Artbeat looks to drum up support for therapeutic music program

A therapeutic drumming circle that people living with mental illness say has helped them heal has ended with its funding, but the drummers hope the beat goes on. 

'I feel a release. I feel good.' Drumming group helps people with mental illness

The drumming circle at Artbeat Studio, led by Carlos Barrios, brings healing, inspiration and community to people in Winnipeg Centre. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

The first year of a therapeutic drumming circle that participants living with with mental illness say has helped them heal has ended with its funding, but the drummers hope the beat goes on. 

Artbeat studio provides a creative space and resources to empower all levels of artists with mental illness in Winnipeg. For the past year, the drumming circle has run out of its space at 444 Kennedy Street.

"It's been really freeing for me," said Cindy K, who volunteers with the drum program and lives with mental health challenges. She plays the maracas.

"There is so much encouragement to enter even in the smallest amount. Just to explore and just to let go of the labels, the diagnosis." 

Every Friday the group, which is mainly for people living in Central Winnipeg but open to the community, met for an hour. Its funds come from a grant from the WRHA and a small project grant from the province, both of which total $300, and go towards other resources as well.

Artbeat has re-applied for the grants in hopes the program can continue in the fall.
Alex Asamoah helps lead the drumming circle. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

"The idea is that I use rhythms and drums for healing and inspiration," said Carlos 'Cabu' Barrios, who leads the drum circle on alternating Fridays with Alex Asamoah. 

The Venezuelan-born musician believes music has the power to heal and transform, as it takes people out of living in the past or future and brings them into the present and a community.

"Feeling the energy that comes from the person, the other person, the person in front of you, and yourself, that is something that is amazing when you feel it. When you are right there, thinking right now, in the moment. With a beat," said Barrios, shaking a maraca.

When participants arrive, they choose their instrument from congo drums, hand drums, bongos, maracas and egg shakers. After a brief warm-up where the sound of water drops are replicated in percussion form, Barrios starts a lively beat on a sound system and encourages people to cry out like their favourite animal. His beat on the drum reaches a crescendo and then he brings it down again, and ask the players to feel the energy of the room.

"You feel a release, kind of feel refreshed. Everyone's up, everyone's full of positive energy. Everyone's just enjoying that rhythm of themselves with the drum, not anyone else," said Celina Clements. 

She said, for her, it's about observing the circle.
Participants can play whatever percussion instrument they choose at Artbeat's drumming circle which were held on Fridays. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

"I'm enjoying them. I'm enjoying watching, listening, we're as a unit."

Interspersed within the drumming sessions are Barrios' vibrant lectures about how the power of music and recreation inspires and 're-creates' the soul. Even if you don't have rhythm, you have a beat, he reminds the group of fifteen.

"A heartbeat!" he cries, pounding his chest before leading everyone into a colourful rendition of "Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot."

"I think it's very nutritious for the soul, very fun," said David Giasson. "Any kind of rhythm in your body or anywhere can make the spirit grow big."

Artbeat Studio also runs painting, pottery, clay and art classes. The non-profit also relies on public donations to continue its therapeutic programming.
Artbeat's art director Marissa Hoff, left, community coordinator Alayna Friesen, and volunteer Ernie Bart. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

"Being creative is something that is so vulnerable, that's coming out of you," said Marissa Hoff. "That's a beautiful art in itself and some people who just come here just don't identify as an artist. They say, 'I can't paint, I can't draw.'" 

Hoff is Artbeat's program director and says the drumming program has given people a sense of belonging.

"They come here and they learn from others, they see their neighbour, it feeds that energy inside themselves. It kind of plants a seed of creativity. Art's so subjective; it's up to them to breathe life into themselves."

The musicians will bring their beats to the Sakihiwe Festival on Saturday as part of the Central Park Block Party for a community drum circle.

Cindy K said she grew up in a Mennonite family and wasn't around many percussion instruments.

"Not just fitting in, but gradually belonging and getting to know people can be very, very healing, as well," she said. 

She credits Barrios for his engaging style and ability to light the spark in any group. She wants people who might be struggling to know there are places like Artbeat, where people will "get you" and help you find an outlet and safe people to be around.

She said the Canadian Mental Health Association connected her with the drum group but can link people who are struggling with many other places like it. 

"Your whole body is vibrating and you just wanna start, joining in and reflecting that rhythm that is around there."