There is something mesmerising about the sound of African drums.
The tribal beat created by bare hands rising and falling in unison against the skins attracts crowds like moths to a flame.
For the drummers, it’s as much about the joy the rhythm brings to others and the friends that are made as the music itself.
Benjie Williams is the man behind Earthen Rhythms African Drum and Dance. I heard his name mentioned in passing at the Newcastle Herald by a colleague who had attended one of his drumming classes. Having known Benjie in high school, I was prompted to look him up and find out when, and why, drumming had taken over his life.
It all started when he was a student at the University of Western Sydney’s Hawkesbury campus and joined an African drumming class with friends.
‘‘It wasn’t long before we played a gig at the local pub and the response we got from the crowd was just amazing – there were people dancing and cheering,’’ Benjie says.
When their teacher left town the drumming group, looking for a leader, turned to Benjie.
‘‘By that time I was immersed in drumming,’’ he says.
‘‘There’s nothing like the buzz of playing music that is high energy and makes people dance and smile.
‘‘It frees people’s inhibitions and is very accessible. You don’t need five years of lessons before you begin.
‘‘I also like the group aspect of drumming. It’s not about the individual, it’s about the group space, and the community that comes from that.’’
Benjie moved to Newcastle in 2004 and started teaching and performing as Earthen Rhythms African Drum and Dance.
Every Wednesday night in Hamilton (during the school term) he teaches beginner and intermediate classes. He also conducts workshops and performs regularly around Newcastle.
One of his responsibilities as a teacher is to help students find their personal rhythm.
‘‘Everybody has a heartbeat – ba-boom, ba-boom – so that’s your internal timing right there. We all have the rhythm inside us. We just have to learn to listen to it.’’
Benjie says drumming has the capacity to change lives: ‘‘I’ve had people tell me that drumming has moved them out of their depression, their space of darkness, and that’s a beautiful thing.
‘‘A mental health support group came to a workshop and wanted me to help people with a mental illness grow in confidence and reintegrate into society,’’ he says.
‘‘One girl came along four or five times and her parents saw such a change in her that she moved into her own flat.
‘‘The circle that drumming creates, it’s like a non-verbal communication. You get to share an experience without words. The simplicity of drumming, the sound, makes it so inclusive.’’
Benjie says his students are primarily women over the age of 30 who are looking to try something new, or who have heard Earthen Rhythms play and are ‘‘drawn to the experience’’. And no, you don’t need to have dreadlocks, he laughs, or your own drum.
His students come from all walks of life and for different reasons. He challenges them by asking them to perform the rhythms they have learnt in class in public, as a group.
‘‘I say to them, as long as we nurture the rhythm, and understand it, we can just have fun with it,’’ Benjie says.
‘‘At my classes, people can go from making noise to making a rhythm within an hour.
‘‘I can also take people who have drummed on a kit for years and inspire them. The Africans structure rhythms in ways that we don’t often see in the West. But you can spend a lifetime drumming and still not be a master like some of the Africans – there’s always more to learn.’’
If you’re interested email Benjie at email@example.com or