Planetary Heartbeats and Rhythms of Life

Ralf playingIt was his first drum. It was a creamy yellow color, a smooth ceramic. It possessed remarkable clarity – each tak and dum sounded precisely, cleanly — at least, when my husband, Ralf, played it.

No wonder congregants shyly admitted to me that they were often mesmerized by Ralf’s drumming hands during services. They watched, listened and prayed to the rhythms he played. Each time, Ralf called the living earth into the carpeted, dry-walled sanctuary.

Dum tak-a-tak. A planetary heartbeat of sorts. A prayer of land and waves falling and rolling against the shore, of wind clapping tree limbs together.

Almost ten years ago, I held a wintertime healing service. One of my congregant’s daughters-in-law was facing a losing battle with cancer. Her children were both under five years of age. There were other griefs brought to that service. Yet we prayed, and healed – at least a little.

I do not remember how it happened. That first, beloved drum slipped off Ralf’s leg and fell to the ground. We looked at the shards, calling immediately to the children to stay away.

Ralf was not consolable.

I wanted to make it good, so I went hunting for a replacement. Within days I found a ceramic drum online with a roughened surface. The Daveed drum got fantastic reviews. Despite the uncertainties – and the expense – we ordered it.

Ralf loved it. I loved it. The congregants loved it. Ralf became far more attached to that drum than his first one.

Almost a year later, we took it to UNC Charlotte where we both teach. We were co-leading a service for the Hillel chapter. As usual, there was a lot to shlepp. Several drums, my guitars, various kinds of equipment. The lecture hall featured heavy doors we had to drag open for every trip from the parking lot.

On the way in, Ralf turned slightly as one of the doors shut. We felt the sound, rather than heard it. The door tapped against the Daveed drum. Hands shaking, we unpacked it. The bottom rim had cracked open.

It does no good to tell anyone that mistakes happen — not when the mistake that person has made feels like an irretrievable loss.

“You wouldn’t blame me like you are blaming yourself,” I said. “Things can be replaced,” I added. “Don’t worry about the money. It’s all right.”

It wasn’t. When I went online I discovered that the drum was no longer being made. I searched, I asked at drummers’ discussion boards. No more Daveed drum. Not anywhere.

Please understand: Ralf’s Daveed drum cracked on November 21, 2008.

Unbeknownst to Ralf, I went online every few months – looking for a Daveed drum somewhere, anywhere, new or used. I would find one for him. I would surprise him.

Searching became a ritual disappointment. I’d see one only to call the store and hear that their website and the pictures hadn’t been updated. That drum wasn’t being made anymore, they’d tell me. Anything else they could help me with?

Seven years of searching, seven years of intermittently recalling the sound of the door, the sadness, the look on Ralf’s face in that darkened lecture hall – it hurt. I gave up last year. I told Ralf that I had been searching and he thanked me. I told him I had stopped looking. He understood.

The first week of January, Ralf and I were working together on a set of workshops for our community. My part was to take everyone through the service structure and to demonstrate how creative, lay leadership was within everyone’s grasp. Ralf’s part was to teach a drum class.

While he was creating handouts, Ralf started searching for pictures on how to hold a darbouka correctly. During the process, he ended up on a website for African drums. I knew the website myself. I had visited it in my own previous searches. It showed a Daveed drum, as it had when I had called, a couple years earlier.  Still there — at least in a picture.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” I said. “They’ll tell you they don’t make them anymore and all that jazz. They will apologize for not updating the website.”

He called anyway.

The woman he spoke to was surprised to hear him ask about a Daveed drum. She knew them and no, they weren’t being made anymore. But then she paused.

“This is so odd,” she said.

Her supplier of African drums had recently mentioned that he had a few darboukas he could bring with him at their next visit – would she be interested? One of them had been a Daveed drum. The day she placed it on the shelf four customers came in, played it, and left saying they would think about it.

Ralf’s call came in just minutes after the fourth customer had left.

From the kitchen, I could hear that Ralf laughing.  I realized that there was a real Daveed drum at the store. I picked up the spare phone and began blurting out the whole, terrible story.

“You have no idea!” I said. “We can’t thank you enough,” I added.

We have been waiting for this drum to arrive for a few weeks now. We have followed its progress across half these United States. This morning, we saw that it had arrived in Concord, where we live.

For weeks I have imagined how Ralf will look, how those first moments will feel, how the first sounds will sound. I hear him playing now.

Tak tak dum tak-a-tak.

A planet’s heartbeat. Prayers called forth from the earth itself.

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