There is something about the drums. Something human and primal, something ancient and something joyously present: that pulse that runs up your spine, raises the hair on your arms and ends in a tingle on the skin of your fingertips. Listeners to Radio 4’s recent series Science of Music may subscribe this sensation to the fact that when listening to music our brains are seeking patterns: what sound could therefore be more satisfying to our maths-hungry minds than rhythmic drumming? But perhaps our response to the drums is not pure biology, perhaps it has something to do with another theory I heard this week: that drumming is a spiritual experience, it lifts us, it is an ancient inheritance that calls out to those who have gone before. When we move to the beat of the drums, we are not simply holding hands with those beside us, we are dancing with those who are lost.
That’s quite a thing for a Cynic to say, let alone to comprehend. But there is something about the drums. I fear my inner Romantic is teasing me again, probably I could not really sense the voice of ancient peoples, their brilliancy and pain; but when three Native American drummers stood up to perform this week, my skin did tingle, and I could not resist being pulled into my first Round Dance.
The occasion was the opening ceremony of the annual conference of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, a ceremony which commenced with prayers from a local Elder, a veteran of World War II, who welcomed us to his nation’s land in beautiful (yet to me obviously incomprehensible) Cree. So a chilly, damp morning in Saskatoon ushered in several ‘firsts’ for me within the space of a half-hour: the first time I had heard Cree spoken; the first time I’d heard a Native American prayer; the first time I’d danced to a native hand drum. And yet this was only the beginning of three days of immersing myself, intellectually rather than practically, with indigenous issues: I attended papers on everything from seventeenth century native conflicts with settlers to present-day political protests, via sessions on art, language, race, reservations, schools, and all manner of other subjects.
And what I say is no insincere compliment, nor does it arise out of any obligation to my employers who sent me: the conference was an enlightening, eye-opening, sometimes even emotional experience. For although I went wearing my historian’s hat (which is, incidentally, a darned funky hat), the issues being discussed have a real relevancy to the lives of thousands today. The native nations of North America are living with the legacy of the past in a more direct and conscious manner than, for instance, I am often aware of doing in my own country. And even were this not so, and even were my inner Romantic not in the ascendant this week, some of the history papers would have still been moving – because certain wrongs, even if centuries old, when they are on such a scale, are irreversibly raw and effecting.
The conference was though on the whole a happy affair: it began with a welcoming dance of friendship and peaked with a raucous kazoo-jam, and I felt privileged to be a part of it. So much so that I’m going to close this blog on my sojourn in Saskatchewan without even mentioning the torrential rain, or the mosquitos, or my encounter with a swarm of rodents; indeed, without making one single joke about Saskatoon (of which, incidentally and unfairly, I thought of a few).