Music at Spiritfire

Each fire circle gathering has its own unique aesthetics and musical intentions.  We gather as co-creators of music, in service to (and as an important part of) the greater intentional circle of dancers, chanters, and guardians.  For this reason, it’s important that we enter each circle with some level of shared intent and understanding surrounding how we make music together.

In honor of the desire to create a more accessible and musically rich experience, we offer here some basic ideas behind the music making process at SpiritFire.  We ask anyone planning to participate in making music at the fire to read this information before the festival, and to feel free to participate in the affinity groups and musician’s meetings if you have questions or comments.

For those who are new to SpiritFire, note that these guidelines are only for the fire circle rituals.  There are plenty of opportunities for jams, non-circle instruments, and other expressive forms during the day and early evening, while folks are hooping, fire spinning, and jamming!  Some workshops employ different forms of music, too, so be sure to ask if you have questions.


SpiritFire’s Musical Process

Most of what is below has been implicitly understood as part of the SFF fire circle ritual since its beginning.  By making these aesthetics explicit, even those coming for the first time can feel comfortable and empowered to engage fully in the music-making process each night.

Admittedly, this is a lot of information.  However, the purpose is not to have you “memorize” these things, but rather to give you a faster road into feeling at home when you drive up the mountain.  Everything will come together as you experience the circles; the best way to learn is to be there and participate!


Physical Setup

  • Please use only the provided benches when sitting and playing an instrument.  If you have a particular physical issue and need a special chair, a staff person will gladly help you find a spot for it within the musician’s area.
  • Rattles, chanting, and clapping are welcome and encouraged around the entire perimeter of the circle!  However, drums or other “ensemble” instruments are requested to remain in the musician’s area.  There is room for drummers who prefer to stand at both sides of the benches.
  • If you have a dundun set or other musical instruments that are “stationary” and require permanent space behind the benches, contact one of the staff to help you find a place for it.  Because dunduns are large and not easily moveable, the SpiritFire agreement is that a dundun set is available to anyone who knows how to play it properly.  If you don’t want others to use your set when you are not playing it, then please leave it at home.  (If we have too many sets to reasonably fit into the circle, we’ll alternate between sets each night.)
  • The center area in front of the drummers is called the Gratitude Zone, and it is a place meant for dancers to enter and directly interact with the musicians for a moment before continuing their path around the fire.  We ask musicians to play only while seated unless standing briefly to interact with the dancers.
  • The walkabout path, which circles the entire fire circle area, is a meditative ritual path that goes behind the musicians area, so please leave that pathway clear for those making larger orbits around the fire.
  • Before playing an instrument that does not belong to you, ask permission.  If covered, in a case, or stored inside the drum storage tent, the indication is that the owner does not wish the instrument to be played.  If a drum is unattended in the musician’s area, it is open to be played.
  • Please do NOT store your personal percussion in the musician’s area.
  • The OneDrum is the large mounted drum behind the musician’s area.  It is only played occasionally and is meant solely to keep the “ONE” of the rhythm; please play it with discretion and awareness.


Musical Participation

We ask that those providing music in the drummer’s area stay in a place of awakeness, awareness, and connection.  We, as musicians, support others at the circle to go into trance and ecstatic/meditative/internal states.   If you feel yourself losing connection with the other musicians, we encourage you to put down your instrument and explore your experience in the dance track and the “Zone of the Unseen Ones.”

The SpiritFire circle is a place of diverse musical offerings.  There are times of voices raised in harmonies, toning, and poetry.  There are times of silence, stretched out and open to the sounds of local wildlife; and there are times with beautiful rhythms.

Instrumentally, the SpiritFire circle is percussive, aligned mainly (although not solely) with an aesthetic of creating rhythmic “melodies” through the different tones and patterns of our drums, rattles, bells, etc.  Some kinds of drone instruments are also used – didgeridoos, for instance, as well as sacred sounds, or instruments like singing bowls.

  • If you have an instrument that does not fit these descriptions and want to know if it will work within the fire circle at SFF, please ask a staff member.
  • Many people have asked about flutes or other woodwinds – these are considered a special offering and we ask those with flutes or any other melodic instruments to refrain from playing them unless they’ve arranged an offering with the facilitators of that evening’s fire.
  • Players of specific musical textures may be invited to bring a specific offering as part of the night’s fire circle intention; this is only done occasionally, and must be approved by that evening’s facilitators.
  • Those who wish to offer a special musical contribution should first check in with the ritual facilitators for that evening’s fire.  The facilitators have the final say on whether or not an offering will work for that evening’s intentions, and if so, when.  Melodic/special offerings are meant to be brief, as a specific statement or transitional moment; they should done conscientiously and in the spirit of the greater needs of the circle.  They should not be offered with the assumption that the rest of the circle must stop and listen, and they should leave room for participation by all. These offerings are not a “spotlight” for someone to perform – it is meant to enhance and contribute to the sense of sacred beauty that is there, and to support the intent of that night’s focus.
  • Drum sets, rototoms, and other kinds of plastic or “band” style drums tend to overpower the ensemble, and we kindly ask you to refrain from bringing them to the fire.
  • Allow space between each musical moment to settle fully before beginning a new offering.  It is when silences become almost uncomfortable that truly inspired offerings bloom.  Additionally, those who feel less confident will be empowered to offer something if this extra space is given.
  • Please consciously allow space for diverse offerings to happen for the entire circle.  No one is responsible for “driving” the energy.


Support of Chanting

Chanting can always be supported and made stronger by:

  • singing along to help build parts and solidity, and
  • refraining from playing drums until the chant has had time to build and strengthen.  One way to help this is to allow multiple repetitions of a song or chant before coming in with an instrument.

At SpiritFire, we refrain from using popular music, theater songs, commercial songs, etc. at the circle.  We encourage participatory fire circle chants, mantras, shouts, toning, and your original heartsongs!

We also ask that players take caution in introducing the same rhythmic ideas to every chant – for example, the “heartbeat rhythm” – as it constrains others from introducing new and creative musical ideas.  Using the same rhythm for each chant keeps our musical expression at its lowest common denominator.  If you have already introduced a rhythm to accompany a chant, consider taking a breath, and allow someone else to introduce a new idea.

Sometimes chants do not need drums to accompany them at all.  There will be moments that percussion is not needed for vocal pieces that are feeling stronger and that have harmonies, clapping, etc. happening.

When playing along with a chant or song, please keep the volume at a level that allows the voices to be heard without straining.  Singers can’t overpower instruments, and as instrumentalists we can help singers keep their voices healthy by not making them force their voices.

And a note to chanters: While it is the drummer’s responsibility to be attuned to you, the reverse is also true!  If you begin a chant, listen for what pulse might be there already, and if percussionists begin to support the chant, sing with them!


Diversity of Musical Offerings

We encourage diversity in musical offerings.  We ask all musicians, especially those with more commonly played instruments like djembes and dunduns, to allow space (both temporal and physical) for varying types of music to be played. In particular …

  • After the music has returned to silence, we encourage musicians to think about how long they have been sitting at the bench/behind the dundun – if you’ve been there a while, taking a break from the benches to orbit the fire, rattle at the perimeter, offer service through offering water/food, gate smudging, or other guardianship can not only help the container stay strong, but it gives others the space to sit and play their instruments.
  • If congas, dumbeks, frame drums, or other like instruments are playing, we ask musicians to refrain from using djembes or dunduns within that ensemble until that ensemble has had a chance to play for an extended groove and fully explore their own sound.  Feel free to grab a similar instrument and participate that way!
  • Instruments are removed from the bench area when not being used – if you leave yours and don’t see it when you return, and nobody else is playing it, check the drum tent. Everyone is empowered to carefully and respectfully move instruments that have been left behind out of the musician’s area, so long as the instruments are placed with care in the drum tent.
  • Actively invite and encourage others to come in and take a turn playing — eye contact and a smile go a long way to making less confident players feel welcome and safe!


Additional Aesthetics

SpiritFire encourages long-playing rhythms, which help dancers stay in the groove.  If a player feels like disengaging from a particular musical moment or is unsatisfied on a personal level, they are invited to step out into the dance track, or take a break for a bit until the music returns to a place that calls them.

Solos on hand drums: when played with consciousness and skill, these can ignite and inspire the musicians, and send dancers into ecstasy.  Please, share time and space with each other:

  • One solo at a time! Look around to make sure you aren’t interrupting someone else who is already playing a unique part.
  • If you solo, keep eye contact with the other drummers, and with the dancers.
  • Share musical space by allowing others to try.
  • Solo only if you have an understanding of technique on your instrument and appropriate timing, or if there are specific breaks that allow everyone to take a turn with a phrase.

We ask that grooves be allowed to come to a natural end, without calling breaks, unless a break is specifically asked for in context of a ritual or offering, or is appropriate in context of the moment.

Finally, we encourage and empower drummers to:

  • Listen before you begin playing.  Try singing your part first!
  • Play in unison with others on the benches next to you.
  • Play fewer notes (refrain from filling in all the space).
  • Be comfortable with basic hand drumming technique (bass, tone, slap) – if newer to drumming, attending the intro to drumming workshops is the easy way to learn this!
  • Have your drums tuned before the fire circle begins.
  • Any drummer should feel comfortable asking another player for help in finding a rhythm or idea to play.
  • Play so that all musical voices can be heard (full volume is not always needed!) – if inside the pavilion during a rainy night, it hurts people’s ears to play too loud, so please play with awareness and restraint.
  • Communicate with each other kindly and with compassion, remembering that we are working together.  In turn, please listen to others in the same vein of openness.