Sunday, December 7, 2014

Once a Drummer …

A long, long, long time ago I was a drummer; High School Band, Orchestra, Marching Band, a stint in a Drum and Baton parade group, and various garage bands of wanna-be rock-n-rollers. Back then the trap set of a drummer's dream was a Mother of Pearl single base Ludwig set with two mounted tom-toms, two floor toms, snare, and at least 3 Zildjian cymbals in addition to the Hi-hat. Mine was a no-name wood set that sometimes elicited rude comments from the occasional lead guitar player of other groups, at least one of which paid for his opinion with a split lip and a black eye. That particular confrontation led to a kind of free-for-all between the two groups. Not only were mine the better musicians, we were better in a brawl as well.

If I had known then what I know now, that set would have been disassembled, each drum wet sanded and refinished – inside and out - with at least 10 coats hand rubbed clear. Then each would have been fitted with the finest Aquarian head and tuned to perfection. Those natural wood shells would have thundered with a clean voice that needed no name. Alas, such insights were far beyond the teenaged me. Soon after the sky caught my attention and the world of chasing the perfect rhythm was traded for a lifetime of chasing clouds. Oh, there was always a pair of drumsticks in our home somewhere. In fact there is a pair on Kintala even now, along with a practice skin that sounds like someone is banging on a soup can. But it had been near 40 years since the last time I pounded out a riff with another person.

Until tonight.

It seems that Coconut Grove has a kind of underground drum circle that meets every full moon. (Really, full moon? Some kind of Esbat pagan rite in Coconut Grove maybe?) Such information came via Friend Katrina of s/v Happy Dance. I didn't actually know what a “drum circle” was, figuring that it was simply a group of people playing together. Ex-drummer that I am, I like listening to others play. It turns out that isn't what is meant by “drum circle”. There is a core group that does play together, but anyone wandering by can pick up one of the spare drums the group provides and join in. So what the hell? I picked up a spare drum and joined in.

It was as disorganized and seemingly hopeless an attempt at a group effort as it sounds … at first. I sat and tried to pick out a workable riff from the clash of noise, not sure how this was going to work out. Slowly, out of the din, floated the low rumble of a base line. The better players picked up on it and started fitting their own beats to match. Soon the novices got drawn in as well, following along and supporting the base notes of the self-assembling riff. Some of the better players started improvising, adding bits of breaking curls to the underlying waves of sound. It was basic, a bit crude, and magic, all at the same time. There was something primordial in it, a human rhythm as old as the first heartbeat. A flute joined in, adding a streak of high pitched light to the thunder. A dancer (clearly a regular with the group and certainly looking the part of a Pagan celebration) took to the center of the circle. The riffs would build, morph, then fall away with some kind of natural timing. A few minutes later a new one would start to grow, and the magic would work its way among us once again. This went on for nearly two hours. Never before have I experienced anything quite like it.

I don't know these people at all, will probably never see them again. There were a few middle aged white guys, women, minorities, a few dreadlocks, and a couple of kids. Yet, without practice or any kind of overt guidance, we found some common ground, some shared knowledge. Our efforts blended together and we filled the night with the sound of human joy. If one sent the music back 100,000 years in time, our ancestors would have known exactly what was going on and could have easily joined in the celebration.

We are all civilized now of course. Refined. As well as divided and angry and violent. It seems like we have lost the ability to find any common ground. Everyone is an enemy. Everyone is a threat. But it doesn't always have to be that way. A group of strangers, making music that was as basic and ancient as the full moon itself, defied that current state of affairs.

It is why we came this way, living lighter, simpler, closer to the natural rhythms of the world. The weather rules our life out here. Tides, waves and wind dictate what we do and how we do it. It is, in its own way, an ancient kind of living reflected in an equally ancient ritual. Deep inside we are all children of distant drummers offering human made thunder to dance with the full moon. It wouldn't hurt us to remember that more often.


Matt Mc. said...


Michael said...

Cool... would have loved to have been there.

Hugo Alfredo said...

Deb y Tim, encontré su blog hace un tiempo y como me pareció tan interesante comencé a leerlo desde el principio.
En esta entrada me pareció oportuno hacer el primer comentario ya que toca un tema que es coincidente con las tradiciones de mi país (Uruguay - Sud América)
Por si les resulta interesante les dejo un link a un video explicativo de lo que es una cuerda de tambores de CANDOMBE.
Disculpen que mi ingles es muy pobre y por lo tanto les escribo en español.


Deb and Tim, I found your blog a while ago and found it as interesting as I started reading from the beginning.
In this post I found it appropriate to make the first comment since touching a topic that is consistent with the traditions of my country (Uruguay - South America)
If they find it interesting I leave a link to a video explaining what a rope drums CANDOMBE.
Excuse my English is very poor and therefore I write in Spanish.

Deb said...


Este video fue muy interesante. Ahora quiero visitar su país!