Layne Redmond seems amused by the dichotomies of her life. She’s been many things: a high-school cheerleader, new age ritualist, art historian, frame drum scholar, author, performer, composer, and recording artist. But among her various incarnations, she has always been, and is likely to remain, both a consummate student and authoritative teacher of rhythm culture.
Since Redmond was swept into the power of hand drumming more than 25 years ago, her study of percussion – particularly the tambourine and its permutations – has taken her around the world countless times as a researcher, learning new playing techniques and examining ancient artifacts, and as a concert performer, clinician, and facilitator, dispensing information she gathers in her travels.
Many people are drawn to her, but for different reasons. Some enjoy her music, others study her techniques, and still others transcend the chaos of life in the late-20th century through her rhythmic meditation techniques and rituals. And this is where Redmond’s most poignant dichotomy becomes clear.
“Our lives are so far out of rhythm today – including mine,” she admits. “Everything that I teach is belied by my life experience. I’m going to Alaska this week and then all over Southern California. I was in Hawaii, Dallas, Missouri, and Iowa. I’m moving at dizzying speeds through all these time zones, and that’s not healthy. That’s not being in rhythm.”
But for now, there’s just too much on her plate for her to slow down. Between her latest CD, ironically titled Being In Rhythm (an audio version of rhythmic meditation practices she developed in her workshops), and her book, When The Drummers Were Women (released last June and already in its third printing), Redmond’s calendar has been overstuffed with a string of book tours, workshops, and concerts.
So today, in a rare quiet moment at her home in rural New York state, she doesn’t want to talk much about her book or album. At this point, those projects are well behind her, and anyway, she’s said everything there is to say about them several times over. Instead she’s utterly jazzed by her recent trek to Brazil, where she attended the two-month long Bumba Meu Boi frame drum festival in São Luis and learned something new – to her, at least – which fits another puzzle piece into her lifelong study.
While there, her guide was percussionist Luiz Claudio, who founded Fogo de Mão (hands of fire), a folkloric ensemble from the state of Maranhào that also performed during the festival. Redmond was invited to Bumba Meu Boi by Claudio, whom she had first met earlier in the year at PercPan, a percussion festival in Salvador, Bahia, organized by percussionist Nana Vasconcelos.
“Seven of us went to Bumba Meu Boi,” she says. “We gave concerts and workshops and then went to the festival. The festival is based around a sacred bull that gets ripped to shreds and then resurrected by many, many people playing the frame drum and dancing and singing at the same time. I was so excited about this, because the oldest depiction of any drum is a painting in an ancient shrine in Turkey in the town Çatal Hüyük. It is a frame drum, from 5600 B.C., played by a large group of dancers who have percussion instruments in their hands, and they’re dancing around a bull.
“All throughout the historical cultures of Mesopotamia, Greece, Crete, Rome, and then Spain, you can find the mythology of the sacred bull that gets ripped to shreds and then resurrected by the frame drum every season. Dionysus is probably the most famous male-bull god. He represents the harvest, the ripping down of the harvest, either the grain or the grapes. Then the resurrection comes six months later when the new seeds are sprouted. So it’s a very ancient, mythological motif and to find it still surviving in Brazil was very exciting.”
Bumba Meu Boi (which roughly translates into Drumming The Bull) takes place around the Summer Solstice, but is actually a celebration of John the Baptist. The original myth behind the festivities involves a black slave couple who work on a plantation. The pregnant wife, Catarina, asks her husband, Chico, to slaughter the plantation owner’s bull so she can cook and eat its tongue. Upon discovering his dead bull, the plantation owner orders the couple to be killed, but St. John the Baptist intercedes by appearing in the plantation owner’s dreams to warn him not to harm the couple. With the help of the curandeiros (spiritual leaders), the couple use the power of drumming to resurrect the bull, and their lives are spared. The myth ends when Catarina gives birth to a child who proves to be the plantation owner’s son. This story is reenacted every year at Bumba Meu Boi.
Redmond explains, “The [story] survived after the demise of all the ancient religions – with the rise of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – by being incorporated in the Catholic village folk traditions in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. In Portugal, even to this day, the frame drum is played by women. If men want to play it, they have to dress in the clothing of women. So the Portuguese women took the frame drum, and the Catholic traditions connected to it, when they colonized Brazil, and the African slaves really took to the instrument. But in this particular part of Brazil, Maranhào, the native people really survived, even though they had been enslaved, and intermarried with the black slaves. So this tradition of the ritual slaughter and resurrection of the bull is just an incredibly fascinating synthesis of the indigenous people’s beliefs, the African beliefs and the Portuguese Catholic beliefs, but outwardly it’s Catholicism.”