BEAT POETS

By Sarah Adams
American Statesman Staff
Saturday, April 24, 2004

For many Austinites, the power and beauty
Of drum circles resounds beyond Eeyore's

Da da dum, da da dum, da da dum.

The drumming starts late Friday night. For two hours, it gets louder and louder, shaking the floor, filling the house.

TATATATA DUM.

One man and four women pour their emotions into drums, shakers and bells, playing so hard their hands grow numb. The noise transforms the muted living room in a South Austin house-turned-wellness-center, the Human Potential Center off Manchaca Road. On this night, the monthly drum circle is led by Buffalo Thunder Frank Del Toro.

"A drum circle is about strengthening communication, grounding and centering," he says. People can find their voices from within rather than being told what their voice is."

To cleanse the atmosphere, he pulls out a small clay pot filled with white sage and lights it in a slow, smoky burn.

Such circles, for Del Toro, are more than the poster child of Eeyore's Birthday Party, which takes over Pease Park today with at least two huge drum groups beating hour after hour under the shade trees. These throbbing dancer beckoning, drop in-and-out circles borrow heavily from the hippie stereotype of the '60's.

Elsewhere and seemingly everywhere, drum circles have evolved into a form of relaxation, community building through music and getting in tune with spirituality and healing through rhythm. Sometimes, they're just a quick fix for a music-addicted town.

"It's definitely grown in popularity the last couple of years," says Sherry Gingras, who sells instruments and teaches classes out of her Kerbey Lane shop, Drumz. "I think we need it. The culture just needs it."

Ta ta ta ta ta.

At the White Crane herb shop's parking lot on South Congress Avenue, drum circles join the First Thursday activities every month. Crowds are drawn irresistibly to the beat, da-da-da-da DUM, that sinks into the asphalt, reverberating through the feet of passers-by.

"The more people who get involved, the more fun it is," says Troy Johnson at a February White Crane drum circle. Johnson has gotten into the hobby during the past year after being introduced to it by a friend. "It's really relaxing. I just enjoy watching the people."

Drum circles borrow from indigenous cultures, drawing from Afro-Cuban beats, among others. The man largely credited with brining the concept to the United States was Babatunde Olatunji, a Nigerian drummer who led scores of drum circles before his death last April at 75. His first album in 1959 became a hit, and he won a Grammy Award in 1991 with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart on their "Planet Drum" album. Gingras says Olatunji's hope was for each household to have a drum.

Olatunji's dream seems to be well on its way. Crowds at the White Crane and at Del Toro's smaller drum circle draw in all ages. Gingras says rhythm, like music, is universal. She remembers passing by "the littlest, teensiest town in West Texas" that had maybe eight shops at the most. One held handmade drums.

A customer from College Station found Gingras' Web site and came to visit. At 81 years old, "He said, 'I don't know why but I just want a drum,'" Gingras says. The man bought a popular choice, a djembe, and said he might start a drum circle of his own once he became good enough.

Rhythm just brings people together, Gingras says: "It no longer matters whether someone is young or old, black or white, Democratic or Republican."

Sherry Scott runs a comprehensive Web site on drums, the hobby she discovered while researching her master's thesis at St. Edward's University, a video documentary about uses of rhythm for spiritual and healing practices. During drum circles, strangers working together to create original music form bonds when they share rhythm.

She began sharing information from her studies with others through an e-mail list, which grew to more than 350 people. So Scott started Rhythm Connection (www.rhythmconnection.net) with partner Michelle Burns. The site continues to expand with information on events, books, music and other rhythm-inspired paraphernalia, including contact information for drummers, dancers, facilitators and drum makers.

"As soon as people get introduced to it, 90 percent just fall in love with it," Scott says of drum circles. "The other 10 percent don't believe they have rhythm, but they just haven't found it yet."

Popular drums include the goatskin-covered djembe and cowhide-covered bougarabou, both from Western Africa (sometimes made today with synthetic fiber). Depending on the quality and size, prices range from $100 to $400. "A lot dance or pick up a shaker," Scott says. "That's part of the group and part of the whole experience."

The fluidity of drum circles without a specified leader allows each participant to be the composer, musician and audience in one and rhythm takes on a life of its own. The idea is for each instrument and player to complement the others. Sometimes that doesn't happen.

"We call it the train wreck when someone takes over," Scott says. "Other people stop playing. Hopefully that person realizes they're the one playing and they'll eventually stop. Sometimes they don't." She laughs.

Facilitated drum circles can be freestyle as well, but an instructor guides the group in musical style and techniques.. Scott says Del Toro's monthly meeting is more spiritual than many drum circles. "It touches people on a really deep level," she says. "A lot of people call it their church."

Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da.

The last session in the Human Potential Center ends with a bout of shamanic drumming: even, quick beats on the buffalo drum. Del Toro stands up, feeling the rhythm, and the participants beat louder and louder until one slumps over, entranced.

DA-DA-DA-DA-DUM.

Then a quiet so loud ears ring with it.

Del Toro is a professional musician, massage therapist and sensei for Reiki, a form of healing by passing energy through a practitioner's hands. Growing up in San Antonio, Del Toro began studying native cultures after he became interested in his own heritage from Mexico, Argentina and Spain.

He holds out a fan fashioned from a buffalo jawbone with leather and feathers and says prayers honoring the four directions, which represent cycles of life and the seasons. Visitors to his drum circles often find him in a shirt and earring bearing the likeness of a buffalo. A long necklace made from rose quartz hangs from his neck.

Del Toro plans to start an all-male drum circle to complement a friend's all-female drum circle. And he wants to work with a family-specific drum circle to encourage a richer bonding time between children and parents.

Today, Eeyore's Birthday Party will feature the largest, loudest and most costumed drum circles of all. This year's party celebrates 41 years of drumming madness.

Del Toro has drummed at Eeyore's but he says the energy level wears him out for days after.

"The majority at Pease Park for Eeyore's Birthday go there to party down," he says. Last year there was so much noise he couldn't hear his own drum. But something healing came out of the chaos.

DADADADADADADA…

One "happily inebriated party participator," as Del Toro calls him, passed out amid two drum circles, and another participant began to lead the drum circle began to lead the drum circle in a healing shamanic rhythm – "it was a collaborative thing," he says. The makeshift hangover cure seemed to work. "He got up as if he had had a full night's sleep. He was no longer staggering around." Del Toro says.

. . . DADADA DUM

"It was as amazing for him as it was for everybody else. Those are the kind of things that happen. In the midst of that, I really felt this man needed to be healed."

Del Toro was not surprised to find spirituality and healing even in the thundering rhythm of Eeyore's. Drum circles are always more than just the music.


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