Releasing the inner drummer is good for the spirit

The pull of the drum is something I've felt for years. I just wouldn't have thought to call it that on my own.

Then, one day recently, Evan Kumar Fiske said, "If you're here in this class, you've felt the pull of the drum."

Of course. I knew exactly what he was talking about. It's just that before I took his class, I associated that pull more with my inner Santa Cruz hippie than with Judaism. As far as I was concerned, Judaism had no connection to drumming at all. That is, until I found myself at Chochmat HaLev, the Jewish meditation center in Berkeley.

To say that music is a huge component of the worship there is an understatement. There are never less than six musicians and several vocalists at any given Friday night service. And even those leading it often pick up a drum.

One of the Chochmat musicians, Fiske teaches Middle Eastern percussion around the Bay Area. He's studied Japanese taiko drumming in San Francisco, tabla drumming in India and Pakistan, and he spent almost a year studying with master drummers in Egypt. Make no mistake; the guy is serious about his drums.

And in a four-session workshop called "Drumming and Spirituality," he sought to incorporate the spiritual elements of drumming into the basics of the doumbek, the goblet-shaped drum played throughout the Middle East.

Tambourines are mentioned several times in the Bible; the best-known reference is in Exodus, when Miriam dances with her timbrel — an ancient tambourine — after the parting of the Red Sea. Pictures of drums also appear in Egyptian iconography from the era of the Pharaohs.

But biblical references aside, drumming has taken off in Jewish renewal circles. And because "diaspora Jews tend to adapt whatever flavor is around them in terms of culture," as Fiske put it, the doumbek is definitely the drum of choice.

I've been dabbling with my doumbek — also called a darbuka — for a while now. So when I heard about this class, I thought, "It's so Berkeley. It's so hippie-dippy. It's so New Age-y." And then, "I'm so there."

I am one of those who are on a continual evolving spiritual path, never quite sure of where it will take me next. (Case in point: I will be celebrating Passover in Dharamsala, India.)

I grew up Reform, but feel as comfortable at a Conservative shul as at a Lubavitch Shabbos dinner. Where drumming fits into this, well, I wasn't aware that it did; my love for the sound of the drum was in a different compartment of my life. That is, until I got to Chochmat.

One of my classmates said it was the same thing for her. Naomi Fine of Oakland told me she never thought drumming had any connection to Judaism, but when she heard about the class, she had to take it.

Recently going through a divorce, Fine said drumming appeals to her because it incorporates so many kinds of experiences — physical, musical and primal.

"I didn't think of combining drumming with Judaism until I got here," she told me. "It's so unusual, but it works."

Drumming is one of those things that appear easier than it is. Kind of like writing. A lot of people think they would be great writers if they just sat down and did it. But like anything, it requires practice and more practice.

The doumbek differs from other hand drums, in that you hold it sideways. There are three basic ways to hit it and each one has a name. There is the doum (which comes from the name doumbek), the tek and the ka. When you learn a rhythm, you often learn how to say it first.

It's a pretty funny thing to listen to a group of people chanting "doum doum tek-ka-tek, doum tek-ka-tek-tek-ka," which is the rhythm of the baladi, one of the most basic of Middle Eastern rhythms. Then, there are all kinds of variations, which you can't possibly learn in just a few lessons.

In the first class, Fiske, 28, who is often wearing a white knit cap favored by Sufi Muslims, told us that as the son of hippies, he's been meditating all his life. Although a musical child, he only started drumming when he was 21, late to begin an instrument. But it was through drumming that he reached a deeper place with his meditation.

Like any good teacher, "practice, practice" is a common refrain of Fiske's.

Even if you don't have time every day, he said, at least pick up the drum. Touch it. Interact with it.

Whatever you do, don't use it as a table. (He says this for good reason. The Alexandria doumbek, one of the most common — but of no relation to the writer — not only has a smooth plastic surface, but it happens to be just the right height to rest your drink on when you're sitting on the couch). "These are little things," he said. "But they help instill a certain attitude.

"We all have our different paths and experiences in life," Fiske said, explaining his. For him, "Drumming is Torah without words."

He calls the drum a "vehicle for our spirits," and says, "we let our spirits out when we play with each other, which is a very intimate thing."

Admittedly, this kind of talk might be too touchy-feely for a lot of people. But they're not likely to be taking a class like this in the first place. We're a self-selected group, and well, it's pretty clear that we dig it. The few times we turned our newly learned rhythms into extended drum circle jams, I'd look around and watch people's faces. Some would close their eyes, some would have these looks of intense concentration so as not to lose the beat, and some heads would be swaying in time.

Michael Ross of Alameda, a self-described "percussion nut," said this was the first time he took lessons. As a Chochmat regular, he said that for him, "Drumming is a very effective mode to get into a centered space."

For Fine, meditating has been difficult lately. When you're going through a crisis, she said, it's easy to get distracted and it's difficult to sit quietly. Because the drum uses more of your senses, though, "I'm able to be more present with it than just sitting still."

In the class, the general consensus seemed to be that this drumming thing works. There's something about being able to pound out your frustrations and make pleasing sounds simultaneously that is so satisfying in such an intangible, primal way.

Of course there are those out there who just don't get it. To them, I say, what are you waiting for, people? Go get yourself a drum.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."