A while ago I wrote about joining a drum circle. It’s now been 5 months. Let me tell you a little about how it works. Basically, we meet every Friday at 7pm at Edgewater Presbyterian church. We meet in a big room that has a piano in it and old books nobody probably reads. We turn off all the lights and light candles. Some of the drummers have rainbow LED lights strapped to their wooden drums. The first time I went, it was at the recommendation of my friend M, who is in AA. When I got to the church, there was an AA meeting happening right at 7. I thought he tricked me into going to a meeting, but he wasn’t- the drum circle and AA meeting start at the same time, down the hall from each other.
The heart of the drum circle are two senior African American women, Indy and Rose. Indy is fierce; she plays the bongos and tightens the skins as hard as she can. Rose is the free spirit of the group and smokes a cigarette about a third into the night every week. I have become the most consistent member outside of Indy and Rose, and I think from the outside, we make an odd couple. Often I’ll walk home with them after drum circle (Indy and I live in the same building, Rose lives across the street). I carry my djembe in a duffel bag, but they carry all their drums- and stands- in those carts with wheels older people use to get groceries in the city and homeless people sometimes use to hold all their stuff. The only other consistent member is Erik, a polish immigrant, self-identified hermit and phenomenal drummer. He’s the kind of person who makes the effort to make Indy and Rose valentine cards, or text me to let me know whether or not he’ll be there on Friday. Once I asked him what he does at home. He said he thinks. I ask him if he writes any of it down. He says no, just thinks.
The actually playing goes like this. One of us will start hitting a beat. Somebody else will pick it up. Then other people join in. Soon the group is in sync, and together we change speed, volume, and rhythm for about 3-10 minutes before we all stop. Afterward, if it’s a good one, we’ll shout. Sometimes we’ll shout while playing. While it’s not an AA meeting, there is a spiritual dimension. Indy will often talk about how we play to get the stress and fear out of our lives, and how “the devil has no business being up in here”. Usually I go home with a beat playing over and over in my head. On Saturday mornings my hands are bruised, although they’re getting tougher.
Two weeks ago, after a particularly good jam, Indy walked over to me and handed me a plastic LED chord. She told me I was officially in the group. I didn’t even know I wasn’t! I attached the lights to my drum, officially joining the rest of the group in psychedelia. I could tell that both Indy and Rose appreciate having me around. In the past, a lot of the people in the drum circle were sketchy or rude, they tell me. My rapport with them reminds me a lot of my interactions in southern Illinois with the senior Native Americans I hung out with. I’m a breath of fresh air; they keep me in check; I feel mildly guilty and cautious about being white and privileged.
Also two weeks ago, Rose announced (at least to me) that she’d be going into surgery for a triple bypass. Or just a bypass. I don’t remember, nor do I know the difference. She said she’ll be gone from drum circle for at least five weeks. Rose kept saying things like, “if I die you guys will feel me playing through your hands”. Indy yelled at her to stop talking like that. My attitude toward Rose changed when I saw her mortality on her face. For weeks she’s been inviting me to her studio to record something together, and I’ve ignored her. Now that she’s so vulnerable, I’m making a point of going into the studio this Monday. Her surgery’s the tenth.
Once it’s a little warmer, we start drumming outdoors on Hollywood beach. A lot more people start coming, I hear. While the weather will be great, I’m a bit apprehensive. I’ve liked meeting all winter in this church living room. Sometimes, people poke their head in the doors, wondering where all the great sound is coming from, and are baffled and pleased to look at us. In the summer, I’m worried people are going to be smoking weed and drinking, and I’ll get drowned out by the group. In the mean time, when Rose stops coming to the group, it will be the first time I’ve seen Indy without her.