I didn’t really come to South Africa with any plan about who I was going to study. I had one vague idea of an ensemble, but they never answered my five emails over the past year. Looking back on it, it was a blessing in disguise to basically be dropped off in an unknown place, and learn how to meet people and build relationships out of thin air. I wrote some emails to UCT, asked a couple of bars where the live music scene is and attended some shows, and checked Facebook events near me. That’s how I met Nidhi.
I met Nidhi by attending her weekly drum circle music therapy session. I walk into a yoga studio with two other women, and a cluster of djembes in the center of the room. All the chairs are in a circle. I was incredibly nervous. Am i going to have to talk about my feelings to these strangers? I had absolutely no idea what to expect. To start the drum circle, Nidhi asked us to share how we felt right now. I gave a generic answer, like “yay, I’m excited to drum!” Thinking to myself, cool, I don’t have to spill my life story and internal problems to these people. Then we started to drum. At the end of the session, we had to “check out” and tell her how we felt after drumming. This time, I didn’t use a generic answer. I told her that it felt different for me to actually sit down with a drum and just jam. I didn’t need to focus on any sheet music or my dynamics, I just got to play what I wanted to play. I told her that was the first time in a while that I was able to play without thinking.
I later sat down with Nidhi to talk about how she got into drumming and music therapy. Nidhi started drumming in 1994. “I’ve never been really good at things. I had issues with self confidence.” It was a difficult time for everyone due to the end of the Apartheid and the transition to the African National Congress (ANC). Much of South Africa’s spirits were damaged, including Nidhi’s. To seek help, she went to a drum circle. All walks of life came: any religion, race, or job.
Nidhi instantly connected with the djembe and decided to attends more circles and teacher herself. Eventually, she started to teach music to kids and street children. She then began to study psychology in order to giver a therapeutic base for her music. She wanted to focus on the spiritual connection and how music can help the healing process. She then created her own organization, “Conscious Rhythm” (check out her blog here: https://consciousrhythm.blogspot.com to her website here http://www.premnidhi.com).
Over the years, she has found a great passion for helping women and girls who are victims of gender-based violence. Nidhi regularly facilitates drum therapy sessions at women’s groups in Cape Town. “It is important to work with just women after such a traumatic experience. They don’t get drowned out by the masculine energy of men and they can focus on connecting and listening to themselves. You can only do this kind of work with just women.”
Nidhi also works with men in her therapy group drum circles. She states that when men drum with women, they feed into their feminine energy. Unfortunately, there are some instances where she has been disrespected; for instance, one man decided to take off his shoe during the drum circle and starting violently banging it on the djembe. This causes women to be intimidated and overwhelmed when coming to a drum circle.
I asked Nidhi how has she tried to gain respect from the vast majority of men in the djembe community. Nidhi says that she is gently taking back the power. There is no point of fighting back with the behavior that we do not like. “It’s about energy sustainability- we need to hold the rhythm.” This is why she likes to focus on giving a safe place for women to openly drum. It’s not even about gender. You need to honor and respect other people’s space. “We live in a world where people don’t respect.”
Every week I went to Nidhi’s drum circle and during our “check in” where we would talk about how we are feeling that day, I would get more and more into sharing how I actually felt. One meeting, I was having a particularly difficult time coping with being away from my friends and family. I felt alone and isolated from the world. I felt like my support system didn’t understand what I was going through. Nidhi then told me how that reminded her of a woman she helped at the shelter recently. That a woman felt the same way after she was tied up and raped in her own house and left there to die. After she said that, I asked her, why am I crying? I have no reason to feel bad for myself when things like that are happening all around us. Nidhi told me that you shouldn’t compare who has the worst story. You have a right to hurt, and so does that woman. It’s okay to hurt, but what we have to focus on is the healing.
Nidhi really helped me think of the more mental and spiritual side of drumming. It isn’t all about the technique or how well you play, it’s what you feel when you play. Certainly that sounds cliché, but it’s one of the big lessons I’ve learned so far. Beneath the truism lies a powerful, basic truth!