest-growing job categories in California, hyphenated therapists. He is a drummer-therapist, which, as he likes to point out, until recently in most cultures amounted to the same thing. The drum was humanity's first big advance in medical technology, a doorway to the spirit world's healing powers. "A piccolo will get you there," Silverman says, "but a drum will get you there quicker."

The drum serves many functions in meetings of the Sons of Orpheus. Its room-filling thunder defines a ritual space around the men, a bubble of noise within which they feel safe and protected. Its irresistible rhythms break down the ego's defense mechanisms and get it up and dancing. The very materials of which it is made, wood and skins, give it the aura of the sacred earth. Its ability to convey portentousness is unequaled in the musical world except by the pipe organ. This makes it the ideal accompaniment to the "check-in" ceremony, in which the men share what's on their minds that day. It lends a Wagnerian dignity to even the most mundane complaints about missed promotions or ungrateful lovers, and no sound known to mankind can equal for sheer emotional impact the silence that comes when a drumbeat suddenly stops. And, of course, it makes a lot of noise. How else are you going to get the attention of the gods, especially when your ritual space is right next to an expressway?

Among men's groups, Sons of Orpheus is unusual in that it is also a professional troupe, performing for (and sometimes with) both men and women. Novices are given a Brazilian ganza to shake, a cylinder filled with something like seeds that makes a pleasant whooshing noise audible for approximately three feet. This is because although drumming is a natural activity, most amateurs can keep a reliable rhythm only within a narrow range of approximately two beats per second. Most other men's groups are content just to make a lot of rhythmic noise and have been known to beat out time on plastic bottles when more conventional instruments were in short supply. But for all of them, percussion, like perspiration, is a major unifying and celebratory ritual, a link to man's primitive, vital, pagan past.

Because the drum is pagan, no doubt about it. In many aboriginal cultures even today, a man without a drum is like a man without a voice. Bruce Gladstone, a clinical psychologist in the rural, arty California community of Ojai, participates in drumming rituals arranged around those quintessentially pagan festivals, the solstices and equinoxes. "The voice of the drum is the voice of the belling in the solar plexus," Gladstone says; a liberating, decivilizing, anti-intellectual experience, the distillation of wildness.

And for just such reasons, have you ever heard a drum played in church? Well, actually, Babatunde Olatunji, the great African drummer who now teaches in Harlem, used to play drums in an AME church in his native Nigeria. But he also concedes the animist power of drums - the spirit of the tree (teak) from which the body of his drum was carved, the spirit of the animal (a goat) whose skin made the drumhead. "Listen," he commands, as he drops the palm of one hand flat in the center of a West African djembe, to make the deep, almost musical boom he calls gun (pronounced goon). (He distinguishes two other sounds, a vaguely alto note he calls go, produced with the fingers on the drum's edge, and the ringing pa, which he makes by brushing the drumhead with the side of his hand.) ''There is only one gun," he intones reverently, "and the only place you get it is in the center of the drum. Drumming helps man be at peace with himself. He can find the center."

In fact, Olatunji believes that once again in its more than 20,000-year history, the drum is making one of its periodic returns to fashion. His own seminal hit 1959 recording, "Drums of Passion," has been reissued as a compact disc, which suits the music well. He has collaborated on an album with the great American drummer Mickey Hart (of The Grateful Dead) that will be sold as a package with Hart's forthcoming book, "Planet Drum." Hart is also the author of "Drumming at the Edge of Magic," a celebration of percussion in every form known to man from foot-tapping to the Chinese gong. He is one of the world's great collectors and players of drums, bells, chimes, gongs and cymbals, and a great believer in their powers. At the American Booksellers Association convention in New York a few weeks ago he ended a concert by leading an impromptu conga line down to the lobby of the Marriott Marquis hotel and then out into Broadway - 200 chain-store buyers and publishing executives marching through Times Square at a quarter to midnight, beating ferociously on the plastic drums they had been given as banquet favors. And then, as if by magic, dozens of empty cabs appeared on Seventh Avenue, and stopped, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be summoned by thumping tom-toms, and took them back to their hotels.

Is that power, or what?

A term taken from "Grimm's Fairy-Tales," used by poet Robert Bly to describe a passionate man who is the embodiment of emotional strength and spontaneity.

Bly's term for men who have lost touch with the Wild Men in themselves and lack the ability to act decisively or instinctively.

A character trait that makes men capable of outrage and principled action but not physical violence.

An activity used at men's gatherings to help bond the individual to the group through a shared, primal, creative experience.

An enclosed space usually built from saplings and tarps and warmed by heated rocks where Native American men have traditionally gone to perform a ritual of purification.

Outmoded but prevalent definitions of the so-called ideal male, especially those that include the characteristics of toughness, competitiveness and lack of emotion.

A staff or stick, often carved or decorated, that gives the bearer the right to be heard without interruption.