My son, Cameron, lives in Washington, D.C. As a happily-employed but modestly-paid young journalist, he is keen on enjoying any free entertainment he can find in our nation’s capitol. When we visited him recently, Washington was in full bloom with cherry blossoms and spring-breakers. Avoiding the crush of tourists on the Mall, he took us around the city neighborhoods.
On Sunday, we enjoyed a 50-some year tradition: the drum circle at Meridian Hill Park. Cam is a Sunday-park kind of guy. When we visited him in Madrid during a semester abroad, we spent a leisurely day amidst the dozing and picnicking families in Retiro Park. Our destination that day was a drum circle, but it didn’t materialize. At the time, I was game for anything Cam suggested, but I didn’t understand the appeal.
On Sunday, a warm cherry-blossom bedecked Sunday in April in our nation’s capitol, I got the idea. The circle was big, formed by drummers seated on two low facing walls. Judging from appearances (and flag stickers on the drums), they were African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Cuban, northern European, and variations of vanilla Americans. There was a toddler banging on a tom and elderly gentlemen, and everything in between. Most of the drummers were men, but I saw a slender, elegant woman beating on twin drums that echoed her elongated, graceful shape.
At first, I circled around, getting different views of the drummers, checking out the people and the equipment. After awhile, I settled down to a comfortable spot on a wall, and relaxed into the sound. There was a leader who set the rhythm, and the others fell in. Every once in awhile, when the energy started to build, he called out, “Give it all you got!” Words to live by, I thought.
It was interesting how, subtly, the rhythm and tempo would change. A beat would go out and the group would respond, support, endorse. The sound was complex, hypnotic. I tried to pay attention to the sounds made by individual drummers, and it seemed that some of them were incredibly complex while others were simple, faithful beat-keepers. I realized that even a non-musician like me could play along and join the stream of sound. I stopped concentrating, let the sound wash over me, and it was relaxing, reviving.
I was fascinated by the discreet hiearchy of the drum circle. There was natural leadership, by the skilled and the senior, but all were accepted without comment or question. Changes happened subtly and naturally, without argument or discussion: organically, like a school of fish changing direction all at once. It occurred to me that the leaders of all nations in conflict should be forced to meet and drum, for days, weeks, without words, and find a way to their common heartbeat. Perhaps moving in concert, surrendering to a mantra of drumbeats, would help people feel unity instead of division. The drumbeat doesn’t have to be a march to war.