One of the most crushing experiences of my life occurred back in school, when the head master assembled my whole year in the hall to assess our singing. As he walked along the rows of children, he bent down so each child could sing into his hairy ear. He then sent us to a corner of the room, depending on how good we were.
After he had passed all the students, there were three children left standing by their chairs. The head master explained that these children could not sing at all. I was one of them.
It shouldn’t be surprising that anything musical in my life has been strictly of the listening kind, until now. A few weeks ago I was at my friend Space’s house. She took up drumming 10 years ago, when she was in her 50’s. She handed me a drum and said, “You can borrow this one.”
That’s how it began.
The first place that I went drumming was Rainbow Park on Baldwin Ave. I carried the djembe drum down a steep hill and was met with a warm and friendly greeting from the six people in the group. I explained that I had never played before and then got settled on the park bench. They showed me how to hold the drum between my legs with the end tilted up so that the air flowing underneath gives the instrument a bigger sound.
Steve, one of the drummers, has been playing since he was 17. “Drumming brings you right into the present moment,” he told me. According to Steve, drumming is inherent. It’s a primal instinct from listening to our mother’s heartbeat in the womb. During a midlife crisis, he said, drumming was his refuge when he couldn’t relate to anything else in life.
At Rainbow Park, we learned West African rhythms like Kuku and Djole. Steve explained that learning these traditional beats meant that we could drop into any drum environment.
I’ve heard many scary stories of teachers shouting at people playing out of time, but Steve was sweet. He started us off all doing the same thing. Then, just as I “got it,” they all start playing something different.
I couldn’t hear my drum or remember what I was supposed to be doing. I was totally lost. But when I closed my eyes, I could pick up Space holding down the basic rhythm. So I opened my eyes and watched her hands, then started to copy her. Right, right, left–Suddenly, I was back in the groove and feeling it.
I was brought up with the “little girls should be seen and not heard” label stitched to the back of my neck. But finding the beat and hearing the rhythm brought tears to my eyes. I just kept focusing on hitting that drum. The second week I get louder and felt proud of my red hands.
I’m lucky that I live in a gulch, because I get these urges to sneak into my room and get my drum out. I crank up my iPod’s volume and disappear into my brave new world–eyes closed, my hands searching the drum for the right tempo.
While I don’t harbor dreams of playing in a band, I do go to parties where people play music and fall into ecstatic bliss copying another drummer and, occasionally, even creating my own rhythm. MTW