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Family Drumming Circles: how the beat of a drum can help heal the community 

Filed Under: Family, Health, Help, Immigrants, Programs

Western culture associates drumming with entertainment, beats, and impressive sounds, like those from Metallica’s Lars Ulrich or Maná’s Alex González. In fact, drumming holds a special place in the history of Africa and African American people’s resistance. During the dark days of slavery, slaves played drums accompanied by chants and dances in the tradition of eastern and western Africans. Drumbeats replicated tones of speech used by slaves to send messages of hope and resistance to each other. Later, this practice was outlawed in several regions by whites who feared slaves communicating with each other.

In keeping this practice alive, drumming still embodies African heritage as a symbol of freedom, resistance, and resilience. Acknowledging the struggles and suppression of slaves and African Americans, as well as the genocide that similarly faced Native peoples in the United States, Instituto Familiar de la Raza (IFR) continues to preserve African and Native traditions through drumming circles.

IFR has always provided space for the community to come together and drum. For Gustavo Poktzin, IFR’s Differential Response Case Manager and drummer, his interest in drumming began at a Day of the Death ceremony in 2013. After witnessing a drumming presentation by an IFR intern, Gustavo stepped up to learn the practice so he could help preserve this tradition at IFR. Since the intern would soon be leaving IFR, Gustavo immediately began taking drumming classes at City College of San Francisco.

Within a few months, Gustavo began to practice his newly achieved talent at IFR. He quickly saw the varied powers of drumming- for emotional healing, preserving traditions, and elevating celebrations-and its alignment with IFR’s philosophy of self-determination, community empowerment, and spiritual/cultural affirmation. The next logical step for Gustavo was to form and lead a drumming group for Latino immigrant men and their children.

The men’s drumming group was unquestionably well received. Despite the stigma associated with seeking therapeutic services, which can be particularly challenging for men, the group’s success is evident in its continuous existence. It has become so popular that other IFR programs partner with Gustavo to host drumming circles. To date, Gustavo has hosted drumming circles for youth in La Cultura Cura, established a family drumming circle in Casa Corazón, and led drumming circles for IFR staff.

Gustavo’s experiences with the Family Drumming Circle confirm his belief in the healing powers of drumming. For over a year now, he has facilitated the monthly activity for parents ranging in ages from 19 to 40, male and female, children from ages 1 to 12 years old, grandparents, Latino/a, and non-Latino/a members of the community. Offered as an opportunity for parents to express feelings and discuss their struggles as immigrants, the group goes beyond serving as a space for drumming. The Family Drumming Circle has helped families cope, and provide mutual support to each other. Among the other benefits the Circle provides are quality family time, emotional support and healing, reinforced secure-attachment in children, and community building. Here are some of their stories:

A lady who had been drumming for 30 minutes stopped to ask Gustavo what the purpose of drumming was. Another lady responded by sharing that her 5-year-old, who suffers from anxiety, had benefited tremendously from the activity.

 When an energetic 7-year-old child played his heart out during a drumming session, Gustavo was surprised to learn that the child is autistic. The child’s father consistently brought him to the circle because he observed that drumming had positive effects in his son’s behavior.    

The benefits of the powers of drumming are revealed all the time. Gustavo strongly believes that the healing effects of drumming come from the repetitive actions of hitting the drum which help move the energy in the body, reduce anxiety levels, de-escalate emotional outbursts, and mitigate depression.

Over the past five years, Gustavo assists over 40 families a year in his role as a Case Manager, and in partnership with the department of Child Protective Services. The satisfaction he receives from his work is supplemented with the opportunity he has to lead drumming circles at IFR. Gustavo credits his supportive Casa Corazón team for helping make the drumming circles possible at IFR.

Gustavo and IFR invite you to join our Family Drumming Circles that take place every 3rd Saturday of the month, 11 am to 12 pm at 2919 Mission St., San Francisco. The circle is free and open to the public.

Experience the roots, heritage and therapeutic powers of drumming with us!

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