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.

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.

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?

"At the last drumming circle," he continues, "there were drummers from Brazil, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, white Americans, African Americans, people of at least partial Native American descent. Everybody is in the circle. Everybody can fit in.

"Drumming circles are a wonderful celebration of community in a town that is struggling with diversity issues. Here we have a situation that, by itself, stands alone as a good example of harmony.

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