Sonoma musician heals with sounds from ancient instruments
When Rene Jenkins blows into his digeridoo, all senses are trained on him. Sounding a deep and resonant timbre, he moves through a group with the silent agility of a wild cat, producing a cadence as soothing as a foghorn. Eyes close, shoulders drop. Minds stop clattering.
At any time he may pick up another ancient instrument - a lilting South American flute, a Tibetan sound bowl, a Conch shell, a Vietnamese jaw harp, rattles and rustling reeds that he waves as if caught up in a slight breeze - and sound it in the direction of first one observer, and then another.
These ancient sounds - trills, bleats, bells, deep droning and high pitched whistles - imitate the voices of nature, like rain, wind, a bird’s wings and animal cries. They are sounds that tug at something primal within the listener, whether it is an emotion or feeling or something more physical, from a beating heart to the pumping of blood to the rhythm of breath.
Jenkins is a musician who inhabits two wildly different musical worlds. For more than 30 years he has been a professional trombonist, playing with jazz, contemporary and big bands as well as the Santa Rosa Symphony’s pops concerts. But within his other musical world, the 51-year-old Sonoman is a one-man orchestra of obscure indigenous instruments, from flutes made of condor bones to ocarinas carved from dinosaur bones, few known beyond the corner of the world from which they came.
He describes what he does as “Sound Healing” or “Vibe Therapy.” Mentored by a range of wise elders, from Kashaya-Pomo storyteller and medicine man Lorin Smith and cross-cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien, to Peruvian Shaman and flute master Tito La Rosa, he uses ancient ancestral instruments to mark passages, awaken or draw out deep emotion or release pent up feelings or pain.
He performs his healing sounds one on one and in groups. On Friday, he will perform a Sound Blessing of ancient music with his partner and fellow healer, Janet Janay Cipriani, at The Unity Center in Santa Rosa.
“Each instrument helps me express the qualities and elements for others to remember what has been forgotten or lost,” he explained. “Each of us has a remembrance of wholeness, or being one with the universe on some level of consciousness, and I believe there is something in the ancient expression that reminds us of a time when were more connected to the natural world. Sometimes the remembrance is a gentle nudge or gesture, like a sweet lullaby. For others it’s more emphatic, akin to a heroic call to arms.”
For more than 20 years Jenkins has been a familiar figure within North Coast healing circles. He was first introduced to the digeridoo by happenstance in 1993 when a friend, who did bodywork for The Grateful Dead, brought over his own digeridoo and asked Jenkins, then working as the wine director for Bartholomew Park Winery, to teach him the kind of circular breathing used by wind instrument players to produce a continuous tone without interruption. It essentially involves breathing in through the nose while simultaneously pushing air out through the mouth using air stored in the cheeks.
Jenkins had figured it out as a small child blowing bubbles in the bathtub and later used it to play the trombone, which he had been playing since the fourth grade. He didn’t anticipate that those first experiments with the strange, Aboriginal wind instrument would open a whole new universe of sound and music. Eventually he found himself working with Smith, a Kashaya elder and healer who performs traditional “Weya” healing ceremonies.
“The word in essence means nurturing, healing energy,” Jenkins said. “It’s moving through us. It’s a medicine that we carry when we’re nurturing and loving and wanting to give healing energy to others.”
The idea of drawing on sound for healing can be found in other cultures as well. Years later, he found himself drawn to Tito La Rosa, a Peruvian flute master, shaman and curandero de sonido, or sound healer.
“He’s considered a national treasure of Peru because he’s been responsible for reconstructing other cultures’ music by playing a lot of instruments recovered from archeolgical digs, the stuff that was left behind after pillagers took the valuable gold and minerals.”
Jenkins had already begun doing some sound healing with his digeridoo, rattles and drums when he saw La Rosa in performance at the Sonoma Community Center during one of his U.S. tours. He felt a calling to visit him in Peru in what was to be the start of his own shamanic journey.
After time spent in the Amazon jungle taking plant medicine with the hope of having a vision to guide him, Jenkins met up with La Rosa and his wife Elba for a healing ceremony at ancient ruins north of Lima. As he was about to leave, La Rosa presented Jenkins with a Condor Bone Flute, that sounds like a high-pitched breathy whistle. Jenkins said the shaman told him he envisioned Jenkins doing the same work.