Things That Go Thump in the Night

The oddly spiritual world of drumming circles has arrived -- just blocks from the glitter and glitz of South Beach

Steve Showen kneels in the sand, lost in a trance. A youthful-looking man in his mid-40s, his shoulder-length blond hair tied in a bandanna, he tilts his head to the sky, looking at the full moon that gazes down on the 50 or so people gathered here on the beach at Collins and 21st Street. The air is sweet with the smell of citronella; a strong breeze blows off the ocean, flickering the candles buried at his feet. Down at the water's edge, the surf rolls in, crests, and subsides. But pulling at him is an even stronger current: the sound of the drums, throbbing in the full-moon circle around him.

He leans over the round, foot-high drum cradled in his lap and listens. Next to him a pair of seasoned conga players exchange a volley of syncopations; across the circle, a Haitian drummer toys with some African polyrhythms. But none of that matters to Steve. Doggedly, repeatedly, his unpracticed fingers test the surface of the drum, searching for something more fundamental. He plays a few notes, falters, then tries again. Finally he hits on a simple pattern. A low thunk, then another, then another. Thunk, thunk, thunk. The basic heartbeat.

Steve Showen has become part of the drummers' circle.
These circles, which started as small groups here earlier in the spring, have burgeoned into regular large-scale celebrations. They draw everyone from New Age devotees looking for another kind of healing to aspiring and professional drummers. Whatever their backgrounds, they are all seeking the special sense of community that these pulsating gatherings offer.

On this August night on Miami Beach, other drummers are warming up, squeezed onto the benches of the few picnic tables that have been dragged together to form the circle. A tall black man in an African-print caftan thrums on a wooden djembe. A middle-age Hispanic woman settles nearby in the sand, a worn pair of bongos nestled in her lap. Two teenage girls share a set of claves, simple percussion sticks. A man with short brown hair, a regular at the Siddha Yoga Meditation Center in downtown Miami, fiddles with a sitar-like instrument called a tamboura. Here and there, people sit cross-legged in the sand, meditating, tuning in or out. Children dodge around the drummers, scampering in the sand. It is a mixed group -- adults, children, Anglos, blacks, Hispanics, professional drummers, novices -- all trying to make it work, to make the circle one.

Around the edge of the circle, people mill excitedly; faces are decorated with tribal stripes, hearts, moons. A lithe woman with blond curls -- Pamela Wirth, facilitator of the group Trance Dance, a forum for "shamanistic" dancing on South Beach -- slips through the crowd, her face painted like an African mask, half black, half white. Off to the side, two young men in tiny bathing suits are being covered with ceramic clay from a large bucket. One, a striking man with the body of a dancer, is coating his feet, his legs, his torso. Nearby an architect in his late twenties stands patiently as a woman friend dabs him with the wet clay. She smears the thick, gray paste over his face, his beard, his eyebrows. By the time she's done, he's been transformed into a tribal mudman.

A small, intent woman in a purple sarong stands up in the center of the group, which now numbers more than 100. She raises a pair of finger cymbals in the air. "Spirit is free," she calls out three times, sounding the cymbals each time. The crowd grows still. This unofficial organizer of the group, Gita Constantino, gives thanks to the moon, noting that it is the second full moon this month, the rare Blue Moon. She leads the group in a Hindu chant; the tamboura player strikes a chord. One by one, people start chanting, many with their eyes closed.

Inside the drummers' circle, the rhythm is beginning to catch, rippling outward. You can see the excitement on people's faces as they merge their sounds with the cadences of the big drums. Ray Bean, drummer for the group Monkey Wrench and other reggae bands, is pounding on a large wooden riukenzu, an instrument from Zaire. He wears a tall hat, his long dreadlocks grazing the head of his drum. Across the circle, Jude "Papaloco" Thejenus, leader of the band Loray, is bent over his dahomiam, a Haitian drum. "It's sacred," he murmurs, smiling gently. Deborah Vukson, a prominent yoga teacher and Feldenkrais (a form of movement exercises) instructor, joins in the pulse, her hands rising and falling on the hide of her conga. At the outer edges people bang on cowbells, rhythm sticks. Even the inexperienced find themselves tapping along, moving unconsciously to the beat. Meditators, tranced out in the sand, follow the rhythm with their breath -- in, out, in, out.

A ring of 50 or so people has joined hands and is dancing around the drummers. As suddenly as it started, that circle drifts apart. The beat rises off the drums, so thick it's almost palpable. In the center of the drummers' circle, the young dancer-mudman is moving wildly, the crowd egging him on. The rhythm quickens; the drummers chase it, teasing it into new shapes, faster and faster, until it reaches its climax and disintegrates. From the chaos, a new pulse emerges.

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