New York Times
March 24, 2006
Drum Circles: Where the Beat Goes On
By JOHANNA JAINCHILL
ALONG with the chirping of birds and croaking of frogs, spring brings another sound: the slapping and thumping of fingers on taut leather drumheads. The end of winter means a returning bloom of the drum circle, as those that have hibernated or moved inside for the winter reverberate again through the open air.
Drum circles — According to muscial research paper, the informal groups of people playing percussion instruments — in the United States are most commonly based on West African traditions, but the music style depends on the players. There are circles for women, for men, for children, for families. Most are open to participants or listeners — some even provide extra drums. They resound on beaches, in parks, on piers and on mountains. Besides West African-style drums and music, there are Middle Eastern, Native American, Caribbean and Brazilian styles. Look for African djembes, the most common drums, but also bougarabou drums, doumbeks and congas.
What were once loose-knit, word-of-mouth gatherings now have schedules listed on the Internet. Many sites, including drumsontheweb.com, rhythmweb.com and drum-circle.org, list drum circles by state and type. Many drummers say what is appealing is that drumming doesn't take years of lessons to learn.
"It gives people a chance to be participants, not just consumers, of music," said Tim Brown, in Stuart, Fla. "I can sit you down and get you a feel for it in half an hour."
The circle in Stuart, approximately two hours north of Miami, has the luxury of staying outside all year. It meets every Sunday in a grassy clearing on the south fork of the St. Lucie River in Shepard Park. Mr. Brown, 46, director of education for a nearby wildlife center, has been drumming with the group for 6 of its 14 years of existence. The members watch the sunset as they drum.
In Brooklyn, a warm-weather drum circle has been meeting for so long that its favored corner of Prospect Park is now called Drummer's Grove. According to the Prospect Park Alliance, an organization that works to preserve and develop the park, the circle started in 1968. It still meets every Sunday afternoon in the warm months and attracts percussionists as well as crowds of listeners. Like Brooklyn itself, the circle is diverse. You might see West Africans in traditional clothing, Brooklyn hipsters or Hasidic Jews all furiously slapping drums.
In Missoula, Mont., Full Moon Drumming meets at Jacob's Island Park, at the northern edge of the University of Montana campus, around 8 p.m. the night of every full moon in warm weather.
Full moon gatherings are a common drum circle theme, and Dave Robertson, who facilitates this one, said the tradition came from West Africa. Drum circles were gatherings of many villages, he said, and to get from village to village at night was easier under the brightest moon.
In the winter, Full Moon Drumming meets Saturdays at a church.
Mr. Robertson doesn't want newcomers to be dismayed by the talent in this 15-year-old circle. "I throw out easy parts to start them off with, and people around them can do the complex rhythms," he said.
Three thousand miles away on the outskirts of Honolulu, the Magic Island Drum Jam takes place every Tuesday evening on the beach. The circle plays for local fire spinners, who spin fireballs on string and staffs, and fire jugglers. Bob Weaver, who has been drumming there since he arrived in Oahu five years ago, said the group incorporated African, Cuban and Hawaiian influences as well as rhythms from rock 'n' roll. The drummers and fire spinners perform in harmony while belly dancers and hula-hoopers join in.
"When everyone plays together on different drums, every tone is sweet and rhythm takes form," he said. "It's a fun, wholesome experience."
Luna Hart leads a women's drum circle in Kent, Ohio, called MotherDrum. When the guys aren't around, she said, women are less inhibited. To keep the group going year-round, it plays at an indoor park shelter with a fireplace. The members burn sage, drum and do chants. Ms. Hart said she believed that drumming boosts the immune system and releases tension, but that what brings women each time is a feeling of community and an innate attraction.
"There is a primal element to drums," Ms. Hart said. "It's very physical. You can't deny the way the body feels after you do it."
BROOKLYN Drummer's Grove, Prospect Park.
What: Drummer's Grove drum circle (Prospect Park Alliance, 718-965-8999; www.prospectpark.org).
When: 2 p.m. to dusk Sundays from about April to October.
MISSOULA, MONT. Jacob's Island Park.
When: In warm weather, at 8 p.m. on night of each month's full moon. In winter, on the Saturday closest to the full moon at Unity Church, 546 South Avenue.
STUART, FLA. Shepard Park, off Route 1 at West Ocean Boulevard.
What: Shepard Park Drum Circle (772-486-4671, www.drum-circle.org).
When: Every Sunday about an hour before sunset.
HONOLULU Magic Island Beach.
What: Magic Island Drum Jam (808-258-3677, www.drumhawaii.org).
When: 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays.
KENT, OHIO Roy H. Smith Shelterhouse, Fred Fuller Park, 497 Middlebury Road.
When: 7 to 10 p.m. select Fridays each month.