Cathartic fun while banging on your bongo

2010-08-12 00:00

THE term “a drum circle” has particular connotations for me. Blame it on the “men’s movement” popular in the United States in the nineties. I think immediately of a group of semi-naked, sweaty men deep in a forest somewhere drumming themselves into a trance to get in touch with their “inner wild man”. Not a particularly attractive image, which is why I was keen to investigate the Drum Circle launched recently in the city.

Reassured by the instigator that people of all ages and genders are welcome, I set off for The Red Door just off Victoria Road. According to the manager, Marek Leander-von Poncet, better known as “Tosh”, it is the only alternative night club in the city. By alternative, he means that it doesn’t play mainstream music.

He started the Drum Circle because he used to play the drums himself and knew many others who had instruments. “Lots of people own drums, but unless you practise, they’re not much use to you. There wasn’t a regular gathering where people could do this, so I figured I’d start something and see where it went.

“It’s been going for about two months and the response has been positive. About 15 people come, with or without a drum, and the number is growing as word spreads. We charge a R10 cover fee and the idea behind that is that in time we’ll collect enough money to buy drums for people to hire.”

Experienced drummer Andrew Rees of Howick said: “There are always more drums than there are people, so there are always drums available to be played. Everyone is more than welcome to come, with or without an instrument.”

Rees explained that the approach participants take is “Go with the flow”. “It’s a democratic situation so people take turns to set a rhythm and others follow. There’s lots of room to improvise too. It’s a no-holds barred context.”

The evening I attended, Rees had brought several drums, including some bongos, an Indonesian tambourine and some roto tom-toms. Several people had djembis, and others had a turn at trying out a Cajun drum box made of plywood.

A serious drummer is AJ Whittal, who has been playing for about eight years, including in local bands. He owns his own drums and said: “The most common kind of drum people own is a djembi. A drum can set you back between R1 000 and R15 000, depending on the quality and the materials it’s made from.

“A drum is a very personal instrument, and it’s a lot easier to play and transport than many other instruments. People are very laid back in the Drum Circle, it’s not a competitive thing at all. The more experienced people are happy to share their knowledge and as keen for others to learn as beginners are to learn.”

Students Leona Gwarda and Penelope Malinga looked like they had been drumming all their lives, but it turned out to be their first experience. “Penelope is a vegetarian,” said Gwarda, “so I warned her that she might be playing an instrument made from an animal skin. I advised her to listen to her own heart beat and to the heart rhythm of the animal whose skin was used to make the drum. We are African and we have a connection to the animals of Africa, so it makes sense.” Malinga confirmed that this advice had helped her “get into the experience”.

City resident Chris Morton said: “It’s a fun stress release because you get to make a lot of noise and the rhythm is soothing. It’s really cathartic.”

Encouraged by these positive responses, and the absence of sweaty men, I tried my hand at playing a djembi. It was great fun, relaxing, and after a while the rhythm became almost hypnotic. However, I was surprised by how hard it is on the hands — mine were smarting painfully when I finished.

Different players took turns to create rhythms. At times, only they were keeping the beat they had set, while others improvised and experimented, creating a remarkable harmony that blended very different beats. It struck me as an allegory for this country: one nation made up of a wide diversity of people, all contributing to a shared harmony …  if only we could all agree on the rhythm.

The Drum Circle meets every second Tuesday from 8 pm, alternating with the well-known and popular Folk Club.



• Inquiries: Tosh at 071 444 2111.

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