HYANNIS — Sam Holmstock lives in Cotuit, but he doesn’t mind his once-a-month commute to Provincetown. On the second Sunday evening of each month, Holmstock hosts his WOMR radio show Africa Oye, which features Afropop — music from Africa and the African diaspora, including Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti, that is deep with drum grooves.
When he’s not DJing, he’s drumming. Earlier in his career, Sam was one of the founding members of the Martha’s Vineyard band Entrain, which plays a “funky-world-mam-ska-reggae-rock stew.” Now he plays with Bongo Genesis, which he says is “a Buena Vista Social Club kind of thing.”
Holmstock is also the founder of Drum Strategies for Healing, which brought a drum circle to the Hyannis green on Sept. 10 in recognition of National Suicide Prevention Month. The circle was hosted by Veterans for Peace, an organization whose mission is to increase awareness of the true costs of war — one of which is suicide among those who have served.
Holmstock did not serve in the military himself. But his brother Stephen has, most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. Stephen left the military with a severe case of PTSD. It was concern for his brother, and for older relatives who brought psychic scars home from their service in Vietnam, that inspired Holmstock to refocus his musical career from playing for fun and profit to playing to heal the invisible wounds of war.
The idea of using African styles of drumming to mitigate the effects of trauma took shape after Holmstock was invited to teach drumming to dementia patients at the Atria nursing home in Falmouth. There he observed that the experience of drumming seemed to mitigate patients’ symptoms of dementia, at least for a short time. They enjoyed drumming, and it helped them remember and sing songs they used to know.
After finding some promising research on drumming’s positive effect on people with PTSD, Holmstock started his “Drumming Through Trauma” class for veterans at the Cotuit Center for the Arts.
This writer, also a veteran, joined that Sept. 10 circle on the green in Hyannis. After we hung ribbons to honor the memory of fellow veterans who have died by suicide, Holmstock focused the group on how to produce rhythms on an African drum. In the process, the somber mood of the morning was changed to one approximating peace.
The first thing Holmstock explained was the relationship between the hands and the drum, namely what part of the hand should strike what part of the drum to produce a particular sound. Then he demonstrated, using simple phrases, how to generate rhythms of six or seven beats. We found ourselves chanting “peanut butter sandwich” and striking a different part of the drum with a different part of the hand on every other beat to generate a regular rhythm.
Once one simple rhythm was established, we learned variations with the same number of beats. Half the circle then played the first rhythm while the other half played the second as a counterpoint. It sounded as if the two rhythms were speaking to each other.
Because the rhythms were sustained by the repetition of simple phrases that we could repeat softly under our breaths as we played, it was possible to sustain the drumming for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, long enough to fall into a meditative state.
After we emerged, Holmstock talked about one of the most difficult challenges he encounters when working with veterans.
“I would like to be connected to Wounded Warriors, for example, and other groups established to support younger vets,” he said. But it’s hard to get younger vets involved. “All the post-9/11 guys are reluctant to admit their trauma.”
Most members of Veterans for Peace openly recognize their wounds and speak of the danger of ignoring them. That’s because they have “a certain distance and wisdom born of age,” said Holmstock.
There are others who could benefit from drumming, Holmstock said. In the early spring of 2020, he got a grant to work with incarcerated veterans in Barnstable County, but the pandemic “stopped that effort in its tracks,” he said, when no one was allowed to visit the jails. In June, Holmstock ran a four-week drumming program at Wellfleet Preservation Hall. Sponsored by Helping Our Women, it was open to all; some 10 to 15 drummers joined in each week. He also runs an African Drumming Class on the Hyannis green every summer.
“Drumming,” Holmstock said, “is for folks who are healing.” It does not cure, he said, but it does move people forward.
Sam Holmstock’s band, Bongo Genesis, will be at the Cotuit Center for the Arts on Oct. 7.