Working on my book series—I’m in the middle of writing Book 4 of The Manhattan Series—I’ve been thinking a lot about drumming.
Historically, drumming has been at the center of many cultures’ lifestyles for hundreds if not thousands of years. Drums are not just musical instruments but channels to something much deeper: a rhythmic life force. Drumming allows the drummers to interact with a higher power.
The beating drum is sometimes compared to the beating of the human heart, the first sound or feeling we experience in the womb. This beat or pulse is also thought to be the heartbeat of Mother Earth by Native Americans. Which makes drumming a type of spiritual communion. And I relate to this high-concept of drumming in a personal way.
I remember when I first moved to Los Angeles from Texas in the mid-1970s to do graduate work at the University of Southern California. USC is located in an area of L.A. that many considered “undesirable” in those days. Not super safe. And right next to USC is the green rectangle of Exposition Park with the famous L.A. Memorial Coliseum opposite. It’s also the scene for various kinds of illicit activities and bad behavior. But I didn’t know that.
One day after classes, I was walking across the park and heard the sound of drumming. I followed the thumping cadence until I came to a small group of men sitting in the grass and beating on drums of diverse descriptions. The men were a ragged looking bunch and the drums weren’t much different. There were a couple of congas and bongos, but mostly overturned buckets, cans, bottles, cardboard boxes—just about anything you can imagine that could be hit to make a sound. These were not professional musicians by any means. In fact, most of them looked a bit sketchy and either drunk or high. There were lots of empty Thunderbird wine bottles and Colt 45 beer cans littering the worn-down grass, and the smell of weed was strong in the spring air.
Not knowing any better, I just walked up and sat down to the side of this group. And soon, I was slapping my legs and tapping my feet to the rhythms that rose and fell like waves of primal energy. The men would occasionally look up and smile at me while giving themselves glances I couldn’t decipher.
This went on for about an hour until I realized that I was late for something. As I prepared to leave, one of the older men in the group called out to me, “Come by again, young man. We’re here most days.” He looked me over with rheumy eyes. “And bring a drum or something.”
I nodded and said, “Will do.”
That night, I searched around the Santa Monica apartment I shared with an old friend and found several different-sized cans. Then I bound them together with a bungee cord to make a mini drum kit. Grabbing two chopsticks out of the kitchen drawer, I turned on the stereo and started practicing and learning about the different sounds each can-drum made.
That very next Sunday I drove down to Exposition Park with my miniature drums, and there they were: my group. They were in fine form, drumming away, drinking, smoking, laughing, and having a good time. As soon as the same man saw me coming he motioned for me to sit next to him. “Whatcha got there?” he said, inspecting my contraption.
Several of the men laughed and one shouted out, “Well, start playing then!”
I did, and after a few moments of listening and tentatively hitting my cans, I got into the flow of their rhythm, and the rest of the world slowly evaporated as me and the guys started finding the groove and building up the intensity and the volume. This was an experience I had never felt before. I was connecting to a force that was uniting and bonding me to a group of people from a world much different than mine. We were syncing to each other and to something that was beyond us all. It was sublime.
We played until the sun went down over Vermont Ave. I stood up to leave, unkinked my legs, and every man came up to me and gave me his version of the multi-part handshake with the finger-clenching and fist-tapping that I’d only seen on television. Exclamations of “my man” and “aw-right” mixed with smiles and laughs in the falling light as I walked away in a kind of altered state.
I joined the drummers a few more times, but then my USC connection ended, and I got busy with other things and never went back. But the drumming experience stuck with me. Over the years, I would end up joining impromptu drumming circles or gatherings whenever I stumbled upon them.
Once I was walking down 6th Avenue in New York City, and there was a busker beating on his overturned plastic pails and buckets right in front of the Time-Life building. I stopped to listen and admire his sonic tempos (he was good!). Suddenly, and without missing a beat, he threw me a drumstick and nodded to a cooking pan on the ground. So I picked it up, stood next to him, and merged into his flow. He smiled up at me and nodded his head. “You got it.”
— — —
It was many years later when a feeling guided me to walk into a local music store in a strip mall in the small town where I now live. With no purpose in mind, I started scanning the store contents, and off to the side sat a complete electronic drum kit with a price tag dangling from it. An employee walked over and explained that the drummer who gave lessons in the store had decided to sell this kit and had just put it out earlier that same day. “You interested?” he asked.
Without any conscious thought, I said, “Throw in a drum lesson and some sticks, and you got a deal.”
“Done,” he replied. “And there’s an opening for a lesson in the drum room right now.”
So I took the 30-minute lesson that day and haven’t stopped drumming since. And I now play in an old-geezer rock ‘n’ roll cover band that gets together every week to practice and jam. It’s not a drumming circle, and we don’t drink Thunderbird, but we do enjoy our beer and banter, and when we all hit the groove, my body starts levitating and I’m flying like an eagle over Mother Earth.