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

Keeping the event open to all, yet not out of control, is a delicate balancing act. "People have to come to the circle with a feeling of respect," Gita explains. "Respect for one another, for the group, for the spiritual feeling. That's why we started doing the chanting. To ground the ceremony in something higher."

Whatever the original mystical impulse behind the 21st Street circle, drumming and full-moon events have grown rapidly on South Beach. Some entrepreneurs and promoters have realized that -- as with other counterculture movements -- there's money to be made. One group responsible for encouraging a growing awareness of drums and ethnic culture has been the five-year-old Rhythm Foundation, a $100,000-a-year nonprofit organization that sponsors concerts of such world-beat musicians as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Mercedes Sosa, and Milton Nascimiento. In June the Rhythm Foundation began holding full-moon celebrations as five-dollars-a-head fundraisers at South Beach's Club Cabana. The events have showcased one or more "master" drummers, and resemble concerts more than tribal communions. The organization's events have won crowds of close to 150, although recently the 21st Street circle has drawn some participants away. (Indeed, the Foundation is scaling back its full-moon celebrations to irregular quarterly events.)

Nancy Knoebel's small group, Drums on the Beach, has also benefited from the interest in drumming. The organization began earlier this year in Little Haiti's Caribbean Marketplace, when Knoebel and yoga teacher Deborah Vukson decided they wanted to learn drum rhythms from Jamaican percussionist Cedric "Im" Brooks. Now the group is holding evening classes at Stephen Talkhouse on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The majority of the group's inner circle of twelve or so members are women, many of them fresh to drumming, all of them passionate about their newfound interest. The class is a mixture of Hispanic, Anglo, and black students, with ages ranging from mid-20s to early 50s.

Some area music stores have profited from the local fling with percussion, too. Alan Wall, a salesperson at Ace Music/Drum City, reports that since he began working at the store four years ago, sales of hand-held drums have doubled, including congas, bongos, djembes, Indian tablas. "It seems to be the younger generation who are buying them, the 18- to 30-year-olds," he says, and a bit more women than men. Unlike standard drum kits, buyers can walk away with a good set of drums, such as tablas, for as low as $185.

One local business that has especially welcomed the drumming fad is World Resources, the eclectic art gallery/cafe on Lincoln Road that has added percussion to its ongoing mix of outdoor music. Owner Steve Rhodes gave free space to Cedric Brooks and other percussion teachers, and then those classes grew so big they spilled over to the outside mall. Not everyone was pleased. In late August area shopkeepers began to complain about the noise, which they claimed was drowning out their own sound-systems. The Lincoln Road Task Force, a planning group of neighborhood merchants and property owners, requested that he put a stop to the classes, which he did. Rhodes still plans on continuing the cafe's outdoors full-moon celebrations, which he claims lure 200 to 300 people each month. The next celebration, to be held this Thursday, September 30, will feature local guitarist/vocalist Nil Lara and several area poets, including Adrian Castro. Rhodes is proud he's never charged for performances or for drummers using his space for classes: "People should never have to pay to honor the moon. Once you start doing that, it's over."

Even so, Rhodes is well aware of drumming's commercial benefits for the mall's businesses. He still regrets that neighboring merchants forced out the drumming classes. "The drumming was drawing people into the area," he notes. "I think they're going to miss the foot traffic."

Underneath all the faddishness is the power of the drum. Ageless, hypnotic, reverberating through the centuries. Historically drums have served to provide a rhythmic heartbeat for the community A to unite people during rituals of harvest, wartime, birth, and death. Among peoples with a shamanistic tradition, drums have been valued for their sacred purposes: to call down spirits or to induce trance states.

While rhythm has drawn people together for eons, Western man has seemingly lost touch with that special connection. "The breakdown of community in the West has meant the loss of our rhythmic rituals," notes percussionist Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead and author of the books Planet Drum and Drumming at the End of Magic.

But all that may be changing, according to Hart and others, who point to a new wave of "rhythm consciousness" sweeping the country. In Austin, Texas, for example, drum circles draw as many as 500 participants. The largest known circle was in Marin County, California, a mega "Beat In" last year that corralled some 1500 pounding, beating drum enthusiasts, among them such notables as Carlos Santana, Sheila E., and Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira. Tallahassee and Gainesville led the way among Florida towns in having drumming networks, so it was only a matter of time before Miami, with its rich ethnic mix, caught on.

Drumming circles have a unique appeal for professional and skilled musicians. The events provide an opportunity to share drum cultures and rhythms, to branch out from their own traditions. "You meet all kinds of drummers here," says Jude Thejenus of the band Loray. "Cuban, Afro-Cuban, African, Egyptian, Middle Eastern." The circle also provides players with the challenge of making music with drummers of varying skills, of putting aside expectations, ego, or potential rivalries -- and creating one tapestry of rhythm. Talented amateur percussionist Gino Coca-Mir says, "You may be drumming wonderfully, but if other people can't catch on to your rhythms, what good is it?

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