Drumming for Depression (But Go Easy on the Ram's Blood)

John McManamy Health Guide
  • The other day, on Facebook, I came across a meme that went something like this: "In Africa, if you are depressed, they will ask: how long has it been since you stopped drumming, dancing, singing ..."


    Okay, Africa is a big place. so maybe not everyone is drumming, but Andrew Solomon in his classic 2001 The Noonday Demon recounted how, while in a village in Senegal, the locals took a day off to exorcise him of the spirits responsible for his depression. In an article in the Jan 14 Esquire, Andrew elaborates on his treatment.  


    First he describes sitting in a loincloth, skin covered in millet, listening to Chariots of Fire and holding various shamanic objects. Then, to the sound of drumming, with the villagers dancing in circles around him, he got in bed with a ram and was buried beneath blankets and sheets.

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    And ... “then these drums, which were getting louder and louder and more and more ecstatic.”


    Then he was yanked to his feet naked, and coated in the blood of the ram, plus two cockerels. Short break for a Coke, then the villagers tied him in the ram’s intestines, and directed him to bury pieces of the ram in the ground and command the spirits to leave him alone.


    Later, the women of the village rinsed him off by spitting him with water. Then they barbecued the ram and had a feast. As for the clinical outcome:


    And I felt so up. I felt so up! It had been quite an astonishing experience. Even though I didn’t believe in the animist principles behind it, all of these people had been gathered together, cheering for me, and it was very exhilarating.


    Five years later, in Rwanda, Andrew described his experience to one of the people there. They do things differently in East Africa, the man explained, but the principles are similar. He told Andrew how they had to kick western mental health workers out of the country soon after the genocide. He said this was because ...


    Their practice did not involve being outside in the sun, like you’re describing, which is, after all, where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again when you’re depressed, and you’re low, and you need to have your blood flowing.


    Moreover ...


    There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgment that the depression is something invasive and external that could actually be cast out of you again.


    Instead, the western mental health people would take people one at a time to dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. As the man concluded: “We had to get them to leave the country.”


    So now we see where this is going: Focus on the outdoors and drumming and sense of community. Go easy on the ram’s blood, but a bit of shamanic ritual might be helpful.  


    Is there anyone out there with a bit of practical experience? Funny you should ask ...


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    I play the didgeridoo, an ancient wind instrument of the First People of Australia. I practice an hour or so a day. Its singular drone can kick in the nervous system’s relaxation response, which helps in slowing down my runaway mind. The vibrations also take me into deep meditative trances.


    The didgeridoo also serves as a vocal drum. Skilled practitioners can lay down highly sophisticated and driving rhythms. In this context, the instrument acts as an energizer, an antidepressant.


    I frequently take my didgeridoo to drum circles, along with at least one drum and various percussion instruments. So, here’s where it all comes together: outdoors, drumming, and community.


    As for the shamanic element, play a didgeridoo or a drum (or other instrument) long enough and something changes inside.  Trust me on this.  


    So, here I am, with all the key components of Andrew’s depression treatment, and I don’t even have to travel to Senegal. Someone taps out a beat. Others join in. I enter with my didge. More drummers. One beat layers over another, joining forces, taking on a life of its own. The pulse flows through me. I am swept away ...


    No, drumming is not the magic bullet cure for depression. As one of the many weapons in your recovery and healing, though, it is a very powerful one. 


    In another article, which I have posted on the bipolar pages of HealthCentral, I explain some of the neuroscience behind drumming and music. A lot of it is speculative, but a body of evidence is emerging in support of the proposition that drumming - and music and dance - can rewire the brain.


    The ancients, of course, figured it out years ago. You don’t need to be an expert to benefit. All that is required is the ability to count to one. Grab a drum, a bucket, something to bang on, anything. Venture outdoors, find some drummers, share in the community. Let the healing begin. 

Published On: May 25, 2014