THE SHAMAN'S DRUM
MINATO Chihiro: If I might return to the topic of "intensive expanse" for a moment, I think that there are a couple of distinct ways to get there. Perhaps it's better to say "make that transition" . . . for the simple reason that the shaman's art is to some extent contingent upon a certain trance state. ELIADE used the word "extase" to refer to the soul leaving the body. Just as demonic "possession" deals with an external presence entering the body, extase(ecstacy) deals with the original presence leaving the body. Now, there are several stages to this process. The first of these is a certain sense of confusion. The second is a vision of the structure of the path which had confused you. At the end of this path is most likely the sacred grounds, or so speculated Mihaly HOPPAL in his book Shamanism (Japanese language edition; Seidosha, 1998). I've read a lot of books on trance states, and they all generally concur on the fact of there being a third and fourth step. Of course, there may be a way to leap directly in . . . .
One of the transitions is to ride a bird into the sky. The myth of the migrating raven is told from Siberia, across Alaska and even in mainland America. So, the ascension is one. Another is the opposite, or descent. At only certain unique places is this possible--particular rocky areas or caves, for example. To my understanding, these are the two great passages: away from, and into the earth. At the entrance to these portals are "singing stones," or as Shin'ichi mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, drums.
If you look at the image of shamanism as it has spread throughout the world, the drum always plays a part. At some point in history the structure of the drum made its appearance, and then, virtually unchanged, spread to all cultures. There are certain similarities to the rhythms used, and listening to them I'm sure that there are common undulations involved. There is a group in Quebec, Canada who make shamans' drums. They are a tribe in northern Quebec called the Montagnard, and there was a documentary made of the unbroken tradition of shamanism alive among them. This film was made between 1970 and 1980, taking a full decade to shoot. They are a people who've foregone the metropolises of Quebec, creating a small community among the cold and harsh conditions of the northern woods. The title of this documentary is "Mémoire battante." In direct translation this means "beating memories," or in a somewhat larger interpretation, "pulsing memories," or "drumming memories." Throughout the entire film, there are scenes of things being rhythmically hit or drummed upon, or conversations about the resulting vibrations created therefrom.
The drum is not seen as just another "musical instrument." When the caribou approach from far away, for example, they are said to be "appearing on the drum." To look at this expression another way, the head of the drum behaves, for them, like a mirror or screen, in computer jargon. They also produce their own special drumsticks, and they speak of something coming down off of the drumstick.
At the end of the film, an elder shaman describes his initiation, and the experience he had in this teepee. It's a bit of an odd tale: "I went inside of the teepee, and then the shaman entered, and began beating the drum, and as he kept beating it, I began to enter the world of self oblivion. At the same moment, I became aware that, even without his beating on the drum, the teepee was being beaten. As though the entire teepee were vibrating as one with the drum. As I passed through this vibration of the teepee and drum's vibration, I became a shaman." "Now I am an old man. I am no longer able to make the teepee move to this greater power. However, it is in the certainty that we have within us the power to make the teepee vibrate to a greater power that we are shamans." This condition, of being able to make the teepee resonant, is called "la tente battante," and the documentary is essentially about trying to understand exactly what this power, to bring out a teepee's resonance, is. The act of rhythmic pounding is essential to shamanism. That's what I found interesting.
NAKAZAWA: The rhythmic pounding creates ecstasy. Ecstacy, as in extase--"stase" being a state of remaining still. Extase means going out, towards the "ex"ternal world. Through leaving, going "ex," one becomes able to draw out innumerous other voices from the world.
I once saw a video documentation of an artist who wandered Manhattan beating on things with a stick. What I liked about this was, that even in Manhattan of all places, when he started pounding on things it would call to a whole host of other noises. In a normal condition, the sources of these noises would be rocks and concrete, even chairs, all being quiet, withering into this environment. Then, when this artist began beating them, extase appeared from all of them. The human soul just somehow has this kind of structuring. Shamans are usually blacksmiths, right? The blacksmith, pounding the ores from the earth, and the shaman pounding his drum, are one and the same. The drum and metalsmithing, all of these things exist in a cohesive world, which can be called out by this action of rhythmic pounding, and in this moment of expression, extase is breathing.
I'd also like to comment on the teepee in Chihiro's comments. I thought that they were very interesting. The title of this exhibition is "Portable Sacred Grounds," and the teepee is a beautiful example of just such a very portable sacred "ground." Maybe better expressed as a "portable sacred cave." Another way to say it would be that there are certain conditions which create the shaman, one being he who is born wearing the placenta on his head. This is said to be quite important. To appear wearing your teepee is to become either shaman or hero. Julius CAESAR was said to have been born wearing his. In Japan, children born like this are said to be "wearing their vestments." Such children are said to be heaven-sent. Placentas themselves are even sold as a talisman. In England, shipmen are said to really value them. They appear often in DICKENS's stories, or in newspaper advertisements. Shipmen carry placentas for safety on their sea voyages. The reasoning behind this is that the fetus was protected by this placenta/teepee in crossing the mother's amniotic fluid to safely be born into the world of the living children. In Japan, mendicant priests also wear headwear. Or, there is a ghost who wears a mino-kasa [conical grass hat and coat] that appears in ancient Japanese stories. The point is that when a person covers a part of his body for sacred purposes, that part of his body is said to gain the capability to communicate with the next world. Being made invisible is another function . . . . To my mind, these are all part of the same set of cave and womb issues.
MINATO: In the Pyrénées separating France and Spain, there are caves with wall paintings which go back some 30,000 years. I've been renting a house in the area these past two or three years. One of my neighbors there held a barbecue party a while back and invited me. As someone was taking the meat out of the freezer and putting it onto a plate to take outside and be cooked, there was a sudden cry "No!! Not that one!!" . . . When I asked what the matter was, the woman of the house came over and explained to me that it was a placenta. (laughs) Well, everyone was pretty surprised. "What kind of placenta?" I asked, and she said, "The placenta from when our youngest child was born." When I asked her why she kept the placenta from her pregnancy, and asked, "Are you going to eat it?" she replied that she was going to bury it and grow a tree from it. The tree would then take the nutrition from her child's placenta. The tree would be the child's tree. There were already two trees like it growing there in the yard. This was to be the third, so we were not to have placenta that evening. "This isn't for you!" she told me, but we weren't really that interested in having it anyway, (laughs) so we quickly returned it to the freezer.
NAKAZAWA: Usually it would be placed under the threshold to the house, or under the church doorway, or . . . .
MINATO: Is there a special meaning in that?
NAKAZAWA: It is valued for its consecrative or magical powers, so it usually has to be placed at a point of passage.
MINATO: As Shin'ichi was saying, cave issues often are dealing with returning to the womb, other passageway back into intensive expanse, as it were.
One researcher of prehistoric paintings, one of the central personages in the field in France today, Jean CLOTTES did a performance last summer that I witnessed. It was held around the area where the drawings are best preserved in the Istritz caves. He invited a percussionist, and there, in the middle of a cave maybe 10 kilometers long, had him play. There were about 30 of us. It was about half scientific inquiry, half performance.
What he told us was that "The research on the prehistoric caves at Lascaux and Altamira was too focused on the pattern and design, ignoring all but the visual aspects, while the other senses, particularly the sense of hearing was sorely overlooked." According to him, the aural aspects might even be more important than the visual, because nearly all of the locations with paintings were stalactite grottos, and stalactite grottos themselves have the properties of musical instruments. Walking in there is like walking into a large musical instrument. And if that is the case, then what we were seeing was the spot with the best acoustics as the canvas, and paintings actually maps the aural environment there. And that's why he was holding these performances there. In fact, each place within the caves that the drummer performed had completely different tonal qualities, some of them revealing clearly audible overtones undistinguishable in others. And in each place where the incredible overtones were emerging there were petroglyphs, or paintings.
NAKAZAWA: It is true that the discussion about the caves of the Pyrénées all revolves around the graphical aspects. And the Istritz caves are quite near Lascaux. However, I would say that we might even call those paintings themselves a form of "drumming." Typically described as "through taking a wooden spatula and applying primitive makeup to the recesses of an "intensive expanse"--rich in creative powers--the act of painting these pictures was in fact an act of extending animal figures into this world," I would assert that they were created in a visual counterpart to the act of drumming. More than attempting to paint these scenes, these wall paintings were drummed into existence, and the prehistoric art specialist was attempting to confront this issue in the most direct way available.