Born into a family of musicians and artists, Matthew Marsolek has been at the forefront of the North American hand drumming movement since the 1990s. He’s the band leader of the Drum Brothers world percussion group, and has facilitated hundreds of events and workshops around the Northwest and Canada, sharing music and rhythm with a variety of groups including corporate teams, at-risk youth, bereaved children, cancer survivors, and students of all ages. He’s also been a featured speaker at TEDx UMontana, teaching his audience from the stage what he means when he says, “Music is your birthright.”
Matthew has studied West African and East Indian music for over two decades and is an accomplished guitarist, vocalist, and composer. Along with two solo projects, he’s released albums with Drum Brothers and Mandir and has produced original music for several films.
In this episode, we let the melody of conversation run wild. We explore the ancient roots of music making, the proven physiological effects of drumming, the power of music to unite and build connection–a scientific study called entrainment–and we take a deep dive into the multitude of music’s functions in culture and society–how to use drumming and other community-based musical practices to help us grieve, release tension, perform ritual and ceremony, celebrate, find joy, communicate healthy emotions and much more.
One of Matthew’s teaching mantras is “If you have a heartbeat, you have rhythm,” and his goals as a music educator are to spark joy, to create a safe space for people to reconnect with their inner child’s longing to play, to move past the fear of judgment and perfectionism and to express authentically, their unique song.
Help us spread the word and leave a review here!
This program is brought you by the Feathered Pipe Foundation and its kind supporting community, who has been inspiring positive change in the world since its inception in 1975. Please consider joining us with your kind donation.
Andy Vantrease 00:17
Welcome to The Dandelion Effect podcast, a space for organic conversation about the magic of living a connected life. Just like the natural world around us, we are all linked through an intricate web, a never-ending ripple that spans across the globe. Here we explore the ideas that our guests carry through the world, remember who and what inspired them along the way, and uncover the seeds that help them blossom into their unique version of this human experience. This podcast is in partnership with the Feather Pipe Foundation, whose mission is to help people find their direction through access to programs and experiences that support healing, education, community and empowerment.
Andy Vantrease 01:04
Welcome friends to another episode of The Dandelion Effect podcast. I’m your host, Andy Vantrease. And today I’m speaking with one of my favorite creatives and music makers Matthew Marsolek. Born into a family of musicians and artists, Matthew has been at the forefront of the North American hand-drumming movement since the 1990s. He’s the bandleader of the Drum Brothers world percussion group and has facilitated hundreds of events and workshops around the Northwest and Canada, sharing music and rhythm with a variety of groups, including corporate teams at risk youth, bereaved children, cancer survivors and students of all ages. He’s also been featured at TEDx Montana, teaching his audience from the stage what he means when he says music is your birthright. Matthew has studied West African and East Indian music for over two decades and is an accomplished guitarist, vocalist and composer. Along with two solo projects of his own, he’s released albums with Drum Brothers and Mandir, and has produced original music for several films.
Andy Vantrease 02:03
In this episode today, we let the melody of conversation run wild. We explore the ancient roots of music making, the proven physiological effects of drumming, the power of music to unite and build connection–a scientific study called entrainment–and we take a deep dive into the multitude of music’s functions in our culture and society–how to use drumming and other community-based musical practices to help us grieve, release tension, perform ritual and ceremony, celebrate, find joy, and so much more. One of Matthew’s teaching mantras is if you have a heartbeat you have rhythm. Now, I may not have believed that until I saw it for myself firsthand–how he can enter a room of 40 people, give us all drums and have us creating cohesive beats within 30 minutes. I personally loved his workshop at the Feather Pipe Ranch so much one year, I followed the Drum Brothers to their drum making retreat, made my own African ashiko drum and have been playing and learning with them ever since. Matthews goal as a music educator is to spark joy, to create a safe space for people to reconnect with their inner child longing to play, to move past the fear of judgment and perfectionism, and to express authentically their unique song, your unique song. Please find a quiet place to relax and sink in with my friend, Matthew Marsolek.
Andy Vantrease 03:27
I cannot separate you from the music that you play. It is a part of your essence, your aura, just who you are as a person. And so I’m always curious, when I meet someone like this, where this originated? Can you give us a little bit of a background of, you know, maybe the first memory of music that you have?
Matthew Marsolek 03:47
You know, I really think that many of us we have experiences when we’re young children that inform our lives, that become kind of a life-occupying theme. And often they’re very, very early experiences. We had this baby grand piano in our home, and my mother was this amazing piano player. She could play Chopin, and Bach, and Liszt, and Beethoven. And so I grew up hearing some of the most amazing classical music coming through her fingers. And I would go over to it as a very, very young child and just play a note on the piano and listen to its sound. And one day, I rested my head against the body of the piano, and I played a note. And I felt that note go into my body. And I realized that my articulating that note on the piano just caused this vibration to go into my body. And I think right now, my disposition is the same young child. You know, that’s how much music is a part of my life. Endless fascination endless inquiry into the power of the feeling of music and its emotive and physically, emotionally, spiritually moving aspects.
Andy Vantrease 05:03
Yeah. And so your mother was a musician. Was your father as well? Tell me about what your household was like growing up.
Matthew Marsolek 05:10
My father was a guitar player, played harmonica as well. And so, we always sang together as a family, whether it was sitting at the piano with my mother D, or my father is sitting in the hallway outside the children’s bedrooms, playing songs, and lulling us to sleep with his guitar, and his voice. You know, this was a time when many people had basic music education. And many people could study music much more in depth. More commonly, I think that it is now in our culture, I think it was more common in my parents generation that everyone learned an instrument. Folks participated in community, in high school and, and school choirs. You know, my mother’s Irish side, they had the tradition of parlor music. And she remembers this. She’d get together with her relatives, and everyone sitting in a room with a piano, enjoying good company. And everyone would get up and share something. So you stand up and you recite a poem. Or you tell a joke. Or you sing a song. Or you play a sonata on the piano. So that kind of tradition was definitely exuding through our household. My father grew up Polish-Catholic, and the polka, and the community music making after church service, or when there’s a funeral, and everyone came out to dance. This is really important for me in my life now, as a music educator, because I realize that the music and art that they were making was a part of their community. It wasn’t separated to just the entertainment arts. So we passively are entertained by the most amazing artists that we can see and stream and view. But in their day was everyone entertained each other It was how community was.
Andy Vantrease 07:07
Why do you think it’s such a difference just as a whole for like your parents generation, and now maybe your son’s generation?
Matthew Marsolek 07:15
We all have to admit the technology has gotten so good. So suddenly, we have access to great art. And of course, in my parents generation, they didn’t have that access. So in a way, you know, they made that art themselves. And I really loved this idea. Of course, they had radio. And if you talk to any folks of the radio generation, that was a huge cultural coming together around the radio. There was an era in our TV culture where there was a more of a familial kind of energy and watching TV. The question of how much has our modern media, in a way enhanced one aspect of our lives and another way possibly diminished it, because we are not creating that art ourselves as much in our culture. When I first started studying West African drumming, one common thread that students would talk about is that “yeah, these master drummers.” Some of them have been drumming since they’re five years old. And so they’ve got this sensibility of African drumming, that’s just wrapped up in their development as a person. And here I have two sons that have actually done that. And it’s pretty amazing. Here’s a thought, you know, and an image to share. So we’re leading a residential retreat at Camp Mimanagish, up the Boulder River Valley. And my wife, Tracy is teaching African dance, and she’s pregnant with one son at a time because we’ve done many of these workshops. So they experienced the rhythm community, we were building and celebrating, you know, in utero. And then when they’re born, they’ve been in the circle for, you know, 17 and 18 years. So they’ve grown up where music has been just a cohesive part of community.
Andy Vantrease 09:06
Matthew Marsolek 09:07
And of course, this leads me to this whole great tangent, about social bonding and community cohesion. It’s very, very ancient.
Andy Vantrease 09:17
Yeah, let’s jump into it.
Matthew Marsolek 09:19
You know, now there’s evidence. Now I just, this is a deep concept, that we’ve, that human beings have been playing concussive, idiophones, and that’s just mean struck percussion instruments for 100,000 to maybe 150,000 years. There is archaeological evidence of like, I’m talking about rocks and bone, very likely that our rhythmic sensibility, our musical sensibility, and our ability to sing, co-evolved with the development of language itself. It’s really in our bones, it’s genetically in our bones. And so there’s something really ancient and deep for us to, to acknowledge that, how did people feel unity and connection through the arts, but especially through music and song. I mean, this is so true when I’m with a group of people, and we’re playing a simple rhythm together, and everyone feels welcome inside it. So they don’t feel that this activity is only for the experts, that everyone has a beat, everyone can participate, everyone can find their own place in the strata of sound. And through that feel this deep sense of cohesion. It’s as if you’re having a resonance through your genetic memory, through your ancestral DNA. It’s that old, it’s that profound. And it’s really our birthright. And so part of my life mission is to share this space with people.
Andy Vantrease 10:50
My grandmother was a phenomenal artist and sculptor and painter. And it feels like that lives within me, whatever that genetic, like you said, that genetic code, or…I so appreciate you taking it as far back as you just did, because saying that you really just have to remember that it’s your birthright to make music and to play and express and make art. And with music itself, too, there are certain songs that just immediately can, like, bring me to my knees. I mean, every time I hear “Amazing Grace,” it doesn’t matter what instrument it is, it doesn’t matter if somebody’s singing it, something happens in my chest, and I start to cry.
Matthew Marsolek 11:38
So I have to jump in, because you brought up “Amazing Grace.” My mother Dolores, she had pancreatic cancer and passed away at St. Pete’s Hospital in Helena. You know, when she became very, very ill and hospitalized, the family gathered, and we’d hang with my mother and sing. So she was like, “Oh, I’m starting to feel scared. Everyone come in and sing.” One of her favorite songs was “Amazing Grace.” And so all of us are there, we can harmonize. And so we started to fill the halls of that wing with song. And at one point, the nurse comes in and says there’s a woman on the other side of the hall, who’s heard you singing, and she says she knows you. She’s wondering if you would come over and possibly sing for her. And so I go over to the other side of the wing. And here’s this gal, she was like, “My husband worked with your mother. And I’m in here, I’m having lots of physical stuff going on. And I’m very moved to hearing you sing. And I’m wondering, would you sing that John Denver song for me? Do you know it? That Annie song. You fool up my sense, like and night in the forest.” And so I bought the guitar and sing her a song, and we both cried together, because just given everything that she was experiencing, that I’m experiencing, my mother’s experiencing. And then we eventually saying my mother out and she drifted off into sleep. And she passed away. And so for me, there’s a lot inside the story that is all about community, it’s about how music can be used in an authentic way to really facilitate the, the transitions, the celebrations, the moments of our lives. And music, in a way activates the energy of a moment. And this is how music can be used in ritual. You know, and if I would ask for a passing for myself, I would wish for myself what my mother experienced. And I’d wish that for everybody.
Andy Vantrease 13:47
To be almost guided out on a melody. Yeah.
Matthew Marsolek 13:53
Sing me out. Sing me out. You know? I mean, this touches on something that’s really current with us right now is that we’ve we’re having a lot of death and tragedy in America. And we need to be creating rituals to help those, and help families, and help those folks who have suffered a lot of loss, not only those in passage, at the moment. Of course, right now with COVID helping folks in passage is tremendously hard. And that’s a that’s a real tragedy. I think culturally, we’re going to have to really address this. Because of COVID folks haven’t been able to have the family around the person on their journey out and there have been many folks who’ve passed in a very lonely place. And it’s a tragedy.
Andy Vantrease 14:39
I want to get into that. Music having all of these different functions and places and culture and everything from helping, to let go, to release, to grieve, to activate, to celebrate. I mean, it’s just it is can be used for any part of life to, to be a ritual. I want to kind of focus on grief and releasing, letting go particularly at this point, because you had mentioned just this image of throwing ashes over your shoulder, not processing. You know, something happens, you throw it over your shoulder. You don’t deal with it. You bottle it up. Nothing is released. And eventually that pile gets larger and larger and larger, until it either swallows you up or something has to be done with it. And it’s an explosion that doesn’t necessarily need to happen if it’s being dealt with. So how do you view music as an avenue of that function in your life? How do you see it needed collectively?
Matthew Marsolek 15:44
Yeah. Well, that image you mentioned, I first heard that from the great poet and community leader of Robert Bly. I had the great fortune of working with him and supplying drums to one of his large gatherings in Minnesota, a number of years ago. And that’s an image that just stays with you that at some point, all these ashes that we’ve accumulated are going to come kind of tumbling over our shoulders. And even though you’re facing forward, you’re gonna have to deal with it. How do you address the ashes of possibly your past failures, definitely the ashes of grief, and the ashes of loss? Now, the arts are the way to do it, in my view. Music and other expressive arts, I think spoken word is similar, and poetry, and you know, you talked about visual arts and your grandmother. There are lots of ways we can express this, but especially when we’re dealing with feelings that are so huge, you know, they may call your cause your life to implode, and may cause depression or inactivity. And often, the arts allow us a space where we can express without judgment.
Matthew Marsolek 16:52
You know, this touches on music therapy. It’s such a multi-dimensional field. And what I mean by that is, there’s a psychological aspect of music, right? So, you know, you were mentioning, you know, some of those songs that just drop you to your knees, “Amazing Grace,” or, for many of us think of the songs when you’re 17 and 18. Oh, my god, yes, the songs that are just like, like, I remember when I heard Fleetwood Mac “Rumors” album, in the Helena Valley before the Eclipse, whatever that was 20 years ago, or something more than that, Oh, my gosh, I’m dating myself, I think it was 30 years ago. And I remember hearing those songs for the first time. I remember the room I was in. I remember what the weather was, like. You know, and it just impactful music. We all have that. It has such deep psychological and cultural power. And if you’re using music in a ritual context, or a therapeutic context, we really need to take that into consideration. Well, then there’s the physiological power, and something called psycho-acoustics. So how sounds affect the brain, how sounds affect the body.
Matthew Marsolek 18:02
If I wanted to do a grieving ritual, and I’m kind of pulling aside the veil here of some of the group work I do. But it’s really important that folks know some of the dynamics behind it, because everyone can make their own rituals. These are tools that we can use to activate these moments of our lives, activate and process and transform the feelings we have around grief, for example. And transformation is a critical thing here. Good ritual really has at its core, this idea of transmutation and transformation. It’s like I offer something into this ritual. And then through the ritual that, that which I’ve offered, is now transmitted or changed. A simple metaphor is a vessel of water on the stove, and the vessel is containing the water, and I add heat to that vessel, and what is inside is transformed. And so this is what happens with a grief ritual. When I’m offering music, one thing I’ll do is create music that has a sustained thought. And the amazing thing about music is you can sustain a feeling, you can sustain an energy. So it’s not as fatiguing for the group, just to sit there in silence and have each person do a part of the ritual. When there is music present, suddenly there’s a way to draw in and draw out with your attention and with your emotion, as you feel engaged, or as you feel you need to quiet and back up a little bit. And the music offers all this strata for us to participate. And so if someone is not feeling, like really engaged like, “I don’t have a lot to grieve, but I want to be supportive to the community.” Then they can sing or hold the rhythm and just hold space. On the other hand, when the community is holding the music like that, there’s a space for those who really have deep feeling to jump into that feeling and actualize it in some fashion.
Matthew Marsolek 20:17
So one thing we would do, and, you know, I think many rituals around the world really feature this aspect is using the, the elements. And I’m talking similar to the Chinese elements–earth, air, water, fire–and it’s found in native cultures all over the world. And so we would incorporate those elements as well as incorporating music, and rhythm. I have done this for years, in these circles with a chant I learned from Michael Meade, the great storyteller lives in the Seattle area, who learned it in turn from Malidoma Somé. And he’s a great West African shaman and author and psychologist. And I highly recommend his books on ritual, to anyone who’s interested in some of what we’re talking about here. So he worked with Malidoma Somé, and then I worked with him. and he shared this great song called “Ah wei”. And it’s a grief song from Malidoma that his culture use the Dagara people. The syllables you hear don’t have particular linear meaning semantically, right? The sound conveys this feeling of starting to drop into a place of grief. So, and it just goes like this. I’ll just sing for a moment.
Matthew Marsolek 21:39
Ah, wei. Ah, wei…Ah, wei. Ah, wei…Ah, wei. Ah, wei…Hey, La. Hey, la. Hey laa.
Matthew Marsolek 22:13
And then you repeat me.
Matthew Marsolek 22:15
Ah, wei. Ah, wei…
Matthew Marsolek 22:19
And the minute I start to sing that. I have deep, deep emotion. And the reason I do is because I’ve shared that in so many groups. One thing we’ve done for almost two decades is work with Hospice of Great Falls, and working with children who are going through bereavement, who’ve lost very often their parents or their grandparents or brothers and sisters. And so we gather once a year to help launch their retreat. And it’s called Camp Francis Bereavement Camp. And we do a couple of these one over by Great Falls, and then one up in the Flathead area. And for years, you know, we will do an opening circle with this amazing population. And imagine, that there’s a one to one ratio between the children attending and the counselors who are there. There’s medical staff, there’s great cooks, there are social workers, there are artists. And we sit in a circle with 70 to like 120 drums. They have 4, they have 40 Drum Brothers drums that we built in workshops with them, and also we built additional ones for their pool. And we do a naming circle with these kids, and say your name, and who they’ve lost. We go around. And we do some drumming and I foster the sense of cohesion with the group. And I’ve done this for so many years, I can take a population that has never drummed together that have just met each other and in an hour we’re playing really powerful, solid polyrhythmic grooves. And there’s an immediate feeling of connection because we’re all drumming together. And then we come back. And I have everyone come into the center of the circle. And they’re 30 to 50 candles lit and everyone’s eyes are illuminated. The children come in closest. And then the adults stand…and the adults stand behind the children. So I’ll just feel that emotion. On either side of the altar is a big bowl of water. And as the children have said the names of those they’ve lost, a staff member lights a candle and floats it in the water. So by the time the ritual gets to this point where we’re standing in the center together there’s all these candles lit. And then I’ll share the “Ah wei” chant. You know, my energy, my intention is about acceptance and love and inviting people in. I want to invite them to join in as much or as little as they feel comfortable with. This ritual has developed a resonance over years of being done. I think last count, we were either at 18 or 19 years at this bereavement camp for these kids. And so now some of the kids who’ve gone through it, who were campers are now, elders. They’re, they’re the adults around the other side of the circle.
Andy Vantrease 25:37
Oh, gosh that’s powerful.
Matthew Marsolek 25:38
And so then we sing, yeah, we sing the “Ah, wei” chant together. But I need to say one thing, which is just a little side note about these bereavement camps. As some folks might go, “Oh, my goodness, this must be the saddest experience in the world–these children who’ve all lost someone, you know, sharing their stories together.” But it actually is a week of celebration, and joy and beauty. They’ve experienced something so profound that the, their friends don’t have a context with which to understand what they’ve gone through.
Andy Vantrease 26:10
Matthew Marsolek 26:11
But when they come to this camp, and they say, “Here’s my story.” And their buddy, and it’s, it could be someone who’s seven or eight years old, says, “Here’s my story.” And they become fast friends and feel that, you know, you know how it happens in community. You feel that camaraderie of shared experience.
Andy Vantrease 26:30
I love that. And I love where it led to. I feel like the resistance to the grief is what people are scared of the most fearing how sad it’s going to be or fearing…
Matthew Marsolek 26:42
Andy Vantrease 26:42
Like I can’t handle it.
Matthew Marsolek 26:44
Yeah, yeah, sorry to interrupt. But what you just said there, I just is really important, because I think there is this fear in our culture of like, I’m going to go insane. Or I’m going to go crazy, or I’m going to lose control, or something’s going to snap. I think that is a sign that we haven’t spent enough time in our emotional domain, you know, to understand what we are capable of as emotional beings. Through some practice of ritual, you begin to realize that you can handle and transmute energies that you had no idea where possible, and a lot of it is because of community and support. You know, and that is not just grief. Oh, no, it is powerful energies of profound ecstasy of joy, of union, of love, of hilarity, of of zaniness, right? So this goes out of grief into all the aspects of ourselves.
Andy Vantrease 27:44
I’ve even sat in circle. I’ve done many women’s circles over the last few years. And I remember expressing at one point that I am a little bit more comfortable with grief. I’m less comfortable with like an ecstatic joy. Like, it feels so powerful to me, that I find myself holding back because I almost don’t know what to do with that energy. And so I think it’s important to even bring that into the conversation, because it’s not just the darker emotions as the ones that we avoid. I think, especially when we’re talking about music and playing and being in community, I think that there are many of us who aren’t even as experienced in holding those other emotions, those other top of the cycle emotions. And I have experienced that through drumming with you, through drumming with other teachers. I feel the build. And it’s like, I can almost feel when my body goes, Uh, oh. Uh, oh. You’re getting to that place where you’re like, it’s almost like you’re having too much fun. Like stop, cut it off. And, and there’s something about holding that within a rhythm and within other people that feels sustainable.
Matthew Marsolek 29:06
Oh, it’s wonderful. I appreciate you saying that. And I think it’s exactly true. I was drawn to West African drumming, when I heard the ecstatic power and the joyful, celebratory power of those instruments. And through the practice and the study of West African drumming and dance, you realize that this art form is all about what you were just talking about, of being able to sustain great energy in your body, but having a place to put it. And that’s where I think ritual and the practice of music is a great thing. It’s a vehicle to express these energies of our being. When you are in a restful place, like deeply meditative, if you look at you know, an electrocardiogram, you’ll see your heart doing that classic heart rhythm–Bump, bump…Bump, bump…Bump, bump, that’s actually a rhythm in three. It’s actually going one-two-three…one-two-three…one-two-three. You’re playing two beats, and the third beat is arrest. Now when our heart enters an aerobic rhythm, you hear a straight two or four–Bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing bing. And this is true with your breath. When someone’s in deep sleep, you’ll hear rhythms of three, you’ll hear this you’ll hear [inhale-exhale] and then arrest. Then compare that to…oh, you’re working out to a dance video, you know [fast inhale-exhale]. Or you’re running, right that that in and out two or four beat, right? Those have real physiological correspondences in our body-mind, right? So I’m going to play this triplet rhythm for you. Because I’m going back to this idea of energy, right? I’m going to sustain the rhythm a little bit. And then after a little bit of time, I’m going to start to just let some energy out. And just some solo, right, but notice the feeling of energy coming through the drum. [hand-drum playing] Oh, baby, every time I pick up my drum, I just feel invited. [hand-drum playing]. Inside this, all the way down [hand-drum playing]…is a pulsation from that [hand-drum playing] heartbeat. [More hand-drum playing].
Andy Vantrease 32:56
Matthew Marsolek 32:58
Hey, I better be careful, because 15 minutes will go by recording a podcast.
Andy Vantrease 33:04
Hello, hello. Are you there? That was so great.
Matthew Marsolek 33:10
You know, when I talk about these, these subjects I get so excited. So filled with energy. So I felt excitement, I felt grief, I felt memory of my mom. And you know, that’s, that’s where this stuff lives with me. And, you know, one thing I’ve learned from my teacher is is a lot of the stuff that we’re talking about is a practice of authenticity, and vulnerability. And that’s challenging. You got to feel you’re in a safe space to allow that to happen. And so I feel a connection with you, Andy. we’ve shared circles together. So I feel that safety, you know, to be able to take it to those places. And just like it’s as if our conversation, in a way is is our own little ritual. And so it’s nice to have that moment to be able to just rip the drum a little bit and kind of release some energy. It’s like, “Ah yeah.”
Andy Vantrease 33:57
Yeah. And reset.
Matthew Marsolek 33:59
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Andy Vantrease 34:00
Well, on that note, I want to talk a little bit about your teaching style. And one thing that I love about being in circle with you and with the Drum Brothers, is that safety and is that permission to to go through my own process and unpack some of the things that I’ve had fear about when it comes to playing, and it comes to singing, and using my voice and…There’s a lot of baggage when it comes to using your voice.
Matthew Marsolek 34:29
Andy Vantrease 34:29
There are a lot of things that have happened to most people in their childhoods. That transition of innocently and and vibrantly, expressing and then having that at some point shut down. I mean, I can’t even tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people that they said, “Yeah, I love to paint, but somebody told me along the way, I’m not good. I’m not good at painting or you You know, what are you doing are you need to stay in the lines. Like maybe you should stop singing, it doesn’t sound that great.” I mean, all of these things that we learn so young, and then we internalize them. And here we are, as you know, 20, 30, 40, 50 year olds, and we can remember what it felt like to have that creativity shut down. So I want to, I want to give you a chance to talk a little bit about just from your own words, what it is that you are inviting people to do when when moving through that not wanting to be heard, that fear that judgment. How do you help people move through that and find their voice?
Matthew Marsolek 35:42
A high percentage of what I do is really about creating a safe space and allowing permission for folks to come in and express, and a place to feel relaxed and playful, and full of joy and exploration, and experimentation. If those doors are open, you can learn anything. Suddenly, your neocortex starts to function. And what I mean by that is we have this new small layer, this half inch or so layer of gray matter in our brain. And when you’re in a fear place, you’re basically functioning from your reptilian brain. It’s fight or flight, or now they realize, freeze. You know, that is a strategy when you’re, when things are dangerous, to freeze. If those three are quieted, suddenly, you go into this higher part of our brain, into the place of higher learning, that’s also associated with connection and communication and empathy. I love to find a way to bring people to that point. Now there’s, we were talking about the heartbeat earlier. And that’s just one thing I consciously do with a circle. It’s a great way to just bring the circle together on the same page. And it’s simply playing a heartbeat rhythm on a drum. You can also dance it. You can sing it. But it’s Boom, boom..Boom, boom..Boom, boom…Boom, boom. But what I do with that rhythm, is I articulate two strokes with my right hand, and then two strokes with my left hand. Now you can play it in a different way. But I deliberately do it that way, for a particular reason. So right hand, left hand, right hand, left hand. And the reason I do that is because I know that articulations with the right hand affect the opposite hemisphere of the brain, and articulations with the left hand effect to the right side of the brain. And what happens is, there’s a, there’s an immediate feeling of integration that any human being will have. And so what I’ll say to folks, if I was doing the rhythm…[hand-drum playing]. And I would say, “Just have your thought, follow the rhythm, just like a mantra. And if your thought wanders, come back to the heart.”
Matthew Marsolek 38:17
And depending on the group, you know, I might play that for five minutes or so. And maybe it’ll, it’ll increase in tempo. And in some groups that have a lot of energy, it’ll actually become kind of raucous. And then I take it all the way back down to a very, very quiet heartbeat that we fade to silence. But what’s been, you know, understood about rhythm is this great concept called “entrainment.” So entrainment is also in physics. It’s called mode locking. Entrainment is a powerful unifying power that happens in many ways, between human beings, definitely through music making, but also through just being in the same space with another person. So entrainment has been found in the brainwaves of mothers to children, especially a mother, you know, holding the child, suckling. There have been documented entrainment in the brainwaves of the child to the mother. And if any of us, you know, who think about this kind of thing, think of course…
Matthew Marsolek 39:20
Of course that happens, right? Because this is the nature of the world, but also in therapist to patient relationship. So if you’ve had an experience with a therapist or a friend, because I think our friends are a therapist, you know, where suddenly the conversation really starts to flow. And you’re really on the same page. And their attention to your words, they’re listening to you helps your words come out of your mouth. I was a part of a pilot study, through St. Pat’s Hospital in Missoula on hand drumming in the brain and the heart. And we did a study looking at does hand drumming effect in treatment in the brain? Does it change brainwave activity? Does it change your cardiac rhythm? And we got some amazing data that we had anecdotally, you know, known about in our circles, because everyone has commented for years, it’s like, “Wow, you know, there’s a moment in the circle when we’re drumming together. And I really felt that I was thinking, the same thought as that person across the circle.” Well, the interesting thing about it with a, you know, a moderately complex rhythm, and even the heartbeat rhythm, if you’re listening to it, and you’re concentrating on it, and you’re playing it in tempo with those around you, you are literally thinking the same thought as everyone else. And so I’ll be in a circle with people and we have had…we’ve had magic happen. I mean, that’s the only thing I can say. And the reason I use the word magic is because magic has been used to explain something we don’t quite understand yet. Right? It is a reality. And so I’m saying magical, because we don’t know all the dynamics that are going on with this. I’d like to be a part of additional research to try to crack it more.
Andy Vantrease 39:20
Andy Vantrease 41:10
Yeah, I love that you use the word magic, because it does feel like that sometimes when you’re in the circle. And so I’m curious, do you have any examples of this entrainment idea, perhaps maybe with your teachers or with other people in the circle, like just kind of a concrete example of how this is working? Like, what does that look like?
Matthew Marsolek 41:35
So I’ll just give you a couple images here. I’m at the Tampa khundii camp. with some friends of mine, I was drawn to the Tamba Kunda Camp after studying with my teacher, Abdul Doumbia. And he came to Montana. And I had such a profound experience with him. I just like I’m gonna follow him to California. I’m gonna just hang with him as much as I can, do this big camp they have there. And so one night after the day’s classes, and you know, during the day, they’re teaching West African dance and African drumming songs, and they’re, they’re making West African cuisine, and lots of beautiful people all interested in studying, playing and living vitality. And we’re around a circle and it’s late at night and the fire is going. And there’s this fellow Kurumba who comes into the circle, who hears us playing, and he starts to sing some songs…[Acapella signing]. And there’s a bunch of musicians, so people “Oh, yeah, let’s harmonize.” And then out of the shadows comes my teacher, Abdul. And he’s drawn into the circle. And this is something I learned about him is that when this thing I’m talking about, when the carrier wave starts to happen, when everyone really connects, he can just hear it. His camp setup was, you know, a couple 100 yards away. And he comes into the circle. Someone gives them a drum. And we start to play together. And it’s really quiet. It’s not about teaching. It’s not about, you know, breaking things down. It’s just about going with the flow. So I love this. It’s like, yeah, let’s just jam, let’s improvise. So we’re singing the songs, and we’re playing. And Abdul has his drum and I’m sitting right next to him. And I just picked up a couple sticks. And I’m playing, just a steady beat on the sticks and Abdul’s playing. And at one point, he, his playing shifted, and he just kind of leaned his head just a little slightly toward me. And I heard as clear as day in my mind, “Play this pattern.” And I was like, “Oh,” so, so I changed it. Ding, ding, ding…Ding, ding, ding…Ding, ding, ding. And after another 15 minutes, the same thing happened, his playing just shifted a little bit, and he was just passing along patterns to me. And I was like, “Oh, it’s totally clear. You’re just saying, could you honor me by playing this pattern.” And, you know, this is years ago. Now I am in the position that Abdul was in then. And this has happened many times for me. But at that moment, Abdul was like, “Play the supportive part. And then I can do what I do.” Right? And then he would would solo and improvise, and go to this really deep sensibility that he had that I was just starting to, kind of seize upon.
Matthew Marsolek 44:38
Before this night. Okay? When I first arrived at Tamba Kunda Camp, I went to find Abdul. And there’s this big circle of 100 people. They’re all drumming, and they’re playing a rhythm I know. It’s like, “Oh, wow, this is Marukai, I know.” Abdul’s way over there. He doesn’t even doesn’t even know I’m there. And I start playing the son bon part to the rhythm. And way over on the other side of circle I see his head raised up, and he starts looking around. And he gets, he has this querulous look in his eye, like What the f…? And he, he comes over to this side of circle, he goes, “Matthew!” And that’s how it was with Abdul. It was like, there is a moment of joy. It’s like, ah, someone came inside the space that you’re inhabiting. It’s like, you’re inside your own little world, and someone is here with me now. And believe it or not, folks, I mean, that kind of experience is fairly common among drummers, where suddenly I’m in the same room with other minds, I mean, literally the feeling and thought of others. It’s, it’s rather telepathic.
Andy Vantrease 45:41
Wow, wow, that’s gonna be really interesting when, when science begins to catch up with what’s actually happening in that, because it’s almost hard to believe that that’s possible. But, but I believe it, because how, you know, having those inexplicable experiences within music and within emotion is not uncommon.
Matthew Marsolek 46:05
The great thing about resonance is like something has the capacity to vibrate, it will respond to vibration. And so what we’re talking here with these rhythms is a type of resonance that it takes a certain kind of thought to, to sustain that rhythm, and that has a resonance to it. And so it was like there was this deep communication to Abdul, maybe it was just through the sound, maybe my emotion was carried on the sound. And the reason I say that is because now we realize that there are micro-emotional expressions that are translated through us all the time. They’re translated through the inflections of our speech. They are translated through the expressions of our face. And now, you know, scientists are studying this, the micro-expressions that you’re not even aware that you’re making, that are conveying your authenticity, whether you think you’re veiled in the moment, right? It’s almost like that biblical saying, you know, “Those who have eyes, let them see.” Because ultimately, this question of authenticity is, it’s about being conscious of authenticity, because in a way, we’re all authentic anyway, all the time. Because you’re showing who you are, right? Maybe I’m guarded, that’s, that’s being shown through my face, or my voice, etc.
Matthew Marsolek 47:29
But I wanted to give folks a little gift here.
Andy Vantrease 47:32
Matthew Marsolek 47:33
And this is something that you can look up too, but I have it in front of me, and I share this with many groups. And this relates to that idea of having a group feel comfortable, and having a group feel relaxed. And this is this famous letter from the great modern dance teacher, Martha Graham, to one of her students, Agnes de Mille, and this is when Agnes is questioning the validity of her art form, right. And so Martha Graham writes, “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening, that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.” And she goes on a little bit more into the artists mind. But isn’t that beautiful?
Andy Vantrease 48:59
It’s so beautiful.
Matthew Marsolek 49:00
That and that that is really, I carry that with me with every circle. It’s like, what we have to offer through our expression is uniquely ours. And in there in lies its beauty. It has a place here. It’s welcome. You know, our expression is welcome. Our words are welcome. Our opinions are welcome. And our truths need to be spoken. What you really care about. The world needs it right now. And we need to come together and share, share in that celebration.
Andy Vantrease 49:29
Yes. Well, Matthew, we’ve talked about so much in this conversation, and I want to bring this full circle back to the Feather Pipe Ranch, which has been such a part of your learning and you’re experimenting, and making drums and playing. How has that played a role in your becoming?
Matthew Marsolek 49:52
You know, my family relocated from the Midwest to Montana in the summer of ’76-’77. My father always wanted to go out west after being stationed in Colorado during his military service. And so they relocated to Helena. And one of the early things he did was connect with Laughing Water at the Real Food Store. Dave found out about the Ranch, found out about the programs were there. And I think he did some study with Jack Schwarz at the Feather Pipe, and did some other groups. Became friends with India and Laughing Water. And one of my earliest memories is I must have been 10 or 11. All three brothers and Dave came out. We did a sauna. And then, no one was there. So this is, you know, on an off day or off season. I think it was fall. And so we were able to run naked all the way down the road and jump in the lake and then run back up and jump back in the sauna. And of course, being you know, however, old I was, it was the most thrilling, wonderful thing. First really good sauna. I mean, the sauna at the Ranch, everyone knows…
Andy Vantrease 51:03
Matthew Marsolek 51:03
Killer. And then I was on staff at the Ranch, outside of high school. I was on the cleaning staff. And then I had a lot of experience in cooking, and so I joined the vegetarian kitchen. Thanks to the generosity of India and Laughing Water, you know, we I was able to experience you know, some some of these workshops. You know, sometimes I would do a scholarship where I would work a bit and also participate. And so I was able to do some great yoga study. I was particularly moved by some of Brant Secunda’s work. And I was a young man and those variances were foundational for the work I do today. So I’m forever grateful. You know, when you, when you witness good teachers, you know, what you see really goes deep into you. How are they leading the circle? How are they communicating to the participants, right? The rituals that Brandt led definitely informed the rituals I do. And one thing we started to do way back then was well, it’s, it’s the evening after the day’s activities. We’re done with our shift. Let’s make some music. And so literally Drum Brothers came out of just an unfolding of wanting to do musical expression. In the evening at the Feathered Pipe Ranch usually around the bonfire down on the lawn. You know, there’s a couple of conga’s in the Main Lodge. Pull those out. Pull pots and pans out. And and very quickly, we realized that this is, you know, this is such a powerful thing. This is a way that just about anyone can do music, and jump in and participate. So from those first experiences, I was starting to, you know, witness what I’ve been talking about and what I’ve been working on all these years. My brother Patrick started to build some drums, and the whole drum business came out of kind of a necessity bears invention. It’s like we want the drums to be able to drum. And so the first drums we started with were a Plains Indian style frame drums. And it’s a frame with a deer hide wrapped around it. And you hold it with one hand and then you have a beater, and you play rhythms with the beater on the drum. And believe it or not, I mean, this is how it started, you know, workshop participant would come up and go that is such a cool frame drum. Do you want to sell it? Patrick’s holding his drum. It’s like, “Wow. Uh, okay.” So we started building drums. And that’s how the drum business started. We also started performing at the Feathered Pipe Ranch. India and VJ also sponsored my first trip to India. I was influenced by Pat Kennedy, Cree elder who was very connected to India and the Ranch. And he would come and lead round dances with one of those frame drums for groups. And he would lead the sweat lodge and so many foundational experiences. Pat Kennedy took my father and I, and led us through the process of how he built a sweat lodge. And I’ll never forget that. I’m forever grateful. And he was really clear about his culture. He said, said this to us, which stays with me with any of this work, which is, “I showed you how to build a sweat. But I’m not giving you the rights to a Cree sweat, right? You can do the Matthew sweat and the Dave Marsolek sweat.” Right? And I just love that he was very, very clear. But he was generous in that way. And he knew that I was, you know, I had enough respect that I would take those words to heart.
Andy Vantrease 54:37
Matthew Marsolek 54:37
And then it’s come full circle, right? So now I’m a presenter. So now I’ve had the great fortune of actually being able to come back to the Ranch and present there. There’s something that’s so beautiful about that. And it relates to what we’ve been talking about about, you know, culture and tradition. This is how community builds, right? And so I’ve been connected to the Ranch, long enough, many of us have, where we’ve seen this upwelling of community grow and flourish, and loop back around.
Andy Vantrease 55:09
Yes, that is so powerful when people can return and really come back to that village style community where the elders are teaching the youth. And then those youth grow up to then be the elders. And the Ranch just models that so wonderfully. So if someone is feeling sparked by this conversation, where do people get started? What is next? How can they get in touch with you and and begin to play together?
Matthew Marsolek 55:41
We’re offering you know online Zoom classes. If you want to try a zoom class, they’ve been really, really successful, really effective, and you can come into this rhythm universe with us, no matter where you might be. And we’re shooting toward gathering at Mindful Unplug this summer. So you can see me there. I’ll definitely be coming again this year with my partner Tracy and our two sons. We just think it’s such a great event and look forward to to being with everyone there again.
Andy Vantrease 56:25
Bada boom! What a wonderfully deep conversation to spark our internal pilot light as we move into this new year. And such a gift to be able to laugh, cry and jam with Matthew as he walks us through his upbringing, the role music has played in his relationships and parenting style, and how his passion for sharing that with others has really led to a rich and fulfilling life. I’m welling up just thinking back on the idea of him singing to his mother to guide her out of the world, yet knowing that she returns and is present every time he plays music. I find myself so filled up with love, inspiration, and potential after this episode. How can I use music to carry my emotions, to honor my ancestors, and lean into my most authentic expression?
A special thank you to Matthew Marsolek and the Drum Brothers, whose music you hear at the beginning and end of this podcast, as well as Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who first turned us on to the phenomenon of the Dandelion Effect and how ideas move through the world.
This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, a 501c3 dedicated to healing, education, community and empowerment. If you’d like to help support this project, please visit FeatheredPipe.com/gratitude or leave a review on Apple podcasts and share with your friends. Be sure to tune in to our next episode in two weeks. We cannot wait to share another amazing conversation with you. Until then, have a beautiful day.