While in the Tengeru region East of Arusha, our group we went to “The Small Things” Children’s Center, which is inspired by Mother Teresa’s quote, “We can do not great things, only small things with great love.” There we delivered some of the school supplies we’d brought to Tanzania that some of the travelers and others had procured by my friend Rev. Kevin Ross’s congregation at Unity of Sacramento—a very progressive metaphysical church that he pastors. The staff there gave us an orientation and introduced us to some of the kids; that was a beautiful experience and our first opportunity to be with a group of children. This is one of those places that takes in kids from all over the community, including those without families or with difficult family situations.
It was interesting because our group met on a little hill with the classrooms down below. You could hear the kids in the classrooms singing and dancing and doing percussion or reciting their lessons, which was a wonderful feeling. I felt the urge to grab my drum and join in with their energy, but I did not want to disturb their studies; plus, I also enjoyed seeing them in their daily activities. They seemed so happy and allowed just to be kids, and it felt good to hear kids feel safe, loved, and cared for.
We returned to our lodge and were greeted by a troupe of drumming acrobats, which filled me with excitement as it created the opportunity for me to pull out my djembe drum and make some music, which is always a highlight for me on these trips.
I asked permission to join in, and they graciously allowed me to sit in and contribute to their performance. As soon as I started playing, it was all I could do to keep up with their speed and complexity. Their style is fast-paced, and it’s a different tradition than I’m used to as a drummer. Stylistically this was East African, and I’m trained in West African styles, which are very different. They played “Ngoma” drums of various sizes and an instrument that looked like a “balaphone,” which is a wooden xylophone.
Meanwhile, acrobats were performing around me and adding to the energy and excitement of the shared experience. It was a bit intimidating and scary because I didn’t want to make mistakes and mess up the groove. I loved their rhythms so much, and my focus was on keying into the rhythm and into their playing to follow their cadence and feel, which was no small task. Whenever a person joins or drops out from a group percussive performance, it changes the collective rhythm. There were times when I would become aware that my contribution was changing the rhythm, and I would back off and tune back into what everyone else was doing in a truer way.
Often with this kind of music, it takes time and dedicated listening even to hear what’s happening because our hearing is entrained in a certain way, meaning that there are elements we won’t likely hear at first. And then, when you layer multiple parts playing together, it’s that much more complex, and as I learned rhythms from teachers in the past, it would often take me some time to be able to hear it, let alone play it. And once I could hear it, it would become a process of embodiment of the rhythmic energy to a place where it can inhabit my arms and fingers and the rest of my body, and then I can start to play it. In this situation on my trip, I didn’t have the luxury of easing into these complex rhythms and was instead trying to assimilate in real time. Most importantly, I had fun, my contributions were well received, and we all bathed in the vibrations of the collective.
As I reflected on this second day of my journey, I was brought back to the idea that had inspired the start of my day: welcoming. The spirit of welcoming was always present, at the lodge, the coffee plantation, the school with the kids, with the drumming troupe, the hotel staff, and even with the animals. I just felt so welcomed everywhere.
Another thing that was present for me was an appreciation for the beauty of Africa. Something I learned from one of my teachers is that beauty as energy and consciousness, which is the essence of beauty, can help to elegantly integrate elements of the unconscious into the conscious mind. Generally, that integration comes through challenging circumstances, yet beauty can have a similar effect, and in a much gentler way. When I come to Africa, I feel that; parts of me just pop into place. Powerful ancestral awareness, feeling connected with my earth and stellar ancestry, was very powerful during this journey, including both light and shadow. And also elements of appreciation and celebration of aspects of myself that deserved more recognition, such as recognizing how much my drumming impacts people and that there’s a quality of my soul that comes through when I allow myself to be in the rhythm and express myself, and that’s something I was aware of to an extent. Still, this experience allowed me to realize it even more.