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

A self-conscious, upper middle-class trio from South Miami stands outside the circle, unsure what to make of it all. "They don't do this in Kendall," one of them finally says.

Miami is, in many ways, a natural breeding ground for the large-scale drumming circles that can be found on 21st Street and elsewhere on the Beach. In fact, it's surprising that the phenomenon, which began nearly ten years ago in California, didn't take hold here sooner. Musicians from all cultures, particularly the Caribbean, have been passing through for years. There's a strong interest in ethnic cultures, spiri-tualism, and New Age thought that has been brewing among certain groups in Miami for decades. Add to that the wide, tropical beaches of Miami Beach -- what better setting for the pounding of drums in all-night communal ecstasy?

"There's a certain openness in Miami, particularly on the Beach," says Nancy Knoebel, codirector of Drums on the Beach, a loose-knit organization that sponsors drum classes around town. "This is new territory. A lot of people are gypsies here, and there is a willingness to share cultures. There's something special about the Beach; it's a new frontier."

Of course, people have been gathering together for years in small groups to play music or drum on the Beach. But there are several factors that set apart the 21st Street and similar drumming events: they are attracting large crowds A100 people or moreA and they happen regularly when there's a full moon, part of the mystical undercurrent that marks these circles. More significantly, they're bringing together a diverse range of people, groups that normally would have little to do with one another. The circle attracts a melange of would-be musicians, human-potential buffs, spiritual seekers, some aging hippies, women who champion female "empowerment," and truly skilled drummers from all different traditions -- Latin, Caribbean, African. The people drawn to these events are not, by and large, the stereotypes one might expect: washed-up counterculture relics or Deadhead chicks, people looking to get drunk or get picked up. Not that everyone has a completely innocent agenda, of course: One Sixties-era retread says, "After a number of years, you can't go around screwing everyone that you want, especially these days, or tripping out on acid all the time. So drumming is a natural high." Still, these are predominantly sincere, well-meaning people in their late 20s to mid-40s who are looking for a good time and a chance at personal transformation, without drugs or alcoholm -- all within a supportive group setting. Nancy Knoebel points out: "I don't want us to attract the party element, contaminating it with beer and drugs. I mean, you have kids there. We want to keep it clean, family fun." Nevertheless, it is a far cry from a Saturday picnic with the kids in Tropical Park.

All these different people found a catalyst to set the first drumming circle in Gita Constantino. Originally from Mexico, she moved from Los Angeles to Miami Beach two years ago, drawn in part to the tropical environment. A successful saleswoman by day, she began the drumming circle this past March as an impromptu salute to the moon, an extension of her involvement with New Age activities on the West Coast. A member of the Siddha Yoga Center, Gita's goal in gathering a drum circle was entirely personal: "I just wanted to go out on the beach and dance to the moon. For me. I'm the kind of person who could sit out all night and be happy looking at the moon." She is reluctant to be called the circle's "leader": "The thing just snowballed. I never expected it to get this big," she says. People within the drumming community attribute the circle's success to Gita's personal drive and tireless contacting of participants. Kathleen Lalor, a recent transplant from San Francisco who has been drumming for several months, says, "She's like the den mother of the drumming community."

Despite the seemingly haphazard look of the drumming circle, it doesn't just magically materialize every full moon. Gita and her fellow organizers spread the word through a complex web of phone lists and flyers distributed to a select group of local dance studios, health food stores, meditation centers, and to friends of participants. Locations and even dates can change from month to month, so it's important to the leaders that all "core people" on the list be contacted.

Gita's first event took place in March on the beach at Ninth Street and included a few of her friends and some area drummers. Interest spread as the drumming circles grew from full moon to full moon; they eventually moved to 21st Street, attracting more drummers and bigger crowds each month. The drumming generally lasts until 1:30 a.m. (Organizers, though, don't want the circles to become an occult version of the crowded Beach "tea dances," so the location of the next one -- which will feature blind-folded "trance" dancing -- will be kept secret until the day of the gathering, scheduled for this Friday, October 1.) Each assembly retains its own unique character, reflecting the circle's spontaneous beginnings. "People should not come here with expectations," says Gita. "It changes every time." Past gatherings have included invocations to the moon, people reciting poetry, even a Hindu candle-lighting ceremony. During one full-moon event, a number of people reportedly went swimming naked in the ocean, but Gita insists she didn't see it.

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