By Phil Spadanuta
I was minding my own business at the L.I. Press when my editor started talking to me about ‘drum circles’ on Long Island and how it would be cool to cover one for an upcoming story.
I smiled and told him that I was the man for the job. There was only one problem: I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.
After a little reading I learned that a drum circle is a group of people playing hand-drums or another type of percussion in a circle—hence the name. The main purpose of the circle is to share the rhythm with the other participants, creating a unified voice that complements each different drum. I also found out that a drum circle can range in size from a handful of players to circles with thousands of participants.
A quick Google search for “drum circles” and “Long Island” found drum circles are quite popular and have a strong following on L.I. After making a few phone calls and digging up information on the various drum circles that were listed on the website drumcircles.net, I came across a drum circle run by a local man, Marty Regan, that is held every first and third Saturday of each month.
Regan says that drum circles are not ethno-specific, and the beats created within them can consist of many different origins since freestyle drumming is encouraged among participants. According to Regan, drum circles couldn’t possibly have a set sound due to drummers of different skill levels playing together.
“While some people may have taken drum classes and have a lot of experience with a specific region’s percussion it doesn’t mean anything. The drum circle’s sound is based on everyone’s playing which factors in the 50% of people present at each drum circle that have no training at all,” says Regan.
Despite there being experienced drummers at each circle there is also an equal amount of beginning drummers who just play as they please without any set plan, which means the sound is never specific.
After finding a free Saturday I was able to attend one of Regan’s drum circles. My girlfriend accompanied me as we made the half-hour drive to Babylon. We pulled into the cozy, worn down parking lot of The Yoga Center on East Main Street and walked towards the welcoming building. Others got out of their cars as we did and brought oddly shaped carrying cases, which were housing all sorts of drums.
Regan collects a $10 fee to cover the expenses of the drum circle. We were led to room with around 30 or so chairs positioned in a circle, flanked by different types of drums. There was a large brown drum with a deeper sound that had to be held up with a stand and was worn at the very center where the color of the drum was fading from beige to white. Another drum had a silvery shine with a skinnier body, which results in a higher pitch when played, and bolts fastened to the top of it around the part you would hit.
Its appearance made me think of what would happen if Frankenstein and an ostrich were to reproduce.
At the front of the room were some spare drums that people brought for those without drums to play called Djembe. Djembe look similar to conga but have one significant difference, a thinner base that allows for a wider range of tones, and best described as a goblet shaped drum.
“Djembe are one of the most commonly used drums in drum circles since they are powerful as well as portable,” states Regan.
My girlfriend and I each picked up a Djembe and found two empty seats in the circle. Although our Djembe appeared as though they were hit a few too many times, mine still loyally obeyed my hands once we started playing and I was creating beats on the spot.
After everyone was assembled Regan, an older gentleman of average height with a strong build, most likely from him playing drums his whole life, began playing the drum strapped around his body to begin the drum circle. Since he is the facilitator of the drum circle it is customary for him to start a beat for everyone to play along with. Regan’s specialty is in West African percussion so he began the circle with some beats reminiscent of West African music.
The beats were slow and steady and gradually gained momentum as he continued playing. Once everyone listened to his beat for a few minutes they began playing their own to complement his. Although I felt a little intimidated, since I had little to no idea what I was doing, I still tried my best to play along with everyone.
Most people that were part of the circle were either barefoot or wearing socks, an aspect I feel that creates a more natural soothing mood while they are playing in the circle. In addition to leaving their shoes at the door a lot of these people, if not all of them, left their worries there as well.
“One of the main reasons that people come to drum circles is to relieve stress, while other individuals feel that they are a part of something much larger,” says Regan.
Businessmen and businesswomen, wearing street clothes instead of their usual professional attire, were among a handful of the attendees who were winding down after a difficult work week. Others were ‘Hippies’— they wore tie-dyed shirts and flowery skirts. One person had dreadlocks and a t-shirt, emblazoned with a life-like with a ribcage print.
“Each drum circle is unique. Every person involved contributes something different and each person added to a drum circle changes the experience. You might have the same crowd there one week that you had the previous week and five new people there the next,” says Regan.
After playing for a while and feeling as though I wasn’t getting any better at hitting the Djembe, Regan came over and gave me a drumming lesson while everyone else continued to play. I closely watched his hands as he demonstrated a short yet entrancing series of beats for me to follow.
Just like my childhood of playing the matching game Simon over and over again, I quickly learned the pattern and came out victorious in the battle with my brain to succeed in drumming. I learned a few beats that I never would’ve imagined I was capable of playing and it was all thanks to his lesson.
“I get to see people doing something they don’t normally feel they can do. Seeing the expression on their faces change when they are successful makes it all worth it,” says Regan, who in addition to holding drum circles each first and third Saturday also teaches West African Percussion classes monthly.
As the night went on, the harmony of the circle as a whole was breathtaking. The amount of instruments present was astounding; conga drums, tambourines, cowbells and water jugs just to name a few. I really felt like I was a part of something as I played alongside the other members of the circle.
With each resulting sound as my hands met the Djembe I felt as though I was contributing a small but significant part to our musical masterpiece.
“At the drum circle it’s all about expressing yourself both physically and musically. Performing in a drum circle is like dancing in a way, and it’s also aerobic,” says Vicky O’Brien who has been coming to the Babylon drum circle for over a year.
In addition to the drumming that takes place at a drum circle there is also a significant part played by belly dancers that are a staple at most circles. They contribute to the drum circle by dancing along to the beat of the drummers. They also play their own music, usually with finger cymbals, to add to the overall sound of the circle.
The belly dancers weren’t the only ones encouraged to dance however as another member of the circle got up mid-song to dance as he saw fit similar to a spiritual dance you might see at a Pow-wow. With the way he was dancing it appeared as though his whole body was being taken over by a spirit.
“The dances that our members do are created in the moment and are different every time,” says Regan.
The music that played around us as we took part in the drum circle created a relaxing environment in which both I and the other members felt we could forget the stressful occurrences that are always present in our day to day lives.
“I just leave satisfied, and it’s a good tension release,” says O’Brien.
According to her and the other members of the group being part of a drum circle is a far better alternative to other stress relieving activities which may be unhealthy for them or others.
“Hitting a drum to release some stress is a lot better than hitting a person, plus it’s legal,” commented one of the drum circle participants.
My feelings completely.
For more information on drum circles please visit the Village Music Circles website at: http://www.drumcircle.com/
Drum Circles on Long Island
1st Saturday of Every Month:
The Yoga Center
107 East Main St.(Montauk Highway,Rt 27A)
Babylon, NY 11702
Doors Open 7:30 PM
Contact Marty Regan at (631) 422-2824
3nd Saturday of Every Month:
Dix Hills United Methodist Church
400 Deer Park Rd.
Dix Hills, NY 11746
Doors Open 7:30 PM
Contact Marty Regan at (631) 422-2824
2nd Sunday of Every Month:
Sayville, NY Drum Circle
46 Railroad Avenue
Sayville, NY 11782
Doors Open 6 PM
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information
Every Thursday Night
Drum Circle/Class in Freeport, NY
South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
228 South Ocean
Freeport, NY 11520
Doors Open 6 PM
Call (516) 623-1204 for more information