Drumming with the Homeless in Chicago

I was recently offered the chance to spend some time with Marge Nykaza, who runs an organisation called Harmony, Hope and Healing. Based in Chicago, Marge runs a creative music programme with homeless and underserved people in shelters and community centres. Formed mostly around group singing work, Marge was keen to include more rhythm activities - which is where I came in (along with a large purple bag full of Remo drums)…

Here in Scotland, I work on a freelance basis making music with a variety of different groups: in schools, churches, psychiatric hospitals, and with adults and children with a variety of special needs, so it seemed quite a natural progression to working with the kinds of groups Harmony, Hope and Healing was involved with. 

Throughout the week, music became a common activity for people to encounter each other over societal or generational divides, and a great ‘leveller’ which brought people to a place where everyone was a learner together – rather than owning their more usual labels of ‘helper’ or ‘homeless person’ or ‘expert’. 

The programme is billed as a ‘healing tool for recovery from the adverse effects of homelessness and poverty’ and ranges from singing groups held in the shelters, through to parent and child music groups; piano lessons for the elderly, and even musical English lessons for recent immigrants.

There were so many highlights it would take too much space to list them all – here are just a couple:

A completely unexpected pleasure was drumming at the men's shelter. There were a few raised eyebrows when a mild-mannered white chick from Scotland was introduced as someone who would help them all drum together, however, it wasn't only their expectations that were overturned, but mine too – I was quite prepared for an extremely chaotic, loud session with guys letting rip on the drums without listening to the group. What actually happened was that after a few words about how drumming in a group was different to playing a drum kit or drumming alone, we all went straight into an highly exuberant, yet extremely musical and rhythmical 'groove' that lasted about 30 minutes, without a break in the music. These guys could play....

A wee while later, we tried an exercise in ‘drum conversations’ - the only 'rules' being that one person chooses another for a drum ‘chat’ - and takes turns in playing to let the other person respond, and so on. An amazing variety of conversations ensued! Some were extremely dramatic and interpretive: leading to one guy jumping up at the end of his conversation, and jokingly accusing the other guy that: “He just said something about my mother!”

One of the most moving experiences happened one morning at a women’s shelter. There was a group of about 25 women present, and we got to playing together pretty quickly, along with some of the preschool children, who sat playing in a happy band in the middle of the circle, while their mothers and others played round about them. Again, it was easy to see the capacity of rhythm to involve people regardless of age – toddlers and adults were equally engaged at their own level, yet still part of the same song. 

We moved on to a couple of the songs that they knew – and we started singing an old gospel tune 'Wade in the Water', and drumming along. A couple of the women started taking turns to make up new verses, and before we knew it, everyone was stepping up one at a time to sing what was on their mind: about giving up drugs; about life in the shelter; about not putting up with abuse; about protecting their children; about trying to get their lives in order so they could get their children back. Everyone gave space, everyone supported and encouraged each other, and the group had completely taken charge of the session in a wonderful way. 

One of the things Marge said a couple of times during the week was: 'How can you not do this kind of work?' - having shared just a small portion of it, I now understand exactly what she means. From the exuberance of the session with the men, to the energy of the children, and sheer emotion of the women's sessions, it was a joy and a privilege to be able to spend time and encounter each other through music. Harmony, hope and healing indeed…