Layne Redmond: Chasing The Frame Drum

layne redmond

While at the festival, Redmond met Humberto Mendes Barbosa, who is director of the Boi do Maracaña, a group that plays the Sotaque de Matraca style, which is more influenced by the Native Indian traditions. “Humberto explained their religious system, from his point of view,” Redmond remembers. “I asked him who’s in charge of heaven, because I didn’t have any idea. He explained to me that God is very far away, not very concerned with the human realm. But St. John the Baptist is much more concerned with the human realm, and is considered the king of heaven, which explains why he is celebrated during Bumba Meu Boi.”

Considering the rich religious imagery that underpins the festival, Redmond was surprised by the amount of ritual alcohol consumed during the proceedings. “They drink cachaça, which is made from sugar cane,” she says. “One person stands there pouring cachaça into a Communion chalice and everybody dances by and takes a swig. And the drums are very heavy and very large – the largest frame drums I’ve ever seen – and they play them by holding them up over one shoulder, which is very hard to do and very tiring, but they go into this really intense trance state that enables them to go on like this for hours and hours.”

The instrumentation used during the festival includes call-and-response vocals, paneirãos (frame drums that range from 24" to 32" in diameter and about 4" deep), matracas (two small pieces of rectangular hardwood played like claves), tambor-onças (deep-voiced quicas), maraças (shaker) and whistles. All of the music in Bumba Meu Boi is based on a 2 against 3 pattern, which is stated in a foundation of two matraca parts, one playing three eighth-note triplets and the other holding down two straight eighth-notes (see Ex. 1). The maraças mimic the 2-against-3 rhythm, by playing 1, 2, and, 3 (see Ex. 2), while the tambor-onça plays sustained tones that accent the rhythm. Over this basic framework, the frame drums play a number of different patterns, some as accompaniment and others as solos (Ex. 3).

Redmond learned these patterns during two lessons with traditional teachers. “They don’t break it down, they just start playing,” she says. “They don’t teach like we teach here. People grow up knowing the rhythms. Nothing is written down, so we did a lot of videotaping. Then we came back and studied our videotapes. I wrote articles about it and we started teaching workshops based on what we learned from it.

“It’s a frame drum style that nobody here was familiar with. I would never say that I got what they were doing. But while I’ve been studying it and trying to learn it, and making plans to go back, the experience has transformed me, which transforms the music that I’m working on and the rhythms I play. I have no qualms letting things influence me, and then combining those techniques into my music. I’m not consciously trying to recreate ancient music. What would the point of that be, anyway?

“Basically I’ve come to the point of realizing that I’m a product of this country. I’m heavily influenced by the music, thought, philosophy, and religious practices from other cultures, yet I’m not Tibetan, I’m not Brazilian. I’m an American woman, who is trying to find a way to synthesize all this stuff into something that has meaning for me today.”

In the sometimes politically correct world of hand drumming, this kind of statement can make ethnically specific purists bristle. But while Redmond has no illusions about who she is in the bigger scheme of things, she has never lost her deep respect for the history and spiritual significance of the frame drum itself. “It’s an emitting artifact,” she says, with some awe. “It emits the original sound that it made 8,000 years ago, even though it’s always changing and always evolving.

“Rhythmic sound is the first communion. It immediately entrains all of your brain waves, which I’ve been able to see myself, from the few studies I’ve done with an EEG machine. Traditionally it takes anywhere from 12 to 20 minutes to drive people into a low Alpha-Beta state, which is a trance state where you experience a sense of oneness, a sense of euphoria and ecstasy as a group. But with drumming, I see it instantaneously on the EEG machines. The brain waves immediately go into a pattern that matches the rhythms, and when the rhythm changes, the brain waves change in an instant. I believe that was clearly known in the ancient world.”

All things considered, it sounds as if Redmond has ample material to write another book, if she cared to. But is she tempted to take on another writing project? “I doubt it,” she laughs. “I think one lost history per lifetime is enough.”

Who can blame her? She spent six long years writing When The Drummers Were Women, tracing the historical connection between frame drumming and women, and has earned the right to slow down, at least a little. In conversation, she sounds as if she really wants to take a break. But one breath after saying, “I’m going to cut way back,” she adds, “I’m going to spend as much time as possible going to Brazil and to Egypt.”

She just can’t stop. “There’s so many different techniques, so many different styles,” she enthuses. For example, at the time of our interview, Redmond was ready to pack her bags for a trip to Egypt where she intended to identify correlations between the music she heard in Brazil and its roots in ancient civilizations. However, she canceled her trip after learning of the murders of tourists at the temple at Luxor.

But that hasn’t stopped her from planning other projects. Recording sessions. Workshops. Even more research. Redmond admits that she has felt driven to accomplish something important throughout her life. It shows in her prolific output, yet poses another dichotomy. She wants to slow down, but can’t. “I remember at one point in New York, everybody was judging each other on how busy they were, how full their book was. That meant that you were successful,” she says. But now she’s 46 years old, and things have changed. “I want to empty out my book. That would be success to me.”

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