Rhythm, Ego, and the Real Self

by Richard Hodges
Copyright © 2001

For years I have been interested in African music. The earliest influence that I remember was hearing as a teen-ager the LP album of music recorded by the 1938 Denis-Roosevelt expedition [Primitive Music of Africa, Mainstream records S/6021]. This new music was a revelation. The propulsive beat was entirely new to me; inexorable and disciplined, it spoke of a possible deeply grounded relationship to the body. Also new was the sense of independent but related interlocking rhythms, which seemed to speak of a mysterious metaphysics of time. I had been a fairly serious amateur musician in the classical tradition for some years, but I was profoundly impressed with this music, which could dispense with tonality and harmony and yet seemed to achieve solely by rhythmic means beauty and eloquence, though in a language I did not understand. I knew that I had to learn something of this language if I ever wanted to know what the totality of this human phenomenon called music really is.

Over the years after this encounter, I searched among other recordings, read a few books that fell to hand, asked a few questions of friends who knew music, and in that way got some interesting material. But I didn’t find anything that matched the original impact or in any way answered the questions I had. Gradually, this quest lost much of its original fire, but it never quite went out, and years later when I happened to see an ad for a weekend workshop at Esalen with Nigerian master drummer Olatunje, I decided to go.

After an hour or two of introductory exercises, the “serious” playing started, several long continuous set pieces for the dance class that was also part of the workshop. The inexperienced musicians including myself were allowed to play any support part they could “hang” with, as it was said, while Olatunje or one of his senior students played a foreground “lead” part. Each support part consisted of repeating over and over a simple rhythmic pattern in time with all the other parts. This entailed a number of difficulties that were surprising. For one, what it meant to be “in time” was tricky. At first it was difficult even to listen well enough to hear the main beat, which as I was learning did not always insist upon itself as much as in Western music. Then there was the subtlety of what it meant for one’s part to be precisely related to the beat. Finally there was the physical difficulty of sustaining the effort of playing. Even playing a small instrument such as the bell, a hand-forged iron shell that had to be struck rather hard with a wooden stick, was tiring after five or ten minutes.

My ego being what it was, I was not to be satisfied until I played the largest drum. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, I took up the post before this drum and started striking it with my hands, imitating as best I could what Olatunje had showed. I could hear clearly that the sound I obtained was nowhere near his either in quantity or quality. But I understood that it takes practice to learn and since he did not kick me off the instrument I persevered. As I became more confident of the simple rhythm that my part consisted of (though I still sometimes lost it) I hit the drum skin with increasing abandon. Olatunje seemed to smile a faint approval upon my effort. At breaks between sets, I noticed that my hands were starting to tingle, then becoming sore. Olatunje gave all the student drummers a special oil and some little exercises that were supposed to help sore hands, and they did help, but only to a certain extent. Mine had become so tender that it was acutely painful to touch anything. But there were no blisters, and I was determined to prove myself, and also to get my money’s worth, so when the music started again I went back to the large drum and played, though with weakening effort. My attention was suffering too, and I often wandered off the beat.

I was beginning to conclude that the point of diminishing returns had long been passed. Just as I was about to yield my post, Olatunje came up behind me and whispered something that struck me like a bolt of lightning: “Every time you hit the drum, it must say ‘I Am’!” I felt a new, mysterious, meaning in the music we were playing, and a kind of—responsibility—to it. I was charged with energy and continued playing with renewed attention and force until the impulse faded and, this time without regrets, I called it a day.

Ever since then I have held this instruction like a Zen koan, for which one has no answer, but which provides a ground for search. I asked myself over and over, and tried to answer in many ways, mostly unsatisfying, what is this “I Am”? What is it to say “I Am”? What is it that can say “I Am”? And what does it mean, this “Every time!”

The first thing that became apparent was that what deserves to be called “I” is not my “ego,” which is always pushing itself forward. It was more like that moment when Olatunje whispered to me—an “I” appeared not of the nature of assertion, but of recognition, not an exertion of will but a reception of a new energy, by a self above the ego that only appeared in the act of reception. I had been told a law that I had never known about before, and I had heard it, and it was the key to a fresh vision of the universe.

But it is not quite so simple—in fact it was my “ego” which had put me in a condition to be able to receive. In general this seems to be necessary. The ego must yield its primacy for the self to appear, but first it must play its part. In my account, the ego obliged the body and mind to endure a hard discipline in service to an ideal. Because a real price had been paid, the ego could accept help when it was there to be received. The two are partners—ego and self—in this drama, which seems to be an essential process of what it is to be a human being.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The reflections and interpretations in the preceding paragraphs of what had taken place were the result of years of subsequent thought and study, about music and also in traditional studies of man and his place in the cosmos. What I want to go into now is how the ideas of ego and self and their relationship are actually encoded in the music itself, in this ancient tradition of African polyrhythmic music and dance.

Studying next with CK Ladzekpo, a master drummer from Ghana, I recognized an ancient teaching that begins to answer the question of how music works. One of the most important characteristics of sub-Saharan African music is polyrhythm, where two or more basic rhythms that start at different points in time repeat simultaneously. Rhythms resonate with specific movements within the psyche. Polyrhythm evokes contradictory movements. The mind tries to cope and is stretched beyond its usual tunnel vision, in which it believes in only the one movement that it happens to perceive at the moment. This opening then allows the appearance of consciousness of self, which is consciousness of the inner movement as a whole.

An ecstatic response can come while listening closely to almost any piece of music. But this opening can be very profound with music that is composed based on precise knowledge, when it is played, danced to, or listened to under conditions that facilitate the right kind of attitude and attention. CK had much to say about African rituals where this is the aim. The idea is that in these rituals the music and other ceremonial devices enable certain specific “divinities” to come down and enter individual participants, temporarily to “possess” them, as is said. These embodied spirits then enact a kind of dramatization of some universal truth, much in the way that Jung described how myths and fairy tales bring forth archetypal material from the “collective unconscious.”

I went to Ghana with CK to pursue my quest.  He took me to a ritual led by one of his many brothers, a ritual of the polytheistic cult called Blekete. After watching for a while I decided to participate and began to dance. Again, my ego was such that I tried to imitate the more impressive dancers. I danced very strongly. I was surprised when several people, including the priestess I was dancing with, who was in full trance, began to spray water on me and fan me and physically restrain my movements until I was forced to dance more calmly. At first I was very disturbed by this treatment, but I began to feel that I was being given a special kind of inclusion and brotherhood. Possession seems very different from the “I am” that Olatunje spoke about, but this was very much like what I experienced when he whispered to me.

CK explained to me that the dancers had interpreted my strong dancing as the onset of possession. When people first become possessed, they usually pass through a “crisis” in which powerful forces seem to be struggling for control. This crisis may be dangerous. The cult community then takes responsibility to train and discipline the person’s state so that it can become useful. What they were doing with me, “cooling” the crisis, was the beginning of this process, a lengthy “initiation” that everyone must go through who becomes a full member. Later, dancers and drummers have to learn to manage the clashing rhythms. This practice leads to the development of a stable axis of grounded awareness that is not disturbed, even in possession.

Many if not most non-Western cultures have a form of possession ritual. The question of whether something similar is present in the West may be partially answered by our Art. Initially the artistic impulse comes mainly from the ego, and what is communicated is subjective and merely personal. But if the artist is to become mature, which is rare nowadays, he must be disciplined and tempered until he is able to serve something universal. This training of the axis of moral and physical attention is needed before ego and ecstasy can both take their rightful places within life. And for this the artist receives that special joy, which almost all real artists have spoken about, of being not the author but the channel for his work.

So what is the place of the ego? There is an African musical idea that bears on this question. In many ensemble compositions, with each musical part having its prescribed function, there is often one instrument, perhaps a high-pitched drum, which is said to be like a baby crying. The role of this part is fluid—it can be petulant, pleading, teasing, annoying, mischievous, humorous, triumphant, changing from moment to moment. It is always full of emotion. Sometimes it is a minor part within the music, but at times it is the most developed and creative part, seeming to leap nearly free of the more static rhythmic framework. Is this the raw human spirit crying out for ecstasy? We find something like this in other music and art too: in the searching rubato of a well-played piece of Chopin, in the frenzied lead solo that breaks from the dark tension of a heavy metal set, in the controlled chaos of a Pollock painting. Is this the ego in its place, disciplined personal yearning acting to energize life? Is this one idea that is hinted at in the story of eating the apple in the garden, not a harbinger of exile but a hunger to leave the womb of unconscious existence?

And what is the place of man, of the individual himself? There is an ancient idea about this. For Western thought, it was perhaps most powerfully expressed in Plato’s Symposium, where he called this place “love.” This idea is that the place of man is in between, between ego and real self, between the merely human and the divine (as Plato put it), between the devil and God, between good and evil. It is the place of a special kind of awareness, where the ego, with its lies and its power, is seen clearly, and also present is the cosmic identity that subsists in a realm above all individual desire and memory. This is the fragile realm that is offered to me, for an instant, by experiences that take me “out of myself.” To consciously inhabit this realm is the work of a lifetime. It is a work that is indeed far beyond art or “possession,” but which these point to, like the Zen “finger pointing at the moon.”

The stable axis that can be developed by practices such as polyrhythmic dancing and drumming is something that prepares a person to stand in this in-between place. It is a quality of attention that is always in movement, renewed constantly from moment to moment. It inhabits the flow of time, at the balance point of “now.” It is more real than either the eternal time dimension of the higher self, or the pushy yearnings of the ego, which always look forward and backward but never experience “now.” It is the real “I” of man.

A related article by Richard Hodges is Drum is the Ear of God, published in Material For Thought #13, 1992