Play That Funky Music White Boy (Part 1)

Being a practitioner of sacred sound, it’s sort of a requirement of the job that I, well, make sound. Which, for me, means instruments. Lots and lots of instruments.

You don’t have to twist my arm to get me to spend time researching instruments, listening to instruments, playing instruments. I love it. I’m happy to do it anytime, anywhere. I’d do it whether I practiced sacred sound or not. I’d be doing it right now if I weren’t writing this article.

That’s how much I love sound, and things that make sound.

The cool part is that since I rock this sacred sound stuff I have an excuse for spending a ton of time playing and listening and making sounds. It’s my job. I mean, I have to, right?

Best. Job requirement. Ever.

Sitting with the various instruments I play is like hanging out with good friends. We get together. We catch up. We do what we love. We have an awesome time. And then we do it all again the next day.

It may sound strange to talk about instruments as friends, but that’s exactly what it feels like for me.

When I meet a new instrument for the first time, there’s a mix of nervous and excited. Who are they? What are they like? How will we get along? What does their voice sound like? What stories will they tell?

And hanging out with an instrument answers all of these questions, because getting to know an instrument isn’t much different than getting to know a person. When you spend enough time with someone, you get to know who that person is and what they’re all about.

Usually I start by learning about an instrument’s history. Where did it come from? What part of the world? What culture? And what role did it play in that culture? Getting to know the instrument’s backstory helps me to get a sense of its roots. Roots are important.

Then I want to hear the instrument’s voice. But before I ask the instrument to say a few words, I make sure we’re hanging out someplace where those words can be heard. (Have you ever tried to get to know someone at a noisy party, trying to scream replies back and forth with Pat Benetar blaring in the background? Ugh.)

So we find a quiet spot in the house. Or someplace outside – the front porch, under a big tree, a quiet corner of the park. And we talk. Well, the instrument talks. I listen.

I play the instrument. And then I sit… listening, feeling, hanging out in the sound.

Where do I feel the sound in my body? What do I feel? What shifts for me? Do I feel energized or quieted? Does the sound draw me out into the world around me or point me toward the world within me? How does my heart respond to the sound?

For days, or weeks, (or, in some cases, even months) we hang out like this, in this space of playing and listening, sounding and sensing. Getting to know each other takes time. And it’s a delicious process.

You can tell a lot about an instrument by its voice. Deep and booming. Quiet but long. Delicate, almost ethereal. An instrument’s voice says a lot about who it is, and how it’ll show up during a sacred sound session.

And by the time an instrument shows up in a session, I’ll know its voice intimately. We’ll already be good friends and will have spent a lot of time in each other’s company. I’ll know exactly what that instrument brings to the table, what happens when it shares its voice with you.

Spending so much time with these friends-who-make-sound gives me lots of opportunities to learn. Every instrument teaches me something – some nugget of insight or kernel of wisdom, some bit of goodness that weaves itself into exactly the right spot in the fabric of my life and my work.

Meet my friends

I’d like to introduce you to a few of my friends because – well, because they’re my friends and I like them. I think you’ll like them too. And since you’ll meet a few of them during your session, I figure it would only be proper to take care of the introductions now.

I hang out with a lot of drums. I have seven living with me now. Each one is totally unique. Seven different voices. Seven different stories. Seven different ways of showing up.

Elk DrumThere’s my large hoop drum, made by a Native man in the northwest. Elk skin head. Big voice. Big enough to rattle the windows, and to rattle out all the ick that keeps you from moving forward. She never talks louder than she has to though, reflecting the perfect mix of wisdom and strength.

She taught me that you can do really big work, really hard work, when you’re plugged in to your heart. She reminded me to pay more attention to my heart, to my heartbeat. She really shines when she’s playing the heartbeat rhythm. Kind of like me, and you, and all of us, eh?

This drum didn’t come with a beater. So I made one myself. The beater is the way humans and hoop drums connect. So it was cool to be able to create that connection from scratch. A branch in my yard, labradorite set in the handle and whole lot of prayers.

Ivory Coast DjembeI have two djembes. The one I play the most is from the Ivory Coast. It was love at first sight. I swear this drum totally winked at me from across the room.

He’s a steady old friend, who also apparently happens to be a master cartographer. He knows maps, and can help you find the road anytime, every time, no matter how lost you feel. He taught me that there’s really no such thing as lost. Just making new roads.

He likes to rock out. Sometimes we jam together for hours. I play until my hands are sore. He can rock out longer than I can. He’s kind of a rockstar like that.

And rattles. Yes, rattles. I have lots of rattles. Twelve? Thirteen? Probably more.

One rattle I hang out with a lot was made by a Navajo artisan. Small guy, but he talks a lot. (The rattle, not the artisan.) He sees a lot too. I usually play him at the start of a session. He shows me where to focus. He always knows exactly where to start. He’s good like that.

Gourd & Driftwood RattleThen there’s the rattle I affectionately call River. Her body is a gourd, with a gorgeous swirley pattern that looks like a whale’s eye. Her handle is made from driftwood, found along the banks of the river. It has a gentle curve to it, just like the river I grew up with as a child.

She’s filled with seeds, and her sound is quiet. She knows all about flow, so when you’re stuck she knows exactly what to do. Gently. Sweetly. She’s special. She feels like the river.

Seedpod RattlesI have three seedpod rattles. They’re long, flat, the color of leather. They have lot of little lines on their faces. They look like someone that’s spent too much time in the sun. (This gives them character, they insist.)

Their voices are lively. Spirited. Quick to speak. They start with a whisper and soon, before you know it, they’re all talking loudly. They’re excited about what they do. And they do it well.

What exactly is it that they do? Find the places where you’ve lost touch with your roots, clear the lines and restore the connection. And once they’ve done that, they all sit around nodding approvingly. Happy. Satisfied. Glad to help.

Do you want to meet some of my singing bowl pals? I’m kind of kooky for singing bowls. I have over twenty of them. Some are new. Some are old – 100, 150, and even 300 years old. (That’s like 2100 years old in dog years.)

Himalayan Singing BowlThe bowl that started my kooky-for-singing-bowls thing is a contemporary bowl. She’s just under five inches in diameter. Made from a combination of metals in India, she shines like the sun in all of her golden-ey goodness.

I wasn’t sure about bowls before I met her. Curious, but unconvinced. And then I played her. She had me at hello. She sings with the sweetest voice ever. Her song goes straight to the heart.

And she sings so easily, so willingly. You have to coax the song out of some bowls. Not her. With the slightest touch, she sings. And no matter what might be in the way, her song always reaches the heart.

When I listen to her sing, I realize how many times I’ve made connecting to my heart a complicated thing. It doesn’t have to be so complicated. There are simple, clear roads that are always there, roads that will always help us reconnect in a second. I dig that lesson. I need that lesson.

Himalayan Singing Bowl with StemThen there’s a larger bowl – over eight inches in diameter – who’s unique in a couple of ways. First, there’s the stem – an extra metal rim on the bottom of the bowl. This allows me to play the bowl and then turn it upside down, so you can get even closer to the sound during your session. This style of bowl is unique. You rarely find them, so I was glad when I did.

The rim of the bowl has been inscribed with a script of some sort – probably Devanagari, which would mean the bowl came from Nepal or India. He’s an old bowl, close to 300 years old. The inscription he carries could be a mantra, or even the name of the bowl’s original owner. (I seem to have misplaced my Devanagari decoder ring.)

When he sings, his voice starts with one note and then spreads out into multiple notes – a wave of overtones. He sings strongly. He sings until all the ick is gone. He’s patient. No matter how long it takes, he hangs in there. He keeps singing. That seems like another good life lesson – hang in there and keep singing.

So, now you’ve met a few of my instrument friends. If you have a sacred sound session of your own, you’ll get to hang out with us. While we play, and listen, and do what we love.

But I realize that I haven’t even mentioned the tuning forks, or the dan moi, or the Peruvian whistling vessels, or the gongs, rainsticks and bells. More friends. More introductions to come.

That’ll have to wait though. Now I have to run. My friends are calling. It’s time for us to hang out. And catch up. And play.

Later tater.

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