Beat of the Shaman: An Interview with Musician Byron Metcalf
In their book The Universe Story, mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme and historian Thomas Berry discuss how our primal ancestors used the drumbeat to establish an integral connection with the psychic or spiritual dimensions of the universe: "Their aim was a life in resonant participation with the rhythms of reality."
Byron Metcalf is a musician in touch with this resonance and rhythm of mysteries in the unseen realms of the shamanic experience. As a drummer, percussionist, record producer, counselor, and educator, Byron Metcalf wears many hats. However, his vision remains unchanged: to use music as vehicle for transpersonal healing.
With an award-winning portfolio of albums under his wing, and performing in such venues as Carnegie Hall and The Tonight Show, Byron Metcalf has evolved from a pop/country music session drummer to shamanic practitioner. Using his years of experience recording and producing, along with his education in transpersonal psychology, Byron's mission is to "provide support to people in developing their capacity for soul-based and heart-centered living as they contribute to the spiritual healing and maturity of humanity."
With a couple of new releases in the works -- the latest collaboration with ambient musician Steve Roach called Tales from the Ultra Tribe, as well as a follow-up to one of his most successful works, The Shaman's Heart II -- I sat down to talk with Byron about his work and his processes, as well as his interest and influence by shamanic states of consciousness.
So let's talk a little bit about your background, get a sense of where you came from.
Well, my father wasn't a musician, but he was a record collector, so I grew up listening to all kinds of music. There was always music playing in the house. And it was a wide variety, so I was exposed to music from a very early age. I loved rhythm and so as an early teenager the drums just caught me. The Big Band stuff drew me, like The Gene Krupa Story, Benny Goodman and all that.
So I started playing in Phoenix, in bars . . . wherever, I didn't care what kind of music it was. I just wanted to play. A lot of it was country music because, you know, I lived in Phoenix, Arizona. But, it didn't matter to me; just to get paid for playing music, when all my buddies were sacking groceries or pumping gas . . . it was great. I did a little studying, but not much training. I'm pretty much self-taught. I left right out high school, went to L.A., played in bands, played in Vegas, worked on recording sessions. Even when I ended up going to Vietnam, I had a band there.
When I came back from ‘Nam, I went to Nashville. I was there for many years, playing on records. My experience there was great. I learned a lot about record production and engineering. I had a recording studio and started playing everywhere: European tours, played on some platinum records, played The Tonite Show, Carnegie Hall, all that.
After going through some alcohol and drug abuse -- you know occupational hazard kind of stuff in the ‘70s -- eventually, I just got bored. I wanted something more meaningful. I went back to school and started doing some volunteer counseling for alcohol and drug abusers, got my Masters in Counseling, and later my Ph.D. in Transpersonal Psychology.
During this time, I got involved in the Holotropic Breathwork of Stanislav Grof. Stan introduced me to shamanism and I began to see the true value of medicine work, including psychedelic substances. It flew in the face of everything I was taught in substance abuse training. As soon as I started reading Stan's research I thought, ‘I've been getting lied to here.' So, I had to find out about this stuff myself. And once you do that with a clear intention, everything opens up after that. Being influenced by Robert Moore's work with the shamanic approach and Jungian archetypes, I really began to integrate drumming with shamanic healing work.
Can you elaborate further on how your music interacts with your interest in the shamanic arts?
I'm interested in studying the continuous tempos and frequencies prevalent in these shamanic states of consciousness, using modern technology with ancient primordial rhythms to shift consciousness in specific ways. I've been doing research at these ancient primordial caves and temples, investigating the frequency responses that are present there. These are frequencies you can actually tune in to. Of course, it's something that shows up as Theta brainwave states, which is the primary journey state.
I say that in terms of honoring the ritual, the ceremonial component of this work. I think without that, even to minimize it, minimizes what the spiritual journey is all about. The ceremonial setting is the most important. To me, the medicine, or psychedelic substance, is secondary. Not to minimize that either, but if I was to shift one or the other, if I was going to have to minimize something, I would minimize the actual plant medicine itself. I wouldn't minimize the ceremony or facilitation. That's where the magic in this stuff is.
I agree. We can take medicine and we can go really deep, but to what extent? You know, what do we bring back? How are we actually changing parts of ourselves so we can bring that back into the real world? How can I change myself for the better, and for the benefit of those around me? And that may mean I don't do medicine again for a very long time, or ever even.
Right, exactly. It's been a decade for me. I had an eight year period of very intense work, and there's a lot of material to deal with there. It's all about doing integrative work now. That doesn't mean I would never do it again, and if the opportunity presented itself and it felt right, then okay. If so, fine; if not, that's fine too. But, you have to follow and trust your guidance on that.
I recall something Terence McKenna said in one of his talks, he said, ‘What are you going to do with the information?' That's the key. There are many methods to being able to open ourselves to all there is or all that will be; that is available. But, I think a lot of people's lives just get messier because they are not integrating it, or bringing it into the world in a sacred way. As Ralph Metzner says: "A change of consciousness does not necessarily translate into a change of life".
My favorite album you did with Mark Selig, Wachuma's Wave, happens to be an album that is associated with the shamanic sacrament San Pedro, also called Wachuma. What was the process for creating that work? Did it involve partakng of the medicine?
Mark is a psychologist, but also very involved in medicine work and shamanic rituals. He had been going to India for 20 years or so, a follower of Osho, and would go to his ashram in India to meditate for months at a time. He has a very rigorous meditation practice. Mark and I knew each other from the Grof network and he had referenced some of my research in one of his papers. We had a common interest in medicine work as well. Mark was just getting into playing the Bansuri flute and we thought about making a CD together. It was initially going to be some of his flute playing along with some drum grooves I had created.
One evening, Mark sent me this CD of some stuff that had some overtone singing and some wild drones -- just amazing stuff -- I couldn't believe it. What he told me was that he was in his ashram and had taken some San Pedro, just enough to put him in the zone. He had never done overtone singing before, the overtones just started coming to him as a result of the waves of the San Pedro moving through him. It changed everything in terms of the direction we were going with the CD project, it became deeper and more shamanic.
I said, ‘Mark, Is there more of this? We need to make some more of this kind of stuff!' It was about six months before he could get to my studio in Arizona and we could start recording. I had already been working on some percussion grooves based on the demo tracks he had already sent me. But, we wanted to recreate it for recording in the studio. We decided, let's try to see if we can get back into that zone, so we did some San Pedro. We found out it wasn't enough so we did some more, until eventually we found the place where we could tap into that wave again. So, we began recording and that is what is on the album.
The essence of Wachuma itself is definitely there in that album, so that's why we called it Wachuma's Wave. I get a lot positive feedback on that album from those that work in those San Pedro realms, because the essence of the medicine is infused in the music.
Have you had other experiences with San Pedro? What was your most significant one?
Yes, I have. The experience that stands out the most has to be when I was assisting and hosting a shamanic retreat in Arizona. The shamanic practitioner who was facilitating worked mostly with San Pedro. I was assisting the practitioner and I took what was called a ‘working dose.' It was one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had. I finally got to see how the shamans really work. I was able to see into the participants, see what was going on inside them, and the process of healing.
I've had lighter experiences of being able to see energy, see the vibrations around and within people, but not at this level. It was really stunning and opened the doors to my own vision so that I could do that more often, even in individual counseling sessions . . . seeing into the person from the shamanic perspective. It opens the doors more fully to the vibrations and the energy fields that are there in a visual and felt sense. It really bridged the gap between a theoretical and a personal experience.
You do a lot of collaborations with Steve Roach, who is on of the preeminent names in the ambient/trance music scene. How did you meet him and start working with him?
Yes, Steve is one of the three or four pioneers of the ambient music genre. His body of work is second to none; he's so prolific. Around the time when I was working with Grof, I got turned on to Steve from his album Structures From Silence. It was used in meditation and guided imagery a lot and that's how I first got turned on to his work. Then he came out with his first shamanic work, which is Dreamtime Return and it was phenomenal and ground breaking.
I began using his music in a lot of the breathwork I was involved in. When I completed my first shamanic CD, Helpers, Guides, and Allies, I just sent Steve an email on his website, introducing myself and my CD and asking him if he would be willing to review it. So, he did. We eventually met and talked . . . he was really into what I wanted to do with music and shamanic healing. Later he made a verbal agreement to co-produce my second CD, the follow up to Helpers, Guides, and Allies.
In the interim I was doing a component of my doctoral research which involved people doing breathwork in a shamanic circle. I asked Steve if he wanted to come and join me in providing the music together. It went so well, he said, ‘You know, we just need to do a full collaboration, rather just having me help produce your follow-up.' That eventually turned into the The Serpent's Lair. And it just went from there. We've been doing work together ever since.
Can you explain a little about your latest project, Tales fron the Ultra Tribe?
Well, it evolved. The original idea behind it was to do a follow-up to The Serpent's Lair at the 10-year anniversary of Steve and myself collaborating together. We've always been sharing grooves and sounds back and forth via the internet and the mail which allows us to work in our own studios at our own pace. Steve and I have been working together for so long that our collaborative energies have matured and evolved to a different kind of thing.
So, it's really different than The Serpent's Lair. We felt like our collaborations weren't going in that direction necessarily, although it was deeply shamanic and tribal. Working with all of Steve's sequencer percussion grooves has inspired me to be very precise with my own percussion playing. The way he creates his grooves is very organic and it doesn't sound very sequenced at all, but it is: it's very quantized and locked in, with tempo and rhythmic precision.
When I first started working with him, trying to play like that in a live setting was very challenging. So, originally he would just do stuff around my percussion grooves, but over time I've really learned to take his stuff and play with it in a very precise, yet totally live, organic way. So, that's the direction we wanted to go with it.
The title ‘Ultra Tribe' is really about who we are, where we've come as far as tribal/ambient music and the way we do it: the blend of Steve's electronica and my drums and percussion. So, what we've done for this album is unlike anything we have done before. For most of the tracks, Steve first put down his basic rhythm grooves and then I put my parts on top of them; which is just totally opposite of the way we have worked before.
The way these rhythms and grooves move in and out, when you hear it, sometimes you won't know what's electronic and what's live percussion. It's really exciting; a very new sound. I would almost call it 4th dimensional. We initially made enough material to create a box set, but throughout the process we thought we would just try the release in a single CD format and see where it goes from there.
After all these years of making shamanic music, what project do you consider your greatest achievement at this point?
The one that comes to mind the most is The Shaman's Heart. That was a conceptual thing I wanted to do regarding the heartbeat and incorporating the shamanic beats per minute when one is in the Theta Zone, or in a shamanic trance state. I used 220 beats per minute for this shamanic journey, so a subdivision would be 110 and then 55. It incorporates drums and rattles and other tones that initiate this state particular state of consciousness shamans typically utilize in their healing work.
The Shaman's Heart has been my most successful work and has only grown since its inception. I began to do workshops based on The Shaman's Heart theme, and created a self-learning audio series with core exercises for people to use at home. It eventually grew into The Shaman's Heart Program, which incorporates a 4-CD package for groups and workshops to use these sounds for healing purposes.
It really stands out as the synthesis, the theoretical path that encompasses almost all my work: my music and teachings and theoretical understanding of transpersonal and shamanic healing. This is what I teach and how I live my life. That original CD definitely stands out as my most significant work. Steve collaborated on the follow-up to that as well, The Shaman's Heart II, which really takes the original material to a whole new level for journeying to these shamanic states.
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Tales from the Ultra Tribe, The Shaman's Heart II, and the rest of Byron Metcalf's work can be found on his website at: http://www.byronmetcalf.com
For more information about Byron's HoloShamanic Strategies program: http://holoshamanicstrategies.org