UpBeat Drum Circles

Drums of Peace


Rex Foundation helps bring the healing power of music to war-torn Iraq.

“A cultural hootenanny broke out. They started playing their rhythms, doing their dances, and before I knew it 38 people were up dancing around the room and singing. And you couldn’t tell who was Arabic-speaking and who was Kurdish-speaking.” – Christine Stevens

By Mary Eisenhart

Last year Christine Stevens received a startling invitation: come to a Kurdish area of northern Iraq and teach drumming to the locals. Specifically, teach them how to participate in and ultimately lead drum circles in their own communities, bridging gaps between people and factions who have often been at odds for centuries.


Stevens was undoubtedly the right person to get this invitation. A longtime drummer, she also has master’s degrees in social work and music therapy, sorely needed skills in this situation. Through her company, UpBeat Drum Circles, she leads drum circles at corporate retreats, team-building exercises and hospitals.

In the course of her work, she’d met and often worked with Grateful Dead drummer and Rex Foundation board member Mickey Hart (see Mickey interview below). So, when this opportunity appeared, she was soon in touch with him. Hart steered her toward the Rex Foundation, which, along with the NAMM Foundation (the philanthropic arm of the worldwide music industry group) and Remo Drum Company (for whom Stevens is Director of Music Therapy and Wellness Programs), made it possible for her and her team to travel from the U.S. and conduct workshops in Iraq.

In addition to the five-day leadership training program that was the project’s main focus, the trip also included drum circles in children’s hospitals and a youth activity day for teens. Iraq’s first lady, Mrs. Hero Talabani, participated in one of the drum circles.

“What’s great about this project in Iraq,” Stevens says, “is that we were able to demonstrate ‘if it plays in Peoria….’ If it plays in Iraq, I think it’s going to work anywhere.

“It’s still an active war zone in many ways. Thanks to the Rex Foundation we were able to look at how drum circles work in a war-torn culture where there’s still great risk.”

(In fact, the risk to participants is sufficient that we cannot show their pictures. “Remember,” says Stevens, “many of these people would be enemies anywhere else.”)

Leaving the U.S. on Veterans Day 2007 and returning on Thanksgiving, Stevens, team members Mark Montygierd and Constantine Alatzas, and their colleagues shared an incredible adventure and launched many positive ripple effects in a country that’s had little to rejoice about lately. It’s a remarkable story, and we’re proud to be part of it.


Rex Foundation: Why drum circles? Why do they work?

Christine Stevens, UpBeat Drum Circles: When you think about it, the drum is probably the oldest form of community building known to humankind. It’s one of the oldest instruments we’ve ever played.

Music is rhythm, melody and harmony. Drumming and rhythm are the most contagious element of music, probably because we are biologically wired for rhythm. We have a heartbeat, we breathe to a beat, we really are rhythm. Our bodies, our physiology respond.

It works for team building and as a therapeutic tool because it binds people like glue. People can’t really resist that temptation to join in. It’s an automatic recruiter. That’s why people love it at the Grateful Dead shows. That’s why you work out better with a soundtrack. The beat is really the heartbeat of life.

The power of entrainment helps people fall into beat together. When we synchronize musically, that transfers into our human life; when we drum together, it changes our relationships.

Besides the corporate team-building experience, or even in a medical center with cancer patients in America, we took that to a Third World country, where we were able to see that that same principle could still operate. Human beings are human beings, and music is music. We took it to a place with even greater need, and created a great result.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why drum circles create peace. The first reason is that it’s accessible and everyone can do it, so we had 100 percent participation. The second is that it’s a common language spoken between all human beings, and that communication is key. We told them, “This is being taught in three languages, English, Arabic and Kurdish, but we’re going to introduce a fourth language, music.”

The third reason is that the drum circle creates a mode for self-expression. We think that’s so crucial, at a time of recovering from war, that people have a tool to express themselves nonverbally when they’re going through things that words cannot express.

The fourth thing, I think, is the motivation. Many people wrote on their applications that their goal was to create a sense of hope again. I think drumming together creates an energy that’s motivational and renews hope.

The last thing that made this work was the creativity. Kurdish people are born to drum. This culture is so rich in musicality and dance, and I think that when you restore creativity in a place of war, and it’s co-created creativity, that creates a sense of shared accomplishment.

Rex: Were all the participants Kurdish?

Stevens: No, there were also Arabs and members of various tribes.

When you share an accomplishment like music it changes your relationship – you’re no longer the Muslim or the Christian or the Yazidi, you’re suddenly part of the band. That was really our goal, to have the creation of a band, a blended orchestra where language was not a barrier.

As one man said to us, “You brought us back an old tradition with a new purpose.”

In the drum circle you’re improvising on the drum, so you don’t know if you’re playing an Arabic beat or a Kurdish beat. They come together because of entrainment. That was the whole purpose of the drum circle.

There are two models: One is the cultural sharing model, where you show me an Arabic rhythm and I learn it. But what we did with these drum circles was a culture creation model, the co-creating of rhythms together, not from the past but in the current moment. That’s what created that sense of peacemaking and group bonding.

Rex: How did this project come about? So many things would have to come together for something like this to happen.

Stevens: I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe everything happens for a reason that we can’t even really know, and the story of this invitation is quite extraordinary.

A woman named Melinda Witter, years ago, was working for NAMM and saw a drum circle facilitated by Arthur Hull. She never forgot that experience – all ages of people, all types of people, from different parts of the world, drumming together and creating a sense of community quite immediately.

Years later she found herself working for the international aid group ACDI-VOCA. As the officer/director of community action groups in Iraq right now, she contacted the NAMM office and said, “I will never forget drum circles. Can you please support us? We think it would work for peacemaking and we need it right now.” They sent her to me.

She got the funding on her end to provide 38 people with the training experience, so they could come from different parts of Iraq and we could demonstrate drum circles as an element of peacemaking.

There was a second agency involved called Kurdistan Save the Children, so it was great that Melinda had a partner on the Iraq side.

We had the Rex Foundation and NAMM and Remo Drums as our funding partners on the U.S. side to cover flights, expenses, and training materials, as well as my own organization, UpBeat Drum Circles.

NAMM was interested, because they have a program looking at recreational music making.

Rex we found through Mickey Hart – I’ve worked with Mickey for a number of years, because he’s such an advocate for music therapy and for preservation of indigenous music through his Endangered Music Project at the Library of Congress. He and I have worked on some different projects together, supporting a hospital in New York; we’d go and do drum circles there together. So I knew Mickey, and he was the one who suggested approaching the Rex Foundation.

Remo Drums donated 60 drums that we could give away to people when we were there at the training.

It was a great story of everybody chipping in, and we really appreciate the support of the Rex Foundation.

Rex: Who were the participants?

Stevens: Participants were 38 people who had come from seven different governances in Iraq, which is really significant. We had people who spoke Kurdish, people who spoke Arabic. We had Muslims, people who were Yazidi, people who were Christians. We had cultural diversity, religious diversity and language diversity. They were chosen because they had music skills, they were drummers or musicians in their communities; they were teachers, they were therapists and they were community leaders. A majority were men, but there were also seven women.

There were four goals. The first was that they would leave after five days of training feeling a difference in the community of trainees. The number one goal in this phase was that the people who came there in the drum circle would experience the sense of peacemaking with their colleagues at the training – because, remember, many of these people would be enemies anywhere else.

Our second goal was that they would be comfortable being facilitators of the drum circles, which became the leadership training. If you can lead a drum circle, those skills are transferable to leadership anywhere.

The third purpose was conflict resolution, economic development, youth programs and rehabilitation. Out of the people who came to the training, everybody had a different slice of that, so we even had diversity in terms of applications and training. We had three gentlemen who came from positions of power in their communities; we had young men who were drummers. We had such a diverse group, and the results were outstanding.

Rex: Were they coming from places where there’s still a lot of conflict, or relatively peaceful spots?

Stevens: What I’ve noticed is that the media use the word “stable”; they don’t say “peaceful” yet.

The place where we taught the training is probably the most stable area. Everybody who came from anywhere else came from a much worse situation. We had people who came from towns where about 12 years ago Saddam Hussein had gassed 5,000 Kurds. The genocide history is very close to their memory.


Rex: How did you choose the participants?

Stevens: All of that was handled by Melinda, the woman who invited us there. Her organization works on the grassroots level; she knew leaders, she knew rehab specialists. She put the word out in the pipeline informally, and then she made a formal application, which was pretty strict.

Participants in the training were required to commit to participating in a follow-up, and they had to commit to doing drum circles in their communities. So that guaranteed us that these people were serious.

These people wanted to learn it, and they had an application waiting for them. Because that application was so clearly defined, the ripple effects have been outstanding. They couldn’t wait to start these programs when we left. (laughs)

Since November’s training there are drum circles happening in seven Kurdistan Save the Children youth centers. They’re happening in rehabilitation centers, an orphanage, a women’s prison, some school systems – and this is just the beginning.

They have a drum circle reporting form to fill out, so that when we go back in April for Phase 2 we can see how successful this training was, how many drum circles did it yield. And what was the result of the drum circles that they led?

We’re hoping to have the first public study saying that drum circles are a powerful tool for peacemaking in a war zone.

Rex: What’s the process you’re using to document this?

Stevens: It’s still in development. But we shot enough video that there’s a potential, depending on funding, that there could be a complete training video, left in Iraq, that could further develop the program.

In the meantime we used video for interviewing people to get some information from them, to learn more of their story and their experience.

A gentleman shared with us that some of the people who came for the training came from Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. He was the son of a freedom fighter, so he had fled with his father into the mountains during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Now he was sitting next to and drumming next to men who were probably the sons of people his father fought.

He said, “I would never believe that I would be friends with someone from Tikrit. But now I have this guy’s name and phone number and email.” He’d made a new kind of relationship through the program.

Rex: What did the program consist of?

Stevens:We had a five-day curriculum. The first day was the introductory drum circle; day two was called “discovering your rhythm” and was devoted to them learning techniques on the drum. In a community resource model, we used Iraqi and Arabic drum teachers and let them teach the participants.

Day three was devoted to learning the leadership, the facilitation of the drum circle, day four to discussing the application of the drum circle in Iraq, and day five to evaluation, graduation and a demonstration.

On the second day, we asked them to split up into Arabic-speaking and Kurdish-speaking participants so that I could speak about the science. That was also on the curriculum – a lecture on the scientific evidence of drumming for health. So I asked, “Would the Arabic-speaking people meet over here and Kurdish-speaking over here?”

And the group said no.

Rex: Cool!

Stevens: That became sort of the defining moment for our training team. We just looked at each other and said, “Wow. They’ve bonded.”

They refused to separate. What happened next was completely extraordinary: a cultural hootenanny broke out. They started playing their rhythms, doing their dances, and before I knew it 38 people were up dancing around the room and singing. And you couldn’t tell who was Arabic-speaking and who was Kurdish-speaking.

We decided, that really worked! (laughs) So the next day we worked that into the structure; we had a signup sheet; people signed up and shared songs and poems from their cultures.

At the debriefing, one man shared with me that because of the situation in Iraq they have not been able to travel, and they really miss knowing about the other cultures in their own country. So the cultural sharing was very valuable to them.

Our goal is to go back in April; we have a date and we’re beginning to talk to different agencies about funding us again. It’s in the pipeline, with a grassroots method of getting people to the training; already people have heard about it, and they’re asking, “Can we come, can we come?”

I want to go back and follow up more with the rehabilitation; my goal is to do a second research project specifically on rehabilitation through the drum, primarily physical. There’s a lot of therapy needed there, and they’re doing home-based services. So I would like to see a training day specifically devoted to my meeting with the physical therapists and speech therapists, and showing them how to use the drum for that.

You have to remember, when we first went there, people thought of the drum in only three ways: they thought of the drum as an entertainment tool; they thought of drum as the instrument they used in Sufi religious practices; and unfortunately the media have really been drilling into people’s thoughts the term “drums of war.” Those are the three associations people have with the drum.

What we needed to do was come there with this training and say, “The drum circle is a secular activity that promotes health and peacemaking and conflict resolution.” So they left saying, “Everyone can drum. This is a tool for kids and adults; even children who are in wheelchairs or have no legs can participate.” And when they saw that, they really understood that there is no person who can’t participate and can’t benefit.


As a music therapist, I’ve worked with Palestinian and Israeli girls; I’ve done other kinds of projects that bring together divergent groups of people. I’ve taken drumming to New Orleans, to Ground Zero, to Columbine High School, and I’ve never had such a profound experience of taking music to a place where they already had it – it was right there, and we just needed to say, “Here’s your music, let’s bring it over here and make it into something that can be used for what you need today in this country.” In my 15 years as a music therapist I’ve never seen such a powerful impact of music.

For me one of the big outcomes was that we now have a model that we can use in any country. If it works in Iraq it can work anywhere. It’s my hope that we have now begun something, that the world can use this tool again and again in places that need it for building human relations and cultural renewal.


Connecting Through Rhythm:
An Interview with Mickey Hart

I don’t ever remember coming off of a stage, where people were really passionate about playing music at that moment, and feeling bad towards them. It’s always a heightened experience; it’s always enlightening in some way, and it makes you feel good. And it’s fun.”

You don’t have to speak the same tongue; you just look in their eyes and you play in unison and you share a groove together, some commonality. That goes a long way to understand a person and their culture and their sensibility. It’s a code. It’s a language.”
– Mickey Hart

Listen to Complete Interview