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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Local Musicians March to a Different Drummer

Atlanta is home to a unique community of musicians that requires no conductor or even printed music, because they don’t use notes—instead, they play venerable West African drum rhythms that have served humans for thousands of years.

DrumRise was founded in 2007 by drumming teachers Amy Jackson and Colleen Caffrey. Caffrey is a professor with the international network of djembe schools founded by master drummer Mamady Keïta, called Tam Tam Mandingue. Jackson is a certified associate instructor with the network’s North Carolina branch.

Both Jackson and Caffrey are also drum circle facilitators who have studied with leaders in the field, including Arthur Hull, Kalani, Barry Bittman and Christine Stevens, of Remo’s HealthRHYTHMS. In addition, the pair has just completed three years training as facilitators of the TaKeTiNa meditative rhythm process.

Caffrey states, “We teach traditional West African drumming in group classes that bring people together into an experience of community music making.” They also conduct drum circles that can be booked for special events. “We might come to your church, family picnic, retreat or community festival. You don’t need any previous experience; you don’t need to study or learn any specific technique. We facilitate a process where you’re going to engage with other people playing music and have fun, whether or not you’ve ever done it before.” She adds, “Audience participation is a big part of the genre of West African music.”

But entertainment is not their main objective. As Caffrey relates, “Primarily, we are educators and facilitators, engaging people to participate in drumming and other forms of rhythm.” They conduct programs involving both teens and seniors to help them regain balance in a world that may seem out of control.

The HealthRHYTHMS group rhythm program has been shown in scientific studies to strengthen the immune system and reduce stress. Drumming has also been used in the treatment of depression and anger management, and has been shown to be a powerful mode of experiential therapy in working with troubled children and adolescents.

In addition to performing therapeutic drumming sessions in hospital settings, Caffrey says, “We are very active in drumming in a lot of the assisted living facilities around Atlanta. For many seniors, drumming is the most physical activity they have all month, just getting their hands moving, and it might be the most social activity they have all month together, playing music. Drumming has been shown to boost the immune system and reduce biological markers of stress. There is so much direct health benefit that comes out of that, and there is real science behind it to support the effects.”

Jackson says, “We love drumming with our seniors! Once the singing and drumming begins, their spirits seem to come alive. Feet start tapping and bodies start moving. Seniors that never participate in activities suddenly surprise the staff by singing out, shaking a shaker or playing on a drum. It’s no wonder that rhythm making lessens depression. Just imagine seeing 30 or 40 joyful seniors with sparkles in their eyes and smiles on their faces, making music together. It’s beautiful.”

The pair also practices a different type of modality at local yoga studios. Caffrey elaborates, “TaKeTiNa is a way of learning about rhythm through the body using stepping, clapping and voice, instead of instruments; but the real benefit is going to a place of profound presence and inner stillness. The rhythm then becomes the vehicle for a moving meditation.”

Jackson, a natural drummer and Atlanta native, enjoyed a 30-year career as a registered nurse before finding her musical calling. The two met in 2003, when they were both taking djembe [a medium-sized African drum] lessons from a local teacher named Chuck Cogliandro, and soon joined the all-woman group, ConunDrums, which performs for events and festivals around the Atlanta area. They later joined another group, called Ten Blocks Away, to advance their repertoire.

Jackson trained in 2010 with Tom Harris, the director of Therapeutic Drumming at the Youth Villages Inner Harbour campus. She is now a certified Youth Villages therapeutic drumming instructor and can apply those skills as a drumming facilitator in behavioral health settings.

Earlier this year, Jackson and Caffey traveled to the African nation of Guinea to study with Keïta six hours a day for three weeks, and experience the culture from which these traditions originated. After DrumRise got started, Caffrey relates, “The more we performed and the more we saw that people were just so lit up by hearing the drumming and seeing women drumming, we both started looking at ways that we could bring that to more people.”

ConunDrums will perform at noon, Sept. 26, at the Decatur Blue Sky Concert. For more information, visit DrumRise.net and ConunDrums.org for a full schedule of classes and performances.

Martin Miron is the editor of Natural Awakenings Atlanta.

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