Drumming The Drums
By Harald Breiding-Buss
Harald Breiding-Buss took part in Wellington’s “Festival of Men” and was surprised how much he enjoyed himself.
Think of a bunch of guys who dance around the fire to the beat of drums, naked with chalk marks all over them, moving their bodies in a frenzy of ecstasy, celebrating their uniqueness as men and their bond with nature and the universe.
You’d think of either a group of Australian aborigines, or a bunch of new-age loonies at one of their crazy gatherings.
I was invited to one such gathering in November, the “Festival of Men” in Wellington, and given this sort of image I was eagerly trying to come up with good excuses but I couldn’t really say no without offending some people, who are dear to me. So, off I went, fearing for my life.
And what a surprise I was in for. No chalk marks, no naked dancing, and hardly any hugging. An amazingly common-sense bunch of guys, who used some new-age ceremonies to create a supportive environment for men.
Take the “talking stick”, for example. They have such a thing in my daughter’s school class, where the kids are sitting in a circle. A stick is being passed around and the person holding it can tell his “news” to the rest of the class.
Rather than a new-age instrument of self-exploration this is an extremely useful tool to shut everyone else up so everyone can have a go. The downside of it is that people’s patience may occasionally be stretched to the limits, if there is no teacher in the room who says “only one more news, please.”
At the Men’s Festival the stick was not passed around but rather lay on the floor in the middle of the room, so whoever had something to say had to get up and address the group.
For some men this was their first experience of public speaking, and as a confidence-builder it worked extremely well. As a listener, you sometimes needed lots of patience – and a soft cushion.
The problem with all the ceremonies and rituals at events like these – and there are similar men’s gatherings in other cities, as well as the annual “convergence” in the South Island for both sexes – is that they feel foreign.
And they are. They borrow from cultures and traditions that are not our own. Incense, drumming or the so-called “sounding”, where all the men stand in a circle making “hmmmm” “oooh” and other noises along those lines, feel strange, when you don’t grow up with them.
This is the big put-off for most men, I suspect. Nevertheless, it is quite something to actually experience. If you thought rhythm and sound had only entertainment value, you’d be in for a big surprise after one of these sessions, however any other people in the area would probably call for an exorcist!
The participants sure were a diverse lot. From the down-to-earth, straight forward Scotsman with bagpipes to the emotional exhibitionists with pants as wide and colourful as a circus tents, everything was represented.
Some of the invited experts were people with little time for spiritual wishy-washy – but they, too, fitted in well.
It could have been a gathering of the men from my neighbourhood.
The success of the group in establishing a feeling of friendship and camaraderie without going over the top on the spiritual side certainly impressed me.
A key example of this would have been the Saturday night feast, where people were encouraged to bring along a story, poem or joke to tell, or to entertain the group with music.
There were Monty Python performances, bagpipes, anecdotes and also a few more thoughtful pieces of literature.
It was impossible to keep yourself from being captured by the lighthearted spirit of the evening, the laughter and the music. I haven’t enjoyed myself that much in years.
So I left for home after two days, wondering whether as a culture we have lost the art of celebrating.
Rituals and ceremonies of whatever kind are extremely effective in fostering a spirit of togetherness, and perhaps it is a shame that our society has become so cynical about them, or that it has to resort to ceremonies borrowed from Buddhism and other foreign cultures and religions.
We have also become cynical about men-only groups and situations, but there is a place for them, as long as we respect each other as men and women, and as human beings. This respect has been a great healer for many of the men at the Men’s Festival.