“Can I ask what’s with all the noise?” I yelled a whisper to a twenty-something year old with shoulder-length hair hanging under a faded baseball cap.
“Well, it’s like they’re intensifying what they’re doing.” He handed me one of the maracas he was shaking. “Take part. Don’t question.”
So I shook the instrument frantically, just like the rest of them, only a lot more apathetic. I even tapped an expensive-looking, antiquey cow bell.
The heavy tinkling brought something to mind.
But it was just the first seconds of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman.”
After splashing through a parking lot to the back entrance of the Millennium Dance Complex, dancing Los Angelese women in last summer’s white prairie-yet-gypsy skirts had greeted my beef-appreciating eyes. I took a seat in a director’s-styled chair that was a part of the semicircle in the dance studio hosting a Raven Drum Foundation fundraising workshop, the Soul of the Drum. Whenever my eyes met one of the shoeless white ladies trying to get their tribal jiggy with it, they would smile and gesture an invitation to dance. That earned them a returned smile and a shake of the head.
I looked to my right. A man in glasses who seemed shyly barefooted eagerly offered me the drum held awkwardly in his lap. Ah, someone I could relate to.
I smiled and shook my head.
A curvaceous Caucasian woman in African garb and the high priest Babaayl Adeyemil — of the Yurubi House who was cohosting the seminar — had introduced themselves and the alter — a rig of would-be museum collectables, ethnic prints, and wasted fruit.
“We hope you’ll sing, dance, or drum. Preferably all three.” She smiled.
I ended up sitting in another director’s-styled chair — this one less creaky with a view of the band and next to a teenage boy sporting a shaved head, plaid button-down, and stylish sneakers.
While people chanted and danced the phrase “I am that I am” in Lion King language, I leaned over to my left.
“So what are you here for?” I asked.
He smiled. “That’s my pops.” He pointed to a spectacled man behind some double-drum contraption nearly as tall as him. “You look a little young for this crowd.”
“Yeah.” I shrugged. “What about you? Are you still in high school?”
He smiled again. “Yeah.” He went back to enthusiastically slapping his drum, one of the few seeming to get the idea of rhythm. “That’s Def Leppard’s drummer over there.” He nudged towards Rick Allen, the one-armed, curly-haired guy behind a drum kit who looked to be having a grand time.
“Oh yeah… So a lotta people here are regulars?”
“Well, yeah. You can kinda tell who’s who.”
I watched the circle of no-longer-just-white women. An Asian lady in a British flag-patterned sweater was working on getting into the flow of being one, one with the creator, one with the creation, one with the idea of stamping a staff then doing some sort of coordinated twirl.
I leaned over one more time. “So what do you think this is accomplishing?”
He prefaced his reply with a smile as usual. “Well, I think it’s more just for people to forget… and have a good time.”
I examined what I imagined to be a pricey, aged cow bell when I wasn’t pounding it along with the other workshoppers. It wasn’t especially interesting, not like the preist’s aforementioned idea of getting ancestral souls tipsy with libations poured around the alter. Spiritual beings who might lap alcohol from a Hollywood dance floor, leading to their happy intoxication, were somehow entities capable of answering prayers.
Maybe spiritual unenlightenment is to blame, but I didn’t get it.
A feathered staff went around, passed prayerful person to person. I watched as Allen took it with his one arm, approached the alter, lips moving, eyes closed. He pounded the floor twice in time with the priest’s clanging instruments, then handed the semi-sacred stick to another believer.
Ring. Ring. “Hello, thanks calling the Raven Drum Foundation. We’re currently out of the office…”
I left a message, hung up, and took a flip through the colorful little brochure I’d snagged.
Established in 2001 by Allen–who’s the president–and Lauren Monroe–who takes the title of creative director, the Raven Drum Foundation is Los Angeles-based and nonprofit. Allen and Monroe, later explained Raven Drum’s operations manager and events coordinator Jenni Ogden, met in Colorado when Monroe was teaching an energy healing class at Boulder College of Massage Therapy. They came together by exploring the energy body existing where his physical arm no longer did. It’s Allen’s story that’s touted as the direct inspiration: after losing his arm in a 1984 car accident, he turned “personal tragedy into spiritual transformation” while continuing his musical career. His pamphlet-proclaimed intention with Raven Drum “is to share his journey and help others to discover their own paths.”
According to the tidy brochure, Monroe creates the “vision for the Foundation’s core program curriculum reflecting her lifelong research into shamanism [defined by the late Mircea Eliade as a technique of ecstasy], thanatology [the study of everything related to dying, death, and grief], healing, and the expressive arts.”
An ambitious mission list including supporting spiritual leaders while preserving indigenous world traditions, restoring awareness of the sacred origins of art and community, and empowering individuals through practical experiences of sacred art complements the foundation’s less lofty involvement with other charities. The Raven Drum Foundation’s latest online newsletter of February and March tells that “the past month-and-a-half has seen Artist Collective members putting on a very well-received music pilot program for seniors at the Braille Institute in Palm Springs. Raven Drum also met with the Eisenhower Cancer Hospital about a future program for their recovering teen population and Monroe will put on a long-planned program in the middle of March at Pasadena’s Haven House home for battered women and their families.”
I thought back to the Soul of the Drum seminar on Saturday night (whose $50-per-person cover charges went towards funding free programs offered at places like Haven House). They had been trying to summon our ancestors, and I had kept hearing my grandma drawl, “My word,” “That was an experience,” and “Only in Hollywood.”
So maybe the thirty-some of them were on to something.