Wednesday, October 12, 2016

My First Drum Circle Experience

I encountered my first drum circle in the summer of 1977 at Birch State Park in Fort Lauderdale, FL. I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to be hooked on it right then for life. I had no idea that first drum circle I ran into would change my life so greatly and in so many different ways, and that I could bring so much joy to so many people and even enrich their lives through hand drumming.

So there I was one day, slowly driving down this long one way trail of the park, just wanting to get away from it all, and a little time and space away from the routine of city life. Just see some trees, the water, and nature. To give myself a little break from the concrete and chaos of the city life for a little while.

Anyway, in this park, there were these little picnic clearings about every 1/4 mile or so along the trail surrounded by all this lush green tropical foliage. It was relaxing to take a break there, a place for me to get away from it all for a little while. At one of these clearings, I slowed and saw this circle of about 20 people all sitting around playing these hand drums together. Mostly hand drums, Congas, Bongos, and all kinds of other percussion instruments. I turned down my car radio when I heard it, and listened a little. Man, it was cool. The sound of all the drumming was so captivating, that I pulled over and kind of tentatively wandered over there. I couldn‘t help it. I just smiled and listened, enjoying the Samba rhythm they were playing. It had all these different layers, textures, and dimensions. And it was only hand drums, and it sounded so good. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. It wasn’t like playing in a band is like, they were all improvising, having a good time, playing what they were feeling, and letting it go wherever it took them.

While I had played in the high school marching band drum line, and various night club bands, it was nothing like this. It was drawing me in closer and closer, the drum beat almost calling to me. They were having what looked like a private picnic, so I didn’t want to interrupt them. I didn’t know who they were, they all looked to be of Latin decent to me. As it turned out they were all Puerto Rican, and only spoke a few bits and pieces of English. And I spoke no Spanish at all.

There were kids, adults, elders, males, and females. All of them were playing together and having a great time. I was standing there trying to figure out some kind of a polite way to ask if I could join in. But before I could, the rhythm ended, and they all applauded each other. It was obvious they weren’t performing for anyone, just for themselves. How cool is this, I thought. They motioned for me to come on over with gestures, and indicated that I could join in if I wanted to.

Boy, did I! I hopped on some Congas and proceeded to hang out and jam with them for hours, playing mostly Latin rhythms. They welcomed me, invited me to break bread with them, and treated me like family, and I really appreciated it. That meant a lot to me. Even though we spoke different languages, and couldn’t really verbally understand each other, we were able to communicate through the music. The language barrier didn’t seem to matter. That day gave me a whole new perspective on life, and a new found respect for different cultures I knew nothing about. It showed me for the first time, how to bridge the cultural gap. It was only after I had some time home later that night to reflect on all this. It was an epiphany of sorts.

I usually drove through there on the weekends, but I never did see that particular group again, they affected me profoundly in so many ways. I think they were just there on vacation, but they were the ones who started me on my drum circle path. Ever since then I would seek out and attend drum circles whenever I could - wherever I ended up living. In an instant I had become a drum circle lover. Most of the drum circles back in those days were held on weekends, outdoors in parks and on the beaches. They were all mostly freestyle drum circles with no leader, facilitator, or core group. It was just an organic bunch of people hanging out and playing. Whoever wanted to start out the next rhythm would do so, and if it took off, away it went.

Fast forward to the present in 2016, a lot of people think a drum circle is just a bunch of banging noise with no real discernible beat to it. Well, guess what? Sometimes that’s exactly what it is. A lot of banging noise. Especially at outdoor open community drum circles. Sometimes there is no musicality present at all. It feels better if it sounds good. But at that very same place, the next week, it can be a group made up of mostly the same people, but this time it is some quality music with real performance level musicianship.

The kind of musical pieces like I described earlier, that simply captivate you and draw you into it. A drum circle where the people are all listening to each other, taking turns leading, even passing it around so everyone gets a chance to start out a rhythm if they want to. All these people have come together as a group with a real synergy to it. Some of the absolute very best drum circles I have ever been to were just free style drum circles out on the beach. And, some of the crappiest ones also. That’s part of the fun. The unpredictability of it. You don’t know what it will be like until you get there. Will it be magical this week?

Shannon Ratigan