This past December I left my drum studio and home in Washington State to soak in the vitamin D sunshine of the San Francisco Bay Area. The good news is that I and other percussion compatriots (or in the vernacular, rhythm freaks) have planted rich deposits of drumming, dance and rhythmic practices all over the Northern California landscape. Almost everywhere I went in San Francisco, the East Bay, Marin and Sonoma, the South Bay, and down Highway 1 to Santa Cruz, there are rhythm teachers, drum circles, TaKeTiNa rhythm circles, drum classes and dance, dance, dance everywhere.
I also had the great fortune of dropping into some of more wild and crazy drum jams in the Bay.
First place to go for a dynamic and eclectic drum gathering is found at the BART station on Ashby in Berkeley. It occurs at the same place as the weekend Berkeley Flea Market . At the flea market, while you are buying incense, or drums from Africa, Tibetan jewelry or fashion knock-offs, or cheap socks from China, you can hear the tattoo of the drums wherever you walk, delivering the experience of being in a foreign place, the true village market.
As you get closer to the music, the sweet aroma of herb is everywhere, and the drums are playing. Now here is the greatest thing about this melange of music and community: it is totally random. Sometimes professional musicians from various ethnic lineages show up and we are playing the congas and rhythms of Cuba and the Caribbean. Other times it is the athletic and competitive djembe rhythms of Senegal, Mali, and Guinea. And sometimes it is just a bunch of us who want to play… doesn’t matter the ethnic tradition. We play a nice groove that goes with whatever flavor is in the air, and then– yes, you are off and running.
In between the possibility and actual moments of groove, the random comes through the the circle and adds flavor. Women or men who look old and witchy go into the center and dance. Their movements–mythical and mystical–change the intent and direction of the music, as if a shaman has walked in and is telling a story through that person in baggy clothes with ragged sneakers and few teeth. Glancing at you, glaring at you– it’s the same. What we don’t want to encounter is right in front of us, and we are drumming for it. The next dancer is a beautiful young woman with finger cymbals and it is the same, even though it appears very different. And the hip-hopper, break dancing fool with his hat on backwards and his bling hanging out. Or someone having a conversation with someone in front of them that you and I can’t see, but who exists in their universe.
Like I said, random.
It gets more delightful and ridiculous after you have been coming to the BART for years. Then you are not afraid of the word: ‘diversity’. You are not afraid of the projections that someone might have about you, and you are comfortable with your own projections. You are part of the diverse, a full spectrum of energies, whirling within the circle.
Some drummers show up with attitude. Attitude can be about reacting to the way others play. Many times the acoustics in the circle are difficult. It is hard to hear across the circle, especially if you or someone close by is wailing away on a djembe. If you get the stink eye from someone, you check your timing. But let’s say, you are spot on… then the stink eye is pure attitude.
Attitude can be about gender, race, age. “What are you doing here, white bitch?” You’ve got to be tough, and smile right in the face of attitude-iness. “Hi, how are you? Isn’t it a great day? So much fun playing together!” says my smile. You have a problem with that? Not my problem.
Others give you the nod or the fist bump. Life is good when you can look at each other with ease, and find some kind of simple thing to play together. It’s all about finding that groove.
There is a guy, a short guy, an older black gentleman, who holds the circle. His name is Spirit. Or I think it is. He plays okay but sits out when the music doesn’t please his palate. He is the circle elder and it is good to give him a little respect when you show up. He is at that BART station every week. For years and years.
When I showed up in the circle this winter, I felt I was coming home. There were the familiar faces, the tape on the fingers, the self-made drum stands. New additions: a loud guy on timbales (with attitude) and several young women (finally) with small drums. I look around the circle for places I can sit, and decide who I want to sit next to. Sometimes you have to move around a couple to times before you find the right musical fit. But once I find my place, it is always about listening. Listening for the time, the tempo, the feel, listening for what can be added to the mix to support or to ground the music.
Sometimes the music is so fast, I am holding on by my fingernails, breathing in those deep yogic breaths that come from playing on the edge of my capacity. There is sweat and soreness. I thank god for technique, so all I have to suffer is soreness in my shoulders and the adductor muscles on the inside of my thighs from gripping the drum. And hot hands. It is rare that I get to play that way in Sequim, WA, where I reside. But the joy I feel when its hot and heavy is what got me hooked on drumming in the first place.
The last weekend that I was in Berkeley, I went down to the BART station on Saturday AND Sunday. I had a new head on my djembe and I was ready to go. Saturday was great. Good community to play with, great grooves and I was in the right group. I soloed with another guy, trading bits of drum conversation back and forth. I was proud of myself, for all that I have endured to get to the place where I could solo– that I had something to say, and a way to say it.
The next day, West African guys in the house. That means speed, athleticism, and ethnic rhythms that have a funky swing to them. I can play some of the rhythms, but they are not my favorite feel, and I am not that studied in it. So I got a chance to watch my monkey mind, trying to find some connection to the music, the players without judging myself. With a group of ethnic traditionalists that are good at what they all know, I easily feel excluded. But the BART Berkeley jam is that you play anything that you want, so on top of the rhythm Kuku you can play anything in 4/4 time. So, Sunday kicked my ass. I appreciated it! I was feeling all “you-know-I-got-it” one day and brought back to reality on the second! Good to know my limits, and still contribute simple rhythms in the middle of all that complexity and speed. Good to have my ego bubble burst in experiencing the vastness of this path, and my being a small contributor to it.
It reminded me that I am a part of the legacy of teachers that began for me with Babatunde Olatunji. When I was in early part of my studies, I traveled to Oakland and Santa Cruz, the nearby meccas of well-established drum communities. I had the fortune to have had some remarkable teachers… not always the nicest people, but good teachers. I journeyed to Mother Africa to become more steeped in the music and the life.
I have had the tenacity, stubbornness, and passion to deal with the sexism, the racism, the ageism, and the political crap that unfortunately shows up in the world of drumming. And I am still here, loving the drum, loving teaching, and thankful for my connection to this path. And I would love to share it with you!