Animal hide is a source of many joys of Judaism. After all, the Torah scroll itself is written on kosher parchment. Still, a celebration of this month’s Tu b’Av holiday that featured djembe drums from Ghana was an unexpected experience for many who found themselves hitting the skins with abandon.
"I’m as surprised being here as you," Rabbi Simon Jacobson told the capacity crowd at SIR music studios in Chelsea. Head of the Crown Heights, Brooklyn-based Meaningful Life Center, the gray-bearded rabbi explained that the holiday, sometimes referred to as the Jewish Sadie Hawkins’ Day, is a time of Jewish unity and heightened communication.
Hence the drums, which fostered vibratory, rather than verbal, interaction.
"Just put your fingers on the skin of the drum," said Warren Lieberman, the founder of the Drum CafÈ, which runs drumming workshops worldwide. The sessions are designed to promote listening skills and better communication in the workplace or in personal relationships.
Lieberman, who lives in South Africa, hit his own hourglass-shaped djembe with a flat right hand. Ninety drums resonated with the pulse (when the drums ran out, 50 other people picked up sand-filled shakers). "When you play the drum, you’re actually talking and listening to everyone in the room," he said.
Lieberman’s grandfather owned The Standard, a Yiddish theater in Johannesburg, but Lieberman was drawn to drumming and played regularly with a small circle of friends. The group eventually expanded into the hundreds, and seven years ago he organized the weekly events into workshops.
Lieberman has since performed for Nelson Mandela, the Queen of England and the president of the United States, and has held events for Bayer, Barclays and BMW: to name a few of the nearly two dozen corporate clients in as many countries. He now has 12 offices around the globe including his latest branch in New York, which opened in May under the direction of Lieberman’s high school classmate, Aviva Cohen (www.drumcafeNY.com).
At the celebration earlier this month, djembe drums proved to be a suitable accompaniment to both wordless niggunim and Ukrainian Jewish folksongs. Rabbi Jacobson sang, and Lieberman propelled the percussion with simple hand signals. A trio of New York-based drummers originally from Ghana filled out the rhythms. One audience member (dressed in kipa, white shirt, black pants and fringes) launched into an improvised whistling session. A bare-armed woman in a purple feather boa was moved to stand, arms raised in ecstasy. Someone at the back of the room flipped the lights on and off for a psychedelic effect.
"What you’re doing is something that used to happen [among Jews]," Lieberman said.
Some people didn’t have to look back to ancient times to reconnect with drumming days. "This is not new to me," said a woman in a concealing cream-colored outfit and matching beret. "I’ve been to about 300 [Grateful] Dead shows."