Priestess of the Drum: An Interview with Layne Redmond

Author, recording artist, and drum instructor Layne Redmond is passionate about the frame drum, the music of ecstasy, and the recovery of women’s role as percussionist priestesses to the Divine Mother.

Loreena McKennitt sings about “drums that pulse in echoes of darkness,” and Mickey Hart wrote about how drumming took him to the “edge of magic.” Drumming has a primal connection to magic and the spirituality of the earth — the spirituality of the Goddess. So how wonderful it is that we have Layne Redmond, the stunning woman who almost single-handedly is carving out a large and bountiful space for women to tap — literally — into their own ecstasy, the ecstasy of the primal rhythms of the Divine Feminine.

Layne practically sneaked onto the stage of contemporary spirituality, recording several CDs with frame drum virtuoso Glen Velez, and later with her legendary group of women drummers, the Mob of Angels. But in 1997 she caught our attention with her provocatively titled and profusely illustrated book, When the Drummers Were Women. Here she expands on the theme she first lays out in her first video, A Sense of Time — that drumming, far from the being the male enclave our society assumes it to be, originally was the province of women, especially priestesses of many Goddesses and mystery religions throughout the ancient world. And she backs up her assertion with artistic evidence from around the globe. In the image of the drumming priestess emerges an exciting nexus of feminism, music, and pagan spirituality — a life-giving pulse dedicated to the Sacred Mother, in which women find the freedom to be who they truly are.

Her performance as a musician is precise and hypnotic — listening to her and her partner Tommy Brunjes perform, entering a trance state is almost irresistable. In interviewing her, I found a woman who is intelligent, articulate, and passionate about her message.

You recount an amazing story in your book — of being a woman in a male-dominated field who gradually discovers that there is an ancient link between drumming, women, and the Sacred Feminine. How did your discovery of the heritage of women drummers impact your spirituality?

My research revealed to me that the earliest religions were based around the concept of god as the divine mother of all life in the universe. I was an art major, but it wasn’t until I was researching the history of religious ideas that I saw the oldest art known to have been made by human beings — sculptures and reliefs carved in rocks, depicting the sacred vulva of the goddess, the gateway through which we all must pass when we are born as human beings. These exquisite images are from the Paleolithic period, around 30,000 years ago. Such images are not in our art history books because they are considered inappropriate to be seen. According to the traditional patriarchal mind set, since they depict the sexual organs of women they are therefore obscene, possibly pornographic and certainly not for public view. I was astounded to find out that our oldest art is not in our history books–you could major in art history and never see them.

These images are always painted red, the color of blood, one of the most sacred substances in the ancient world. These pieces of art depict our oldest religious mysteries — the mystery of woman turning water into blood and then turning the blood into a new human being. The second mystery is that woman transforms water into blood into milk, the divine nourishing fluid, to feed the new born human being. For our ancestors these images were far from obscene — they were sacred images of the oldest religious mysteries of birth, growth, fruition, death and rebirth. Of course this information transformed me. I had spent many years studying yoga and Buddhist meditation with predominantly male teachers. And I’m grateful to the many wonderful teachers I had, but I knew it was time for me to leave the patriarchal lineage of spiritual disciplines. Women’s spirituality is just coming into being in our culture and we’re searching in many ways to find out what it actually is and what it will become.

I believe that powerful music is essential for religious or spiritual transformation. We are in the process of creating that new music. In the ancient Mediterranean world ritual music was based on ecstatic trance rhythms. We are in the process of becoming rhythmically literate once again and many are drawn to the ecstatic quality of rejoicing and worshiping the sacred through drumming and dancing.

What role do you see the Goddess playing in the spiritual life of women (and men) of our time?

It is certainly a time of return for the feminine face of god. From the many sightings of Mary to the actual excavation of many of the images of the ancient goddesses, to the tremendous amount of research being done on her traditions by scholars, awareness of the goddess is rising and becoming easily accessible. As a child, the only goddesses I had ever heard of were the Greek goddesses and now I can walk into any bookstore and buy books on goddesses from all over the world and from many different time periods. Many groups are practicing rituals and meditations to invoke the sacred feminine within us here in America and it is extremely transformative for women and men to see themselves as a reflection of Her. Also it is very powerful for women to take on the role of priestess for their communities. In the ancient world, priestesses presided over every religious function of life. At some temples in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Turkey there could be up to two to three thousand priestesses working at one temple complex. I also love visiting other cultures like Brazil and India where She is a living part of everyday reality. In these cultures there is no questions in anyone’s mind whether or not God can manifest in feminine form — She certainly does!

How do you distinguish between music-for-entertainment and music-for-ritual? Is it even a valid distinction to make?

I am drawn to music that entrances, enchants and transforms me rather than entertains me. I want to be woken up to the powerful unlimited possibilities of the spirit and led into greater realizations of the meaning of life. In ritual we use music to tune ourselves to the elemental forces that constantly swirl around us the in the physical world. Through the vibrations of the music we entrain with these forces which transform and clarify our connection to the source of all that is. Music which supports ritual helps to bring us into alignment with the spiritual unfoldment of our lives.

Tell me about your forthcoming CD.

The new CD is called Roots of Awakening, Chanting the Chakras. Amitava Chatterjee, Steve Gorn, Tommy Brunjes and Laurel Massé are the musicians I was so fortunate to have work with me on this project. Amit has a number of recordings of his own including Songs of Kabir and Colors of the Heart. Besides being an outstanding sitar player and vocalist in the ecstatic tradition of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, he’s also one of the top fusion electric guitarists and played with Joe Zawuinul’s Syndicate. Steve Gorn is probably the premier western player of the North Indian bansuri bamboo flute. He plays traditional ragas and has been in demand as a fusion player. Tommy Brunjes has performed and recorded with the pop groups, PM Dawn and the Murmurs. Laurel Massé was a founding member of the Manhattan Transfer.

Roots of Awakening is a meditation practice for re-tuning the entire mind and body by chanting the fifty “seed syllables” or letters of the ancient language, Sanskrit. Each syllable sits on a petal of one of the six chakras within the body and each vibrates a specific part of the body. For example, the mouth, the tips of the right fingers, right ankle, etc. This practice is at least a thousand years old and very likely three to four thousands years old — or according to my primary South Indian yoga teacher, Swami Bua, millions of years old! He does not accept the traditional historical accounts of reality. He insists that people have been here and practicing yoga for millions of years. This particular practice is based on the essential sounds, the alphabet, that make up one of the oldest languages, sanskrit. Language is the very structure through which we think, communicate and understand our world. This is a primordial meditation that cleanses and restructures our very apparatus of consciousness. Amit helped translate old texts out of Sanskrit and Bengali and I was very fortunate to have him chanting and playing sitar on this recording.

What potential does the music of ecstasy have, to really make a difference in people’s lives? How do you think exploring the ecstatic dimension of drumming has changed your life?

When I first got involved in Tibetan Buddhism, I went to an Empowerment — a four-day long ceremony with beautiful music, a shrine where offerings were made, and the meditation was being chanted–and I was just stunned. There were only four musicians, but it was so astounding, and this is what completely changed me. At that time, I was involved in the New York “new music” scene, which wasn’t new age at all–but after the Empowerment, I left that downtown art realm — the “art and ego” realm. I knew something was actually going on with ritual music. The music was providing the energy to invoke the blessings and the deitie. I can’t tell you exactly how it all works, but that’s what I’m interested in–when the music is an essential part of aligning our minds with the energy of — I don’t even want to limit it to “beings beyond us” or “Goddesses” or “Gods” or “deities” — it’s consciousness beyond us, the divine, the sacred.

It’s the music that actually taps in, that creates a pathway or circuitry for that sacredness and the divine to manifest. It’s rare, you know — it’s a rare experience, and it’s a big thing to take on to say that’s what I’m interested in trying to accomplish. But I think there’s a number of us who are trying to help bring that into being at this time, help create it, because we don’t have a shared musical culture. People here are from so many different groups of people, and many of our traditions were already lost and destroyed before we even got here.

So it sounds like the Empowerment was truly a life-changing experience for you.

It was. It changed me. I saw that something was actually happening. It was beautiful to see. The shrine was extraordinarily beautiful; colorful. I had seen so much self-indulgence in New York; even great people with lot of talent were empty inside, so the stuff that was manifesting might have been interesting, but it was empty, and not pointing to a greater reality.

What about the Mob of Angels? Do they still exist?

Well, sort of. What’s happening is we’re doing a big CD-release concert in Berkeley, and it’s the end of one of my six-month training programs, so that whole group — about twenty-five of them — will perform with us and we’re calling them the “West Coast Mob of Angels.” The original Mob of Angels was pretty fluid; there was a core group of people who were always in it; that was from about 1990 to 1994. Then I got the book contract and I moved to upstate New York, and at that curtailed anything else as I worked on the book. So that original Mob of Angels is no more; what we did at that time was very profound and really extraordinary; we were very successful, especially for New York, simply showing that people really wanted ritual. But for now, it looks as if the Mob of Angels will manifest as more and more groups that are trained throughout the country, that also have a purpose to come together again.

What advice do you have for women who are interested in drumming?

That there’s nothing to be afraid of, except maybe finding yourself completely addicted to being in rhythm with a group of people! And there is a particularly powerful quality when women drum together. The voice of the drum is calling many people right now, particularly women, some of whom had always wanted to play but were never given the opportunity or permission. Many of my women students were told that the drums were for boys, and they should play the piano or sing instead. Or sometimes it happens almost by chance — someone ends up at a drum circle and without any prior interest is suddenly captivated by the drums.

Take it even further: what advice do you have for women who are “not sure” what their calling is? You began as an artist, and almost fell into frame drumming. What did you learn about yourself, both as a spiritual person and as a career woman/artist, in the process?

But essentially the time to pursue your dreams is right now. Don’t wait until you have more time, more money, less responsibilities, etc. One must start doing the things one dreams of in the present moment or they never become reality.

This interview first appeared in the November 1999 issue of New Leaves.

Postscript: Layne Redmond passed away on October 28, 2013, at the age of 61.

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February 5, 1977

Here is an excerpt from my book The Aspiring Mystic: Practical Steps for Spiritual Seekers (2000).

This passage describes my own initiation into an embodied, luminous encounter with the Divine, after which “spirituality” for me would always be a lived reality, not just an abstract idea.

The highlight of the weekend was the Saturday night communion service. With all one hundred or so of the participants present, we’d have a long, comfortable, folk-style service, with plenty of singing as we stood arm in arm, swaying to the music. Although I had participated in such acoustic-guitar-driven worship services before, this one seemed different, from the start. As we sang, and eventually shared the bread and wine of Holy Communion, it seemed to me as if the entire room began to glow. Not a physical glowing, as if someone had turned on additional lights, but a radiance, a presence—words fail to describe. Slowly, but suddenly and obviously, things were different. Only words associated with light seem to capture the experience. Luminous, resplendent, glowing.

It’s as if everything—the walls of the room, the various people within it, the bread and the wine being passed from hand to hand—shimmered with a light that I could still perceive even when I closed my eyes. Call it energy, perhaps. It wasn’t just as if there were a nonphysical light, it felt as if a new kind of love or joy had become manifest for the first time ever. I felt loved like I never had before.It seemed to me as if every person in the room became radiant with a visibly miraculous glow. Once I noticed it, I felt simply carried along by this serenity and joy that I had never felt before. It wasn’t ecstasy, for I didn’t feel like I left my body; nor was it a vision, for physically things appeared just as they always had. It had nothing to do with drugs; indeed when at a later date I experimented with LSD or cocaine or magic mushrooms, those substances always seemed pale and physically jarring in comparison to the loveliness I had known that night in Massanetta. Nor was it any kind of psychological breakdown—it had no ill effect on me physically or emotionally, other than to leave me with a sense of serenity and a feeling of connection to the God whom we were worshipping that evening.

This supernatural energy was so gut-level real to me, and so far beyond anything I might have imagined or tried to concoct, that I thought something objectively miraculous had happened in the room, some sort of profound moment in which God chose to reveal himself. By “objective,” I mean I thought everyone must have experienced what I did. Honestly. It never occurred to me that this might have been just a subjective experience! But I soon discovered to my surprise—and somewhat dismay—that others hadn’t felt or seen anything at all unusual that evening. After the service ended, I said to two or three people, “Wasn’t that amazing?” to which they replied with a totally noncommittal “Uh-huh.” Soon I realized that, for some reason, I had been given a unique gift.

It happened at church camp, but this wasn’t about church. I’ve been to plenty of church-sponsored events both before and since, and never did the windows of eternity open like they did that evening. No, it was something far deeper, far more profound, than mere religion.

— from The Aspiring Mystic: Practical Steps
for Spiritual Seekers
by Carl McColman

Update 2019: I’ve recounted this same story, in greater detail, in chapter 2 of my book Unteachable Lessons.


David and the Phoenix: A Gentle Masterpiece of the Mythic Imagination

David and the Phoenix, gentle masterpiece of children’s literature first appeared in the late 1950s, bringing a dimension of magic and wonder to young baby boomers growing up in a society dizzy with consumerism, the space race, and post-WWII arrogance. Recently reprinted in both hardback and paperback editions, and available on the Kindle and Nook, this book is now available for an entire new generation of budding visionaries.

The 1998 movie Toy Story 2 looks back on the fifties as a time when science fiction triumphed over cowboys as the dominant mythology for American youth. But Ormondroyd’s David and the Phoenix, a genuine relic from that era, hearkens back to an even grander myth, or set of myths. Peopled with Banshees and Leprechauns, Griffins and Fauns, Sea Serpents and of course the magnificent Phoenix itself, this story cracks wide open the rich treasure-trove of world mythology and makes it fun, appealing, and shimmeringly real for today’s post-modern youth.

Like Harry Potter’s train to the magic land of Hogwart’s, David and the Phoenix uses the concept of journeying to transport its young protagonist to the enchantments of the other world. On a beautiful summer day, David climbs the mountain behind his new home to discover the last secret refuge of a legendary bird. Stumbling upon the Phoenix quite by accident, David encounters a being with a gloriously imperfect character: learned but a bit pompous, potentially fierce but often comical, contemplative and meditative yet with a genuinely warm heart.

When the boy and the bird strike up an unexpected friendship, the mythic creature decides that David deserves a “practical” education, unlike what he is receiving in school. Although the Phoenix’s notions of practicality may seem a bit eccentric (“How do you tell a true Unicorn from a false one?

What is the first rule of defense when attacked by a Chimera?”), this overriding theme of their friendship also serves as the moral of the story: don’t let the encroaching claims of “Science” and “Modern Life” get in the way of a real education, which is based in wonder, imagination, and sometimes just lollygagging around on a sunny day. Long before movies like E.T.or Splash explored the conflict between empiricism and imagination, David and the Phoenix made an articulate case for putting science in its rightful place as only one aspect of a truly educated life.

The tension between science and myth is heightened by the Phoenix’s bête noir: an over-eager scientist who is so obsessed with hunting down the bird that he would even kill it. Some of the novel’s most brilliant humor involves the lengths that David and the Phoenix go to foil the scientist and dissuade him from his quest.

I properly first discovered David and the Phoenix as a boy, and today I cherish its message of the primacy of myth and wonder. Going back to re-read it in 2001, I am struck by how masculine a book it is (although the Phoenix’s gender is never disclosed); I also wince at its portrayal of witches as either petulant or comically threatening (one old Irish hag keeps trying to get the Phoenix to sell David to her. “Ah, the wee darling, the plump little mannikin. What a broth he’d make, to be sure”). But I can forgive these flaws as symptoms of the book’s age, especially given the overall feeling of magic and enchantment that fills this too-brief story.

The resolution of the conflict between the Phoenix and the scientist brings themes of loss and renewal together in a heartbreaking climax. At least the hostile scientist doesn’t win, but he isn’t defeated, either. We readers are left to carry on the battle, of providing the Phoenix and his kind safe harbor and refuge in a world where “getting and spending” and the “obsessive interest” of arrogant science have threatened the eternal beauty and truth of the mythic world.

It’s a challenge I’m willing to take.


Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness

I read Evelyn Underhill’s magisterial “Mysticism” the summer after I graduated from high school, and I’ve been a student/devotee of the western contemplative tradition ever since.

Truly, this is a book that changed my life.

Underhill’s accessible if British-formal prose provides a wonderful, elegant stage on which the majesty and depth of the interior life can be celebrated. The book neatly divides into two halves: the first examines mysticism from theological, psychological, and philosophical perspectives; the second takes the reader on a tour of the process of mystical growth over the lifespan, looking at such key life passages and transitions as conversion, self-purification, illumination, the “dark night,” and union.

What emerges is a developmental map for adult spiritual growth, which is a tremendous corrective to many of the silly notions floating around in our society, such as the idea that one single “born again” experience is all that is necessary to achieve total spiritual attainment.

What I especially love about Underhill is her evident enthusiasm and passion for her subject matter. Without ever saying it in so many words, she reveals in her writing that mysticism is more than a dry subject for disinterested study; it is a living, breathing tradition, one that demands engagement and participation from those who would explore it.

Ultimately, mysticism is not found in a book, but in the lived process of relating to the Divine. It’s ironic that this message needs to be passed down in books, and yet, Underhill’s wonderful study of the subject does just that.

This was written in 1911, and shows some marks of age; for example, the chapter on “Vitalism” refers to a philosophical fad of her day that seems almost totally irrelevant a century later. Even so, I have a house full of books on this topic, ranging from the scholarly (Bernard McGinn) to the popular (Thomas Merton) to the just plain silly (Keith Harary’s and Pamela Weintraub’s Mystical Experiences in 30 Days), and I have yet to find a single volume that provides a better, more useful, and more potentially transformative introduction to the contemplative life than this book.

There are many editions of this book available: from Image Books, from Acrophile Press, from OneWorld Publications, and a nice large-format edition from CreateSpace, among many others. The old mass market edition from Dutton is still my favorite. If you want an ebook version, get the Dover Edition for Kindle. It’s also available for Logos and Verbum, if you use either of those software applications.