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Christine Stevens: Drumming For Peace In Iraq

In a town in northern Iraq, there’s a bullet-riddled building that once was a headquarters for Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist Party. The foreboding two-story structure, where enemies of the state were once “interrogated,” recently underwent a startling transformation. On a November day in 2007, the sound of drumming, laughing, and dancing echoed through its corridors. Thirty-eight drummers of all religions and ethnicities moved together as they participated in a drum circle, part of a conflict-resolution leadership training program. The sound of violins, ouds, and neys complimented the ancient rhythms of the daf, the large frame drum that’s the foundation of Iraqi traditional music.

One of the facilitators of the gathering was Christine Stevens, who jokingly calls herself an “overeducated drummer.” Stevens has degrees in jazz performance, social work, and music therapy, but got hooked on percussion after attending drum circle training with Arthur Hull. She has incorporated drumming into her therapy practice and founded UpBeat Drum Circles, a consulting company that offers diversity training, teambuilding, and wellness presentations using drumming to facilitate self-healing and communication.

“We hear talk about rebuilding Iraq all the time,” Stevens says, “but who is going to rebuild the soul of the Iraqi people? They’ve suffered unbelievable trauma and loss and no one is addressing that.” Stevens has drummed with members of Fortune 500 companies, students at Ground Zero in New York City, and survivors of Katrina in New Orleans, but giving a drum circle workshop in Iraq presented the biggest challenge of her career.

“The soul is like the light in your heart,” Stevens says. “When it gets blown out by war or suffering, it can stay out. You need to relight it. Music rebuilds your spirit and your soul and drums make music that’s accessible across all cultural, racial, religious, and political lines. In our trainings, we had Kurds and Arabs sitting next to each other. When the rhythm took over, everybody was up and dancing, holding onto one another’s shoulders. The day of the first class, you could feel the tension between people, then someone would play a taqsim [melodic improvisation on a theme] and people would start jamming. You could feel the apprehension dissolve.

“When you use words, you’re communicating from your head and misunderstandings can arise. When musicians communicate, they use the language of energy, which is pure and elemental. You can’t misunderstand the feeling you get when you’re playing music with someone. There’s no conflict when you’re together in the groove. Mickey Hart says that life is built on rhythm. When you share that with someone, you share a sacred space with that person, and that’s what makes peace.”

Stevens was amazed at the positive results of the training. “At the end of the week, we asked people to fill out a questionnaire. They said they were 80 percent more connected to the group than when they started, and rated the training as 93-percent effective.”

Only a couple of years before, Stevens wouldn’t have been able to imagine leading drum circles in Iraq. But then she received an email from an American woman named Melinda Witters, who was stationed in Iraq with an organization called Kurdistan Save The Children. Witters explained that her mission was to develop community action groups, and asked if Stevens would be willing to take part in her Ashti Drum Project (ashti means “peace” in Kurdish).

“She wanted to have me train people to lead drum circles, with the idea of spreading drumming communities across Iraq,” Stevens says. “I immediately felt this was right. We know drumming can facilitate wellness and self-healing. If we can show this percussion-based collaborative art form can create peace between enemy groups in a war zone, then we’ll be paving the way for the drum to become a tool for global peacemaking. Any drummer who reads this interview knows that rhythm is the foundation of music, the element of music that pertains to forward motion. We wanted to see if drumming could, in fact, create peace in a time of war.”

The Groundwork.

In 2004, after deciding to take on the project, Stevens was faced with a great deal of preparation. “We created a research project on indigenous drums in Iraq, including religious and tribal usages that date back over 4,000 years to the Zoroaster religion,” she says. “There are also Yazidi [a Kurdish religion], Christian, and Islamic traditions that are part of the culture of the Iraq/Iran and Turkish regions; those extend down through the Gulf States and North Africa. The use of the daf, a circular-shaped drum often adorned with metal bangles and paintings of beautiful women, remains an intricate part of the indigenous culture of Iraq, a culture that is still vibrant.”

The financial, logistical, and political aspects of a trip to Iraq, with no help from the American government, were not undertaken lightly. In the end, the trip was underwritten by the National Association Of Music Merchants (NAMM), an international trade organization; the Grateful Dead’s Rex Foundation; and Remo, which donated drums. (As a consultant to Remo, the world’s largest drum manufacturer, Stevens has trained Healthrythms facilitators throughout the United States and Japan.)

“I dyed my hair dark brown and wore a headscarf and was culturally respectful of my hosts,” Stevens says. “I was aware that Islamic countries are different in terms of tradition and culture, but what really amazed me were the similarities. People there love music and dance and often celebrate life by playing music.”

Actually getting into Iraq posed another set of challenges. In 2007 the group flew into Dubai, then on to Suliamania, Iraq on a small, local Iraqi airline. “We wired the money for the Iraqi airline to our sponsor in Iraq, who we can’t mention. They sent a guy into town to pay for the airline tickets. There were only three of us, me and two male drummers — Constantine Alatzas and Mark Montygierd. Each of us had to pack 50 pounds of drums into our bags, instruments that would be donated to help start the drum circle movement.”

Stevens and her group had a long nervous moment after landing in Iraq. The customs inspectors went through their bags and unpacked all their drums. “Then one of the guards started playing a rhythm on one of the drums and the other guards picked up drums and started playing and smiling. It was pretty transformational.”

Building Community.

On the first day of training, Stevens and her partners met 45 teenagers assembled in the former Ba’athist Party headquarters. “I don’t know how they picked the kids or the buildings, maybe it was just what was available,” Stevens says. “Upstairs there were small isolation rooms where prisoners were once interrogated. They’d been made into small recording studios and music lesson rooms. Show me one American youth center that has a music room; I don’t think there is one. In Iraq, they all have at least one music room. Playing music in rooms that were once used for god knows what was symbolic of the transformation that we were hoping to facilitate.

“When we’d start a beat, everyone joined in. On one occasion, a violin player who was Kurdish was sitting next to an Arab dumbek player. They started playing and everyone was moving around the room together. It’s a tribal culture and the drum circle reignites the tribal connection.

“The kids, and the adults too, all told us that they weren’t musicians, then they’d pick up a drum and my jaw would drop. The young people we saw in Iraq have incredible skills on the drums. I saw an eight-year-old kid who could drum the pants off a lot of the professional drummers I’ve seen. They were doing things with their hands that seemed impossible. We taught them how to lead a group and empower people, but by the fourth day, they were showing off their skills on the oud and violin and teaching us. They came up with the idea of starting with a taqsim, then adding the drums to it.”

The next activity was an intense five-day training for adults — the Conflict Resolution Leadership Training program. “We had 38 trainees — 31 male, 7 female — 25 spoke Kurdish, 11 spoke Arabic, 2 Aramaic Arabic. They represented hospitals, rehabilitation centers, disability centers, orphanages, youth activity centers, community action groups, local governments, arts organizations, university students, and a performing ensemble. There were Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and Sufis from six governances and more than 18 cities scattered across northern Iraq.

“About 70 percent said they were beginning drummers, but in the USA, they could all be teachers. We also had drummers and drum teachers, therapists who were working with children, and community action leaders picked by our Iraqi sponsors. There were Arabs, Kurds, and Assyrians from a diversity of religious backgrounds, all speaking different languages. I’d explain something and then wait while it was translated into Kurdish and Arabic.

“The first day there was some resistance; some people didn’t pick up an instrument. I don’t think it was because I was a woman. In Iraq, I was seen as an expert from America on the topic of music and healing, so I had credibility. If you hand out drums right away, you create tension. There are good and better players and people may get self-conscious. So we started with body percussion and I played the piano and did some stretching exercises. After we warmed up, I pointed at the piano and waited. Finally, someone came up and started playing, and things started to shift. I told them we were there to learn, not teach.

“The Iraqi melodic scale is different from the western scale, but the drummers all say dum atak atak atak, just like we say. Even between warring groups and across different languages, they all feel the common beat. When you have people giving 100 percent, even though they can’t even speak the same language, that’s when you make peace. At the end of the training, they said they were inspired. They understood the power of the drum circle doesn’t come from how good you are, but from how you empower each other and how you share.”

Before the team left Iraq in 2007, they presented a demonstration for the public, including children, parents, therapists, teachers, and local government officials. Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, wife of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, attended. “First a traditional children’s dance ensemble performed,” Stevens said. “Then the people we trained started a drum circle and walked into the audience handing out drums. The audience included Kurds who had never been given anything by an Arab, and they shared their drums. That’s when I knew they got it. The audience joined in and there was dancing, singing, and drumming. You couldn’t believe you were in Iraq. It was heartwarming and it went beyond all barriers.

Follow Up.

Stevens and her team didn’t intend to return to Iraq, but upon arrival back in the States, the powerful experience lured them back for another round of training sessions in 2008. “We found that things had improved a bit,” Stevens says. “We were able to travel around northern Iraq and do trainings in four cities. It’s still not safe, but it is safer.”

For the second trip, the team brought Dr. Craig Woodson, an ethnomusicologist whose specialty is making musical instruments the traditional way, using available technology and recycled materials. “I’d come in and make an adufe, a frame drum from Portugal, using four sticks and plastic packing tape,” Woodson explains. “One of the kids wanted to play a bass drum, which we didn’t have, so I found a store that sold plastic containers and found a trash bin we could use. We made a drum stick using packing tape, but the boy drummed so hard, he broke the bottom of the bin. I told him not to worry, and I fixed it by taping it together starting from the inside of the bucket.

“A lot of our work in Iraq was communicated by metaphors, so I asked the translator to translate exactly what I was saying. I told them that when things are broken, you have to repair them from the inside first, then get to the outside. I told them drum players build their instrument every time they play it. All drummers have their own unique setup — it’s not like a piano or guitar. We have the ability to take the drums apart, to retune the heads, to make new heads. It’s a connection we have from tens of thousands of years ago, of being builders and performers. When we make our own drums today, we’re reconnecting with this ancient tradition. I think they got the message, because while I was talking you could have heard a pin drop.”

The group’s ’08 visit included a stop in Halabjah, where Saddam Hussein once gassed 5,000 Kurds in one day. “The Kurds were forbidden the practice of their culture,” Stevens says. “But the drum is their tradition, and they’re extraordinary drummers. I took daf lessons before I went to get ready, but the finger rolls and the way they bounce it in their hands when they play it is something. It’s powerful and loud.

“Iraq is the cradle of civilization. Erbil, the oldest city on the planet, is there. It’s one of the first places on earth where music was played, but it’s not a free place and it’s still dangerous. Kurds can’t go to the Arab parts of Iraq and Arabs don’t go to Kurdish areas. The city we were in was like the eye of a hurricane, a small safety zone, but nobody’s comfortable traveling there. When they came to our five-day training, we realized they’ve never seen each other’s country, so we had an open-mike night for cultural sharing.”

Stevens also spent some time with Iraqi women during her second Iraq tour. “There are extraordinary women drummers in Iraq. And because woman and men are so separate, we often divided the drum circles into men and women. On this trip, I worked with a Kurdish woman’s group. I went to a women’s shelter and sensed a lot of resistance at first, but in an hour and a half they were up drumming and dancing. Women there have a lot more problems than the men. I didn’t feel safe at night on the streets, but at the same time, when playing music, I felt safer than I do in L.A.”

Stevens was impressed by the generosity of the Iraqi people. “They treated us so well,” she remembers. “They drove us to the market. It meant so much to them that the people from America cared enough to be with them. There’s a huge need for self-expression and harm reduction. It’s a place of great suffering and can use a bit of cultural homeopathy. When you share your music with people you lose your materialism. One day we went to the market and Dr. Woodson wanted to buy a daf, but the man who owned the music store wouldn’t let him pay. He gave him two drums.”

“The Iraqi people were very generous,” Woodson agrees. “After I got the dafs, I went into a little store, sat down, and started playing an Iranian tune. I played in a Persian club in the ’70s, so I knew the rhythms. Everybody did a double take; then the shop owner grabbed a duzele, a Kurdish double-reed instrument, and started playing. A crowd gathered and everybody picked up drums and joined in. Afterwards, I asked the translator what they were talking about. He said the owner of the shop said he felt socially elevated because a doctor from the U.S. came and knew how to play our drums. He was elated that he was able to play music with the doctor from America. That kind of connection is so simple and so powerful and it can make such a difference.”

At the end of their 2008 stay, Stevens asked the children they’d been training if they had any questions. “They wanted to know if we could show them some Afro-Cuban rhythms, so we had a salsa jam. The kids were dancing around shouting ‘Masallah,’ which is an Islamic blessing. America’s challenge is to go there and learn, to listen to their stories and their music. We go there with drums, not guns, to communicate musician to musician. When you’re making music, you’re sharing pure energy and there’s no conflict.”

Readers who want to help can adopt a drum circle in Iraq for one month for $125. UpBeat drum circles wires the money directly to Kurdistan Save The Children.

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