Copyright © 2003 by David Otieno Akombo, Ph.D
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be an extremely debilitating condition that can occur after exposure to a terrifying event in which grave physical harm occurred or was merely threatened. Traumatic events that can trigger PTSD include violent armed conflict like that of Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi, and Sudan. Others may include personal assaults such as rape or mugging, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat such as the veterans who are serving in Iraq or those who served in Vietnam and the Gulf Wars; rescue workers involved in the aftermath of disasters of the World Trade Center, survivors of accidents, rape, physical and sexual abuse, and other crimes; immigrants fleeing violence in their countries; survivors of the 1998 Nairobi US Embassy Bombing among others.
Effective treatments have now been developed to help people with PTSD. Research is also helping more scientists to better understand the condition and how it affects both the brain and body. Different forms of music such as drumming are becoming an important therapeutic tool. Drumming exercises greatly reduce stress among Vietnam veterans and other victims of trauma, apparently by altering their brain-wave patterns.
The effect of drum in the treatment of diseases should not be disputed. Since our ancestors first struck sticks and rocks against the ground, drumming has been a sacred ritual in many societies.(1) This belief emanates from the fact that throughout the world, the drum has been used for healing purposes. The traditional peo
ples of Africa, the Aboriginals of Australia, the Balinese of Southeast Asia, the Native American Indians, the ancient Celts among others all used drumming to bring the rain, the sun, a bountiful harvest, successful hunting and good health.(2) The drum has also been used in tribal societies with shamanistic traditions while communicating with the gods. In West-African wisdom teachings, Cottel (2001) noted that emotional disturbance manifests as an irregular rhythm that blocks the vital physical energy flow. Cottel also refers to current medical research which has shown that stress is a cause of ninety eight percent of all diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, immune system breakdowns, among others. Recent biofeedback studies (for example, Spintge 1992; Harner 1990; McIntosh 1996) show that drumming along with our own heartbeats alters brainwave patterns (increasing alpha) and dramatically reduces stress. Unlike the western cultures which rely on material evidence such as infection from bacteria or viruses, cell production such as cancer, or genetic defective chromosomes, the non-western cultures, relate to the diseases from a cultural perspective connecting the etiology to the metaphysical world. Their understanding of the disease etiology is embedded in their cosmology. For example the Luo tribesmen of Kenya believe that HIV/AIDS is caused by a curse. In this perspective, a curse is viewed as evil pronounced or invoked by another living person or the spirit of the dead. Among the Luo tribe, drum ensembles are performed with the object of exorcising the bad spirit from the patients.
Among the many African tribes, regular and balanced meter are regarded as a sign of good health. Even in improvisations, the performers are expected to render an exact replica of a standardized musical practice. These mythologies that relay regular and replicated rhythms to heal the person in an immediate and powerful way by removing blockages and releasing tension can be seen in the performance of a Kenyan tribal ritual dance, ngoma of the Taita as well. During this performance, a glissando is played by the lead drummer by gliding his left hand from the middle of the drum to the edge (kusira ngoma). By doing this, the drummer not only provides an expressively emotional pattern at the climax of the healing ritual but also provides a functional significance to the healing process because it is during this moment that the drummer sedates the pepo spirit to descend and exorcise the evil spirits from the patients. Kusira ngoma, which literally translates into “going beyond with music,” is the climax of the healing ritual and its ultimate extreme. This is the stage at which the patients shiver, fall to the ground and ultimately go into trance. During this healing ceremony, the master drummer controls the emotions of the patient while the patient unlocks his or her inner subconscious mind. In the middle of the performance when the interlocking parts become intense, the patient is induced to a state where they start to dance pathogenically as they respond to the mwazindika drum, letting their souls soar into the supernatural world to meet the deity. In a similar supernatural mediation, Cornelius (1990: 127) found that the Afro-Cuban bata drums were believed to be capable of talking and communicating directly with the Orishas, Yoruba gods. But this power of the drum to be able to speak is also possibly seen as a catalyst to helping people to talk. Ms. Ruth Noonan, a practicing music therapist in Longmont United Hospital in Colorado has observed that in her recent practice, she has witnessed the drumming helping a patient to regain speech: