Rhythm and Moves with Sri Lankan drumming | Daily News

Rhythm and Moves with Sri Lankan drumming

Juliet Coombe went on a course to learn the spiritual power of the Sri Lankan drum and how it is used to dance the devil away with the devil dancer.

I must confess to being quite nervous about training to be a drummer but Jetwing Travels organized a great master class with drummer and teacher Harsha. Before his weekly show he came at tea time to meet me for an hours training at the Centre Point of Jetwing Blue in Negombo. Harsha I discover has been playing drums now for some 13 years since he was nine years old and is deeply passionate about the language of music and its power on the human mind.

At the start the hotel naturalist and guide explains the rich cultural traditions of devil dancing used when village people are sick and how the weekly cultural show is a way of connecting the visitor to the island with its deeply spiritual way of life. I learn how the Sri Lankan drum tradition goes back 2500 years and that there are 33 types of drums recorded by historians, but like so many art forms it has been reduced to ten different types today. Each drum sounds different and was used for different purposes e.g Ana Bera drum was used to inform the people about orders from the King and Vada Bera - drums played when a criminal were taken to the jail and when heard the people could differentiate between a drum for rituals and one for promoting a theatrical event.

An incredible collection

Today the drum is mostly used for celebrations such as weddings, openings of a shop and important rituals whether it is in the Buddhist temples or as part of an elaborate healing process done by the village devil dancer. The cylindrical long shaped drums are often made from the Kohomba, Kitul or Jack trees using the skin of cattle in particular the stomach lining or a cow or monkeys hide to cover it, and the ties to tighten the sides were mostly in the past made from deer skin.

Until doing this course I had no idea of the complexity or the hard work that goes into this activity that therapists of the Western world could learn a great deal from as it is an acceptable health treatment that is still widely practiced through out the island to heal the traumatized mind or some ailment that is often seen as the work of a devil or hierarchy of devils. I myself witnessed the power of this ancient tradition in action post the 2004 tsunami when many people were deeply traumatized by their terrible family loses and through the rich belief system and power of music to heal it helped many thousands of people to deal with one of the worlds worst ever natural disasters.

A dramatic way

After the talk and a few tips my drummer takes his huge black bag and unzips it and inside is an incredible collection of things to dress up in. Everything from an amazing array of adornments: garters, a glorious emperor like collar, a sort of white embroidered sarong, a red oversize cummerbund that could go right around the swimming pool, huge elbow bangles, giant earrings and to cap it all the worlds longest white turban. Once dressed up you do feel more part of the scene and somehow it takes away the painful self-consciousness of hitting the drum with a stick and your thumbs.

For a difference and to make the experience potentially more embarrassing for me, we were directed to the rooftop between the two pools, sort of natural theatrical podium, where Harsha tried to show me an elaborate set of dance steps which I constantly fluffed until I decided to do my own similar version of what I thought might satisfy him – it seemed to work or else he gave up on me being a possible trainee for future shows. He also showed me how to hit the drum with my thumb in a hard flicking motion that left me thinking I would eventually destroy all the bones in my hand. To my relief, my hands went numb pretty quickly and I was fully into the spirit of whacking the drum with both thumbs in a dramatic way that brought a powerful sound to the air full of bird song and chatter of the fascinated passer by. Fortunately, no-one could tell whether I was quite in time as Harsha played along with me as we danced and drummed the night away – well, for a few minutes actually but I got so into it my life for a few minutes seem to run away with the fairies!

Once I had learnt the basic hand and thumb drumming techniques and shown a few more steps, and how to throw my head back in the air and jump I started to find myself enjoying the experience of learning the transfixing language of the drum and devil dancing. The mix of the sea, jangle of my foot bells and rhythmic drumming sounds drew people from all over the hotel complex to see what was going on and as I explained the fascinating ancient art form their eyes lit up and one could see from the incredible interest in this living healing art form that Jetwing Travels are onto another winning formula.

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