Layne Redmond: Chasing The Frame Drum

layne redmond

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.”

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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.”