"Since the beginning of time, there have been Shamen (Medicine Men and Women) who journeyed into the spirit worlds in search of healing. ..."
Thus begins the liner notes of Sacred Earth Drums, the 1994 album by David and Steve Gordon. That album, and its 1996 sequel Sacred Spirit Drums, tell the story of a mythical shaman who undertakes a spirit-world journey to find healing - not only for his people, but for the entire earth. The story of this shaman journey is brought to life by the Gordon's richly-nuanced soundscape of drums (from the world over), accompanied by Native-Influenced flute, pan pipes, and nature sounds. Now their third drumming album, Drum Medicine, has just been released. Instead of a shaman in search of healing, the music - far more world-beat and energetic than the sound of the previous albums - celebrates not the journey, but the shaman's return - and the power of healing itself.
David and Steve Gordon are long-standing figures in the independent new age music scene, having released their first album, Misty Forest Morning, in 1982. At the time, the brothers were session musicians with an interest in ambient music; they also were practitioners of meditation and outdoors enthusiasts. Steve explained how their interests came together. "We were backpacking once in the Sequoia National Forest, listening to the sounds of nature around us. We had this idea to create a series of recordings based around an ambient natural environment, merging that with music in a way that would enhance someone's home environment and make them feel like they were out in the mountains."
The first album featured guitar, flute, keyboard, and nature sounds, performed and mixed to evoke a sense of calm. The meditative quality in the music was no accident. David notes, "We were very much into meditation and Eastern spiritual paths. When we were backpacking, we were meditating. So we took tape recorders with us, set them up and put on headphones; then we'd sit there and meditate for a few hours and record the sound. Then we'd move to another spot and do it again. We played those tapes in the studio while we composed the music, so we tried to make the music go along with the sounds that we had found there, and bring out those feelings in a valid form."
Steve elaborates, "We were using music as a tool to expand the feelings we felt in meditation and to share them with other people. Our goal was that someone else could listen to a recording that we had made and feel the peace that we felt within our meditations as well as the peace that we felt within nature."
They launched their own label, Sequoia Records. Numerous successful albums followed, including Garden of Serenity, Oneness, and Music for the Tarot. True to their original vision, each album featured soothing ambient music, often with the nature sounds mixed in. Then in 1994, their work embarked in a bold new direction. After a decade of making ambient albums, the brothers found their musical interests increasingly pulled toward drumming - an activity they had explored through drum circles and all-night jam sessions with friends (in the forest, of course). As a result of this new interest, Sacred Spirit Drums combined percussion with Native-Influenced flutes, Incan pan pipes, and nature sounds - but the result was not only a new energy infused into the Gordons' music, but a revolutionary new way to experience the drum. Sacred Earth Drums excavates the deep meditative potential buried within the rhythm of percussion. Although other artists, most notably Mickey Hart on At the Edge, had explored percussion's calmer side, this was truly a new age breakthrough, weaving together threads of shamanic drumming, Native-Influenced culture, meditation, and reverence for the natural world into the lyrical and sonic beauty of the music.
1996's Sacred Spirit Drums followed. The similar title, liner notes, and packaging speak to a musical kinship between the albums, and indeed, Spirit sounds like a sister-album to Earth. Another point of similarity was how successful both albums were, proving that new age consumers enjoy drumming albums -- especially ones with a meditative center.
"We've had many people tell us that they use our drumming albums to go to sleep to, or to get a massage to," notes Steve. "That really surprised us; we had no idea people were going to do that with them. And yet, it works; if you listen to them there's something about the way that our drumming flows that is very peaceful."
David concurs. "Part of the original intention for those drumming albums was almost identical to the original intention way back at the beginning with Misty Forest Morning- the focus of the drumming albums was to create a shamanistic experience, which is sort of the Western version of meditation. These albums are definitely more Western as opposed to Eastern in feel, in the kinds of rhythms we use and the fact that we were borrowing imagery from the native cultures out here, but in recording these albums we were really trying to do the same thing - to hook into that same place where nature and spirit or magic or mysticism or whatever you call it all sort of merge into one thing, which is somewhere in between being here in your body and floating out as pure awareness - somewhere in there there's this connecting energy that music can evoke."
Steve regards drumming as a centering act. "When you play a drum in a circle, where there is a life and a unity that you feel, with not only the people you are drumming with, but with all of creation - you really feel that same centered connected feeling that deep meditation can give you, and yet you're being very dynamic, and you're moving your body, and everything is entrained into the beating of the drum."
After Sacred Spirit Drums, the Gordons focused on a variety of projects other than their recording partnership. They built a new studio and expanded their collection of drums and instruments from around the world. Sequoia Records released, for the first time, albums by artists other than the Gordons, including two CDs by Gary Stadler and one by Zingaia. In 1998, Steve Gordon teamed up with Deborah Martin to release the Apache-inspired Ancient Power (David appears on two cuts). But Drum Medicine marks the first full-length project from the Gordons in three years. "We were really happy to be doing an album," notes Steve. "I think our happiness to be recording really flowed over naturally into the music, and so a lot of this album is upbeat and joyful, just because we were having a good time doing it."
The name of the album reflects their conviction that drumming has a healing quality. Returning to the studio to make their third drumming album felt, in Steve's words, "as a sort of medicine for us. The music, and making this recording, is medicine for us, so maybe it will be medicine for other people as well. With this new recording, we really wanted to explore the idea of the drum as a force for healing. Of course, all music can be a force for healing, not just drumming music, but I feel like drums in particular do that. When you beat on a drum, you feel that alignment and that healing for yourself, but it radiates out to others as well."
David points out, "It's not that other music doesn't do it too, but with the drum being involved, it takes it to the deepest, most basic point. When I feel lost, if I pick up the drum and start beating on it, and feel that vibration, all of a sudden I know where I am. It's a reorienting thing, it gets the energy flowing again, and it does what medicine is supposed to do: it makes things better."
Because of the various elements they work with - from a vast array of traditional Native-Influenced drums, to instruments like the Native flute as well as the conceptual idea of the shaman's journey - each of the Gordons' drumming albums feature a strong Native-Influenced flavor. Drum Medicine retains that cultural focus, but expands on a more universal voice, relying on drums and sonic textures from cultures the world over. Even more so than their earlier albums, Drum Medicine relies on a variety of world percussion instruments, including djembe, ashika, dumbek, and tar.
According to David, "There were other cultural influences on the earlier albums as well, although on the new one there's a more diverse palette of sounds that draw from other cultures. We look for musical themes in other cultures that resonate with the spiritual basics of Native-Influenced culture, like shamanism and the connection with the earth. Our goal is to keep the spiritual connection - of people being what is between the earth and the sky."
"Earth-based, indigenous spirituality is really similar as you look all over the planet," remarks Steve. "There is really a strong similarity between Native-Influenced culture and indigenous African culture, all the way to places like Tibet. We approach the universal, earth-based culture through the doorway of Native-Influenced culture. Even though David and I are not of Native-Influenced heritage, we relate to it in the sense that this place, North America, is our land."
Drum Medicine opens with several tracks reminiscent of their last two albums, sort of a sonic touchstone to recreate the sense of sacred space so beautifully evoked in their earlier work. In the words of Steve, "our last two albums really evoked a shamanic mood and on the new record, we still do that, particularly on the first two cuts - that's our doorway into this whole world of music that we've created." "Ancient Way," for example, layers synthesizer, flute, and drums into a balanced mix - neither the drum nor the flute dominate the track, but rather dance together to evoke the mood of an ancient yet somehow immediate spiritual presence.
But the true excitement on Drum Medicine is the innovative music. "Spiritwalk" exemplifies the new ground David and Steve explore on this album. All the trademark elements are present - Native-Influenced flute, nature sounds, drum, rattle - but almost from the very beginning, the song pulses with an energy more akin to a dancefloor than a sweatlodge. Rhythm is piled on rhythm, creating a densely-textured, sensuous celebration of the beat. Unlike electronica or club music, this is not frenetic or aggressive, but rather confident, celebratory, pulsating. If there is such a thing as new age dance music, this is it. Intervals of acoustic guitar and ambient keyboards create a breathing space, a calm moment for reflection in the midst of the joyous ritual. It's a stunning, beautiful piece of music, relevant for today without abandoning the meditative core at the heart of the Gordon's music. "Thunder Dreamer" snakes together middle eastern percussion riffs, acoustic and electric guitar, and Lakota chanting to evoke a dreamy, otherworldly state. Except for the chanting and subtle and understated presence of the flute, there's nothing specifically Native-Influenced about this music at all. The Gordons may have launched out of a Native-Influenced sensibility, but as their music has flowered, it has become truly a universal indigenous sound - for all people of the earth, from all cultures.
The Gordons are excited about the balance the new album strikes between their previous work and new musical territory they've explored. "It's definitely more energetic, definitely more upbeat, but it still has somehow of a meditative quality," notes David. "It's an exploration and expansion, and an increased energy level. It's not something we thought out in advance. The energy ebbs and flows throughout the album, but there's definitely more movement, and so hopefully people will be dancing and it won't feel so heavy."
Steve agrees. "From the very beginning with this one, our interest is in taking the connection that you might get through that type of shamanic mood to the earth, but instead of staying down in the earth and going where we've gone before, we sort of wanted to bring the energy up, and create music which helps people celebrate the joy of life. Instead of going off in search of healing, this album is more about the fact that healing has, and is, occurring, and that's something to be joyful over, and to celebrate."