Drumming: The Beat Must Go on

As a child I watched every Tarzan movie I could. In these films, the emissaries of white western greed, guns and glory would stop in their jungle tracks when they heard the beat of drums. Native bearers would abandon their burdens and run for their lives. They knew that if they were caught consorting with these white traders, their brothers would kill them as well. With each ominous beat, those with something to be ashamed of clung tighter to their guns, while the tribal protectors of the land came closer and closer, perhaps lurking behind any bush. I knew, in my little boy's heart, which side I was on! Adrenaline widened my eyes in the cool TV gloom of a suburban living room. Some inner animal stirred from its slumber, stretched, and flexed a sharply clawed paw.

Yesterday, I left my cabin in the redwoods and drove through the mountains to Santa Cruz. Parking by the sea, I walked along West Cliff, looking for drummers. I've always carried my drums just in case; you never know where some impromptu jam will materialize. Finding a drummer I had played with before, we stood by the cliff rail and chatted. I was lightly tapping on a small frame drum as we spoke. Suddenly, some holy-roller-blader stopped and laid his raging rap on me. "You know," he growled, "some people come to hear the ocean and enjoy the peace and quiet. I live in the neighborhood, and we've been complaining about drumming for a while now. Why don't you people go north up the coast where you won't bother anybody? And what about the animals? Have you thought of the environmental impact of the noise?"

At first, I thought he was joking — then I realized he was being serious, and wasn't someone who could be easily reasoned with. I thanked him for his input and shared the fact that I had been coming here all summer, looking for drumming. I told him that every weekend, I prowl the beaches, seeking the beat. As much as I could empathize with his perspective, we all share the beach areas together — roller bladers, nudists, dogs, hyper-opinionated-right wing-fundamentalist-Christians, and funky drummers.

Of course, his issue may have been what comes with people who drum, exotic appearances, lots of hair, colorful vans in the parking lot. It becomes a social-political-religious-economic question. I live nearby, and visit Santa Cruz, often specifically, because it has become a haven for alternative approaches to living. Music in the streets, dancers on the corners. I've seen over a hundred drummers of all ages, and expertise, gather for a community drumming here. My kind of neighborhood!

When slaves were kept, the masters forbade two things that they found threatening: the original mother tongue, and drums. Without the old rhythms, the circle of chanters, the ritual dancers and drums; the sacred bond between the people and their old deities is broken.

In the Middle East, one tribal group secretly converted their silver serving trays (used to wait on the masters' table) into tapped rhythm instruments. The heart of a tribe or community can only beat strongly when it is free.

Drums "wake the Dead" in each of us. A tiny tap of the toe can spread through out the body, until you're up and dancing. With each beat the surrounding walls of oppression crumbles a bit more. A frustrated slam on the skin slowly shifts and becomes a declaration of hope. Worries drift away as your mind entrains to the musicians around you, and a sense of interdependence builds with each beat, as the "tribe" becomes rhythmically intertwined.

There is great power in a circle of men, barefoot on the sand. Wearing only their suntans and kelp skirts, wild women dance around us singing. Pounding patterns with handbones on Pan's hide, goatskins throb and echo off the cliffs. The surf roars while pterodactyl-like pelicans silently glide overhead; the sun is hot on our shoulders and warm in our hearts. This is the life, fleeting seconds of freedom shared by kindred spirits.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle, those maddening native drums are getting closer. The white hunters form a tight cluster, guns growing heavier in their shaking hands. The beat picks up, gets louder, wilder, louder and then abruptly stops!

It's when the drumming stops that they really have to worry. Because, what comes next is either the wild scream of attack, or Tarzan's jungle call, bringing the elephants to the rescue. Today, both aboriginal tribes and elephants are pretty scarce. Who will carry on the traditions? Some beats are as old as fire, played continuously for thousands of years. What happens when they stop? When the nature spirits flee the bulldozed forests, and the rhythms of both drums and crickets stop; what will take their place? (Note: Sorry, watching MTV does not qualify as a community — building activity)

When the drums beat, they beat for all — leaved ones, winged ones, swimmers, crawlers, four leggeds and two leggeds. When the Drums cease! Take heed! For all of nature is in need.

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