Drumming therapy can help to reduce anger and tension and increase a sense of wellbeing. (David Harrison)

African rhythms heal around the globe

Nicola Plastow
Nicola Plastow looks at some of the settings in which African drumming has been used to improve mental health.

For many Africans, drumming is a deeply symbolic activity associated with culture and gender, religious and traditional practices, building communities and maintaining a deep sense of identity. But African drumming circles exist in cities around the world.

Hung-Kun Lee's 2009 doctoral dissertation at the University of Nottingham investigated why a group of 82 Hong Kong residents aged between 19 and 81 decided to learn African drumming, despite less than 0.3% of the population having any African heritage.

One of the recurring themes about African drumming is that it draws people together. In the theory of group dynamics, we call this group cohesion – the glue that binds the group together. Cape Town-based clinical psychologist Ronell Lemmer says because music is a universal language that breaks down barriers, participants are drawn together by the bass note or rhythm. Drumming also allows for individual expression while the participants are part of the group.

African drumming as a therapeutic activity challenges our perceptions about what we can do. With a skilled facilitator, children and adults with disabilities can participate in a drumming circle – even if they cannot see, hear or move in the same way as other participants. People with health conditions including stroke, autism, Alzheimer's disease and combat injuries reportedly benefit from participating in drumming circles.

The group cohesion in an African drumming circle promotes social inclusion. In their 2013 article in Arts & Health, Varun Venkit, Anand Godse and Amruta Godse report the use of drumming in rehabilitation for women in sex work in Mumbai, India.

Lisa Wood and colleagues at the University of Western Australia have used drumming to reduce alienation and prevent drug and alcohol abuse among at-risk youth in schools.

In the United States, Insook Nam's doctoral study at Arizona State University found multicultural music activities helped schoolchildren become more comfortable with new languages, and improved cultural awareness and sensitivity.

The value of drumming for group cohesion also explains why drumming is so popular as a corporate team-building activity.

Praneschen Govender and Shaun Ruggunan at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal investigated whether African drumming could be used to address sensitive topics during staff diversity training at a Durban hospital. In the study, published in 2013 in the International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, one diversity trainer talked about the value of a drumming activity to break the ice before difficult conversations about staff experiences of racism or stereotyping.

"By the time they go into the diversity training they've had some interaction with the people next to them, they've had fun, they learnt something new and [it] helps them participate even more … The majority of people actually are motivated by the drums, they have their inhibitions broken," they said.

Nicola Plastow teaches in the faculty of medicine and health sciences at Stellenbosch University

African drummingmental health