COLUMBIA — When Pam Fleenor began to create flutes as a child, it became clear she was interested in more than music-making. She wanted to fashion the instruments that made the music. Years later, it was a documentary on djembe drummer Mamady Keita that pushed her to try her hand at crafting drums.
“It was so powerful seeing him play, my heart was pounding while I was watching,” Fleenor said. “(The djembe) is an awesome, beautiful, wonderful instrument. It has so much volume and range, and there were no djembes for sale in Columbia at the time, and I just started trying to make my own. I just jumped right in.”
Fleenor’s lack of expertise did not stand in the way of her eventual success. With her partner, John Benton, she now shapes and repairs hand drums for their local business, Wildwood Instruments, while creating compositions, teaching lessons, offering workshops, holding drum circles and painting on the side.
Fleenor and Benton have made a life out of drumming. They have found drums heal, relax and build community. For these two percussionists, hand drumming is a universal human experience, something they are trying to share with others.
Hand drums are appealing because they are immediate, Fleenor said.
“You can sit down without any prior knowledge and have fun with it, or you can also take it to a very proficient level,” she said. “And at a drum circle, all of those levels can come together, and everybody can have a great time. It's really beautiful.”
Because hand drums are less reliant on theory and organization, they are more accessible than other instruments, Benton said.
“Melodies can become cacophonous, they clash, they must be more structured,” he said. “But the drums, they don't really require any structure, nor are they melodic, per se, so that means everyone can just bang on and clang in without fear.”
When rhythms do clash, it is usually because one person is not listening to the rest of the group, Fleenor said. Benton said this is one reason the business world integrates drumming into management workshops.
“Companies have hired people to train their managers in better teamwork skills using ensemble percussion because it's a listening, learning process,” he said. “And this helps them realize they need to be more aware.”
For those interested in learning rhythms at a higher level, Fleenor offers individual lessons.
Victoria Day, one of Fleenor’s former students and current UM System benefits specialist, bought her first drum after a canoe trip that ended with a drumming session. One of the men who participated sold her a synthetic-headed Remo tubano, a conga-like drum.
“Pam heard me playing and suggested that my drumming could really benefit by some teaching in basic technique,” Day said. And after playing a natural-bodied and -skinned drum, Day set her first purchase aside. “The drum I still play to this day is one of Pam's early creations,” she said.
Fleenor is a patient, kind and committed teacher, Day said.
“She is an extremely talented musician, but as a teacher she can take her knowledge and incredible skill and break it down to the basic elements,” Day said.
Drum making, at its most basic, is geometry. Fleenor said she solves various problems in the construction of her drums using theorems and formulas she remembers from high school math. Benton, on the other hand, uses a more mechanical approach. He was inspired to make PVC pipe congas by watching welders mold pipes into smaller sizes.
“It was working at a power plant that gave me the idea for how to make the first ones I made,” Benton said. “So I started making congas, and I sold several of those. Everybody wanted one. Even Stephens College wanted one, and I sold one to them.”
It was by placing one of his congas in Cool Stuff on East Broadway that Benton met Fleenor. She was interested in buying it, but it had a broken head, so the store owner gave her Benton’s phone number. They met, and since then have been together.
Aside from Benton, Fleenor often collaborates with other drummers and artists.
“Divine Rhythm was a women's drum ensemble that grew out of one of Pam's classes,” Day said. “We all just wanted to play drum music in a more conscious, intentional way, and we wanted to give people yet another opportunity to dance.”
Day is also one of the founders of Mid MOtion Collective, which focuses on experiential dance. She explores movement inspired by modern dance, yoga, tai chi and meditation, among other techniques, according to the collective's Web site. Fleenor's music is sometimes used as an accompaniment to Mid MOtion's dance sessions.
“One of the movement experience … is something called ‘Trance Dance,’” Day said. “It is an experience where the dancer opens ... up to rhythm while blind-folded. … To do this type of work without the music of the drum would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.”
Part of entering the trance state required for this experience depends on the dancer's brain activity.
Drums can help people enter a relaxed, meditative state by increasing alpha brain waves, according to studies conducted by clinical psychologist Barry Quinn. He was referenced in Robert Lawrence Friedman's book "The Healing Power of the Drum," published in 2000. The more alpha waves a person has, the more likely he or she is to feel happy and relaxed, the studies show.
Benton participated in a local experiment designed to test these theories, he said. Hooked up to an electroencephalograph, or an EEG, he began to strike a drum between his knees. The beta level, which measures brain activity associated with a typical awake state, immediately receded. Benton’s brain slipped into the alpha state and continued deeper, until, according to the monitors, he should have been asleep.
“That was experiential on my part to actually see it instead of reading it from a book of music therapy,” Benton said.
Drumming has also been shown to improve the short-term memory skills of Alzheimer’s patients, according Barry Bernstein, a music therapist from Kansas City.
Fleenor referenced a video presentation, “Your Brain on Drums,” by author Layne Redmond, who lives in upstate New York, to explain how this works.
“Studies have shown that music comprehension requires both sides of the brain, so the more often those two sides of the brain are working together, that improves memory,” Fleenor said. “It improves cognitive abilities on so many different levels.”
Apart from cognitive improvement, hand drumming is a mild aerobic activity, Fleenor said. And in some ways it can be a physical challenge.
“If you do it right, you're not going to have a lot of calluses or bruises,” she said. “I think when we both started out, we were bruising our fingers pretty badly."
With direction, the pain can be avoided, Benton said.
“Lessons were the best thing that ever happened to really understand which part of the drum doesn't make any sound,” he said. “That's the part you don't want to hit.”
Now that Fleenor and Benton have attained a level of proficiency, they are branching out from traditional African music.
“We’ve been focusing on our own compositions,” Fleenor said. “If we were out there performing African music, it would be like being a cover band.”
But African music itself has influenced many aspects of her playing, according to Fleenor. The hides she and Benton use to cover their drums come from countries in West Africa such as Guinea, Mali and Senegal. She is engaged by both the music and art in African culture.
“It is the organic nature of the music,” Fleenor said. “If you listen to some of the music recorded in village settings, you can hear insects and birds singing, and the sounds they make completely integrate with the music the people are playing.”
Benton said making drums has been influenced by events in his life.
“The making of drums has been a culmination of everything in my life that I've touched, every experience and every skill that I've come across,” he said.
Drummers and percussionists are different, Benton said. He said that while bands tend to set drummers as their foundation, percussionists won’t settle for the backseat.
“All the music I've made and I've played — jazz, blues, bluegrass, I mean everything from classical on — I don't think I've enjoyed anything more than playing percussion with other percussionists,” he said. “It's so liberating.”