Last night I went to my first drum circle – a long time coming. A new friend of mine who goes by the name of Benspaceranger (sometimes Chameleon) invited me. Ben is one of the current board members of the Starwood Festival in Pomeroy, Ohio (Link here: http://www.starwoodfestival.com) which is a seven day celebration of diversity, alternatives in lifestyle, spirituality, belief systems, and is distinguished by its warm and welcoming community spirit. The oldest of its kind. More on that in a later post. My fiance and I had a lively jam session at our house a week earlier and so we were primed and ready to beat some bongos.
In my mind a drum circle was one of two things: tribal and primitive people dancing around the fire naked in the dead of night and howling at the moon OR dirty hippies dancing around each other in a circle in their bandannas and drug rugs, smelling like patchouli while high as kites. So which was my experience? Almost certainly it was the latter, but my experience was not what I expected. It was better. Way better.
We came to the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, a music venue located in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. It was founded by Cindy Barber and Mark Leddy and built in the 1950s. Every month a drum circle event is held in their main stage arena. Picture hundreds of sweaty, free-spirited musicians, new-agers, and Seekers huddled around a tight circle making beats on every style of drum imaginable – at the same time! How can this even sound good? Would it not be a cacophony of abrasive banging and crashing? Shockingly, it sounded out-of-this-world!
Here is how it works. The larger, deeper drums tend to take the lead and initiate a rhythm while the rest follow and riff off it. Snares and bongos will build from this. Sometimes electric guitar, saxophone, or flute will come in. We brought a shaker. Organically there becomes form among the chaos. Never is a word uttered, and yet communication is ever-present through a network of quick, intuitive decisions made by the musicians (and dancers). Akin to the great experimental jazz musicians of the 60’s, the music ebbed and flowed, the musicians trusted each other, adaptations were made on the fly when members left or new members were added. Occasionally a players hand would freeze up and I would watch as they stopped and the rest of the “band” adjusted to the absence of their contribution. You would see the look of friendly competition in the eyes of passionate drummers who wanted to be the one to start up a new direction. Heck, as I stood there with my stupid egg shaker I felt the overwhelming need to jump in and show everyone the next sweet beat.
Let us move onto the dancers who I will call the ‘Collective Conductors.’ These movers and shakers get together in the circle around an alter of LED candle lights and incents and jive formlessly as though possessed. The dancers tended to amplify particular movements of their bodies with the rhythms they most enjoy (and those they did not enjoy would die out). A sort of musical-Darwinism. Drummers took note of this on some level (apparently) and would casually reconfigure their noise to recapture the attention of the dancers. Fascinating to see what influence the Collective Conductors have over the musicians using nothing more than their bodies. Again, no words are ever uttered. In a similar way, the drummers are affecting the dancers, clearly. This give and take between all parties proves something of the future of man, I think. We may realize that our ancestors were onto something with their hive-mind mentality, or that the internet is our best hope for realizing how group-think is an effective and evolutionary advanced means of communication and collaboration.
The drum is the grand communicator, the great equalizer, the glue binding all human beings to each other. It is perhaps one of the most useful and effective tools ever conceived of. Luckily my fiance and I got a chance to slam on a timpani drum sitting there, open and alone, begging to be played. Indeed we were the masters for a moment. We dominated the beat and others followed. There was a great responsibility standing behind this rawhide behemoth, however; one I did not expect. You dont want to be the person ruining a good thing so you have to know when to contribute and when to stay silent. Thats part of any group improv musical jam session. Silence is vital, and listening is crucial. But man, what a rush being the king for a moment banging our souls out through what felt like the heart of every man and woman in the arena.
Depending on where you stood in the arena the soundscape would be different. If you stood in the middle you would get a nice balance of rhythm and harmony. If you stood in the corner you might only hear the saxophone blaring and keeping steady with an army of tambourines behind it. If you stand in the entrance way before coming in you will think ceiling is caving in or that a herd of elephants are stampeding your way. In the end, its all sound and all sound has the potential of being music. The way hundreds of people came together to form one single animal, one beast is nothing short of amazing. It is a testament to who were are as human beings, how similar we are, the potential we have at any moment to band together and accomplish greatness together. Last night, if you were to keep the positivism, passion and creativity but remove the drums you would have had a utopia.
There must have been a tear in the fabric of reality because I was seeing the inner workings of creativity (which is always flowing and always at play) churning and pumping through the arena. Formless. Chaotic. Free. Doing what it always does when we arent paying attention.