Drum Circle

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The Pledge – by Adam Murie

At the start of this year I left the Thursday night Twilight Market in front of Luna Park and went to promenade along the boardwalk of St Kilda beach. It was shortly before sunset and as you may know during summer it can be like a festival with people from all walks of life, from all over the world. At some point between the Stokehouse and the Sea Baths I started to feel a vibration in my belly. It was a good vibration and as I looked ahead I saw people spinning staffs, twirling poi and gyrating with hula hoops. It appeared that I had found the centre of the festival. As I made my way into the throng the vibration in my belly got my legs moving, then my arms and I was dancing to the beat of twenty drummers. The diversity of the drummers matched the tanned bodies on the beach. Asian drummers, white faces, Africans and indigenous Australians too. Some had intense expressions on their faces as they paid attention to the beat while others had beaming smiles and seemed to just bang away in ecstasy.

I’ve been backpacking a lot lately and have been away from St Kilda for a long time. The feeling that I got was that it’s good to be home, that I miss this St Kilda, and more so, that I want to be part of what I feel right here: the dancing, the fire twirling, the multitude of languages, the clouds of marijuana smoke, the sunset across the sand and most of all the drumming. I made a pledge to myself at that moment.

Now I’m not much of a one for setting goals, I like to go with the wind and see where the world takes me. As a traveller that works quite well but being back home living in the same place, going to the same job I feel that I need to pursue hobbies and make that happen in a structured way. This drumming circle seemed to be somehow linked to the O’Donnell Gardens Twilight Market, which only goes for summer, so there was a limited but reasonable time-frame. My pledge was that I would buy a drum, practice, take lessons and join the circle by the end of February.

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I commenced step one and set about buying a drum. As I am a recently returned traveller my financial situation is much like the St Kilda football club – in a rebuilding phase. In fact, like the Saints, it’s been in a rebuilding phase for the past seven years. So when I saw the price of the drum that, in my dreams, was what I needed, I decided to look for a second-hand one on the internet. I learned that the type of drum I wanted is called a djembe and that even a second-hand one was prohibitively expensive. The djembes that I could afford had descriptions like “Crack down the side” or “Stab mark in the skin.” So I scoured the op shops while spending every Thursday evening getting a little drunk, dancing to the beat with a hundred others on St Kilda beach and watching my pledge get further and further away. This went on for weeks and weeks until one day in March I entered, for the first time, the museum that is the Chapel Street Bazaar. If you haven’t been I highly recommend spending an hour or two looking through the nooks and crannies for a piece of treasure. And find my piece of treasure is exactly what I did. Not my dream djembe but it was at my dream price.

So step one of my plan had been achieved and it only took me two months. When I found some privacy I recognised that step one was the easiest step because I am without rhythm. Youtube provided a starting point and I discovered that as I am quite mathematically minded I could create algorithms and set them to work on the skin. Bang three times in the middle then twice at the side. 3, 2, 3, 2, 1, 3, 2… and repeat etc. Then mix it up. My partner gave me encouragement with phrases like “Wow, you’re really good but I prefer it if you practice when I’m not here.” So I withdrew and for a week drumming was a solitary thing; working through the numbers in my head; trying to get my timing right and dealing with bruised hands.

That all changed when I attended Confest. There’s a whole novel that should be written about my experiences there so I won’t go into much detail but in amongst the mud-covered naked bodies and being whipped with eucalyptus branches in a wood-fired steam-room, I attended some drumming workshops. It was here that I first played in front of other people. It was just a few days but mentally it was a time of growth for me.

After my return I’m anxious and eager. Thursday has arrived and I’m determined and have decided: tonight I join the drumming circle. But what will it be like? I can eke out a beat all alone in a methodical, mathematical way but how will I flow with others? And what happens if I fuck up the beat? Do I get asked to leave? “Sorry mate, you just don’t fit in here, go home and practice, come back in a few months, maybe we’ll let you in.” I don’t know anything about drumming circles except how to drink alcohol and sway to the rhythm. Not a great skill to boast about.

So with my drum strapped to my back and butterflies in my stomach I’m trekking up Inkerman Street, down Fawkner, past Luna Park then crossing at the lights on Jacka Boulevard. Apprehensively I walk under Catani Arch, peer around the corner along the boardwalk of St Kilda beach and look towards the drumming circle. To my disappointment, there’s no one here. I mean, there are a few people walking dogs and what have you but no drummers. In summer, there’s always a load of people on St Kilda Beach but in the middle of April, something changes. It’s not just the early sunset; most of the tourists leave St Kilda at this time.

An icy sea breeze arrives and I inhale the fresh air noticing background traces of weed mixing with the smell of seaweed. Tonight the beach is just not so crowded but there are a few dreadlocked backpackers practising their pois and a friendly guy called Das who moves his staff like a samurai. So I take a seat on a bench facing the water and bang on the drum once, just to remind myself what it sounds like, then announce to the backpackers: “I am the drumming circle!” They giggle and keep spinning their pois. I sit and ponder what to do and after a few minutes Michael arrives. He works in the drum shop on the highway and tells me how beautiful my drum is, how to maintain it and how to strike it without bruising my hand. Then all of a sudden, like a whirlwind, more drummers arrive and there are faces I recognise from previous weeks when I have been a spectator and even more encouragingly there are people I recognise from Confest. They bring big beautiful djembes and also wheel in, on trolleys, other drums that I don’t know how to name. Drums that I dream to one day own and play.

The other drummers are forming a circle starting either side of me. Some hugging me as they arrive, some shaking my hand, some sitting on the bench, some have brought their own chairs. Michael takes a seat in front of two big drums that are laid down on their side, he picks up two sicks and starts to flow with a strong predictable beat that I think I can follow. Others join him and so I attempt to do the same. I make mistakes and no one cares. I remember what I was told at Confest: In a drumming circle, you listen. So I block out everything and hear only the deep sound of Michael’s drum. At this moment he is the leader and sets the pace for the other drummers. In time I fall in with the beat and find my own rhythm that can match with his. Bang, bang, bing, bing, bing. 2, 3, 2, 3…

To my right, a guy and girl with tightly strung, high-pitched drums get going and rise above the others as a kind of team solo. It’s rare to see someone with a smile as big as his and he is having the time of his life. I realise that my face has been scrunched up in concentration for quite a while. So I smile and play and I am happy. I have achieved my goal. It is the end of my journey. But this is exciting and I know that the journey has just begun. As a beginner smiling and drumming together requires thought and causes me to lose the rhythm. So I scrunch up my face up again, in concentration and return to the beat.

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