On the last Saturday of every warm-weather month, 20 to 30 people gather at the gazebo in Lawrence's South Park. They come toting congas and snares and homemade drums constructed of animal skins stretched over five-gallon plastic buckets. They come toting cookie tins and old pots. They come to drum.
Together they form a circle: Those who've had drum lessons nearly all their lives and those who don't know a conga from a bongo. Someone -- usually one of the more accomplished drummers -- starts with a beat, one that may have been rattling around inside the percussionist's head for weeks like a seed in a gourd.
A rhythm takes shape. One by one, others join in, beginner and expert alike. Some improvise complex variations on the basic rhythm, intricate improvisational riffs that can suddenly send a song careening off in new directions. Others just keep time.
At the center of this circle of drums is Barry Barnes, a percussionist and poet who decided to organize the monthly jam sessions as a way to build community and have some fun.
"In the past drumming was part of everyday life," Barnes says. "The drummer would come out in the middle of the village and everyone would come out and have their ceremonies.
"Now we're all too busy to sit down and drum everyday. But I thought that once a month it would be cool to get people together. That's what we're trying to get back to: the coming together of people."
`Everybody can be in the band'
Drums have been bringing people together since pre-history. Long before telephones and TVs, they were the primary means of long distance communication and entertainment.
African talking drums, which transmit variable pitches over great distances, were the original "bush telegraph," a way to pass messages between far-flung settlements in Africa.
Armies on both sides of the American Revolution used drums to direct troop movements on the battlefield. And drums in all shapes and sizes have been the center of religious rituals from South America to Tibet.
According to "Drumming at the Edge of Magic," a history of percussion written by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, Hindu creation myth holds that "there is a seed sound at the heart of creation, the Nada." Modern science echoes the Hindu belief with its own creation theory: the big bang.
Now drum circles are gaining popularity worldwide, for reasons as varied as the people who join them.
For some, drumming is a straight-line connection to simpler times, a means of communication that's both primitive and mystical. Others promote drumming as alternative medicine: musical therapy that's good for both body and soul. Some see it as a vehicle for spiritual transport, a drug-free method for attaining ecstasy.
That basic appeal -- that it just feels good -- isn't lost on Barnes, even if he does have in mind a higher purpose for the Lawrence drum circle.
"Almost every month someone will come up to me afterward and say they feel great," Barnes says. "People get exhilarated and energized.
"You'll start drumming and sometimes it starts out strong and sometimes it's shaky," Barnes explains. "It's like throwing darts: Sometimes you hit the bull's eye and sometimes you don't. But when you hit it everybody feels it. You look around the circle and everybody's into it. You get lost in the rhythm."
For Barnes, the rudimentary nature of the drum is the very thing that makes it perfect as an instrument of community building. After all, the first drum was probably little more than a hollow log and a stick.
You don't need a lot of equipment or training to participate in a drum circle.
"Everybody's got rhythm, whether they know it or not," he says. "Everybody can be in the band."
That simplicity also makes drumming a perfect activity for children, Barnes says. "I think the kids appreciate the drum circle more than anyone else."
He'll have a chance to test that hypothesis this winter, while the drum circle is on hiatus. Thanks to a grant from the Toy Moon, a downtown toy store, Barnes will be the guest artist at the Lawrence Arts Center's arts-based preschool.
"I think they'll love it," says Ellen Williams, education director at the arts center. "I think it will be extremely popular. Kids love rhythm, they love to make noise and they love movement. Drumming incorporates all that."
In addition to his work with preschoolers, Barnes is lending one of his poems for children to the Popcorn, Peanut and Pretzel Companies dance group. They'll adapt "A Celebration of Imaginary Cultures" for a dance performance at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Nov. 21 at the Lawrence Arts Center.
Afterward, Barnes will conduct a drum circle workshop that will be open to the public.
In the meantime, anyone who wants to participate in the South Park drum circle has one more chance before cold weather sets in. The last scheduled drum circle of the year will gather at the South Park gazebo at 1 p.m. Oct. 31.
"It doesn't matter whether you think you have rhythm or not," Barnes says. "Just come to have fun, and bring the kids."
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