Finding God in the rhythm

There are days when I’m perfectly happy to say, “The world is a beautiful place!”: It’s sunny in Ithaca, the clocktower is playing my favorite song, my eight o’clock class was canceled and I found a $10 dollar bill in my old jacket. Three different people smiled at me while holding the door open for me, and I seem to meet old friends at every corner of the road. Life, is then, indeed good. I saunter instead of walk, I smile at strangers, and I hold my head up high.
And then, there are days when I’m can’t help but be a cynic/pessimist (or realist depending on your interpretation), about the world we’re living in. It’s gray, windy and cold outside. I have 4 prelims and 2 presentations in one week, I did the wrong homework and forgot it on my desk,today’s class was on AIDS and my mum calls to tell me she has just been in an accident.
I would say, all these make my emotions seem as if I were back in grade school, on a seesaw, going up, then down, up and down, never middle.

In all these swings, I would never guess that I would learn a lesson about community, Faith and God in a drumming class.

I enrolled in the Ewe drum and dance class, because it was a way to connect further to my ethnic heritage. I already knew the language, and the dance, why not drum? Learning the drum patterns was something many of us were not used to. They were irregular and varied according to the specific call-and-response actions that take place in the dance circle.

Ewe drumming uses on average 4 drums, sometimes 5 depending on the style of dance. They all have different sounds and different patterns, yet they fit together perfectly. If one was off-kilter, it is easy to notice and feel the breakdown within the overall sound. Every other drum must stop and recommence, with hopefully the stray drum pattern fitting in again.

It was in one of our rehearsals that I realized the symbolism of it all, prompted by our professor. All the drums, no matter how diverse their beat patterns, were lead by a ubiquitous instrument, in the shape of a cowbell, called the gankogui. Though small, compared to the other instruments, this instrument’s pattern drives the whole ensemble. Every single drum pattern relies on the bell, for direction and rhythm. Therefore, the bell player must have great competence in tuning out other sounds as well as enough dexterity to play it loudly or quietly, depending on the moment.

I, then, started to connect with the metaphor and symbolism of it all. Although the gankogui is small, it drives the entire drum and dance ensemble. The singers must listen for it, to decide when to start a new song, or end an old one. The drums must listen to its rhythm, to carefully match theirs. Nothing in the ensemble starts without it. As I thought about the importance of this seemingly unimportant instrument, I started thinking about God’s place in everyday Life. Most people are happy to say that He exists, somewhere, maybe as a nebulous creature in the air or above the air, certainly, uninvolved in our daily coming-and-goings. Yet, often, He drives our lives, the connections we make with others or with Nature. When we miss that beat, when our rhythm patterns do not align with His, we can feel it, we notice it. It is indeed true that sometimes it gets harder and harder to hear His voice, feel that rhythm, but once we do, everything else falls into place.

I also noticed the different types of drums and instruments that were used. The gankogui (small yet loud enough to wake up an entire village), the axatse (made with a gourd and pearls, able to form and combine marvelous patterns), 5 different drums of different sizes (some played with an open hand, some with two, others with only sticks of various thickness) All this variety made me reflect on diversity of life; all these instruments are great by themselves, but together, they create sounds that are unmistakable (as some are even conversations between people, villages or ethnic groups). Simply compared and stated, ‘together, we are better’. “Two minds are better than one” and any other cliche expressions about diversity and togetherness that exist.

The dancers move in the circle, aligning movement after movement.They seem to flow together, as if one body, unbroken only for a few moments, then back together again. As the song leader or heno, calls out a song, synchronizing it with the drum patterns, the group responds with energy and vivacity, as most parts are sung in unison.The dance circle parallels community life and strength. Even though the heno (which literally means ‘mother of the song’) is the leader, he or she only sings a few lines. In fact, the whole song breaks down or loses energy if the group does not respond by picking up the song with energy and strength, as if to point out that our strength lies in our community. One person may have or make wonderful plans, but without people to carry those plans out, they remain only plans inside that person’s head or only on paper. We need our communities, whether in the shape of mentor-mentee relationships, friendships, or I dare say, teacher-student relationships. They shape us, mold us, encourage and sharpen us, as we do the same for them.

Photo by Kathie Zaccaria via

Finally, our professor’s comments summed it all up for me. As the bell player is able to tune out other sounds to play his bravely, yet convey to other members of the ensemble and the audience a feeling of calmness and enjoyment, it is the ultimate test of life, when things start piling on, in both our on-campus and off-campus lives, to be able to carry it all, while conveying a sense of coolness and calmness.

So, as the pitter-patter of the incessant drizzle projects a future filled with library cram sessions, coffee breaks at 2 a.m and winter coats in spring when the flowers are blooming elsewhere, I’m reminded and challenged to listen for that voice, that bell-sound, God’s presence, as I rely on my community to support and sustain me while I strive to carry it all with a sense of coolness and level-headedness.

Indeed, we learn new things every day. We find God in the rhythm.

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