What is this drum circle thing about? Describing a drum circle brings to mind the old story about the three blind men describing an elephant-- it depends....
Outwardly, a drum circle is a group of people sitting or standing in a circle playing drums and percussion instruments together; from there, it can be anything the participants wish. I call it participatory performance. These events might be held in a park, at the beach, a festival, in a church, or someone's living room. The circle I participate in usually has 15-20 participants and is held in the back room of a local music store. I've seen circles from just four people to over six hundred playing at the same time.
Some circles are strictly culturally specific-- everyone plays the instruments and rhythms from a particular culture. West African and Cuban drum cultures loom large. Some drum circles are totally improvised music. Some are tightly directed and others are totally anarchistic. Most of the circles I have played in were in a middle ground: some improv, some specific rhythms, and led in a manner promoted by Arthur Hull, which he calls drum circle facilitation. The idea is to lead just enough to keep everyone playing together and "in the groove" --- without being dictatorial. Somehow, it works!
So what happens in a drum circle? It might begin by someone playing a drum call -- a short rhythm to call everyone's attention, with the beginning rhythm played just after. It might start with the burning of incense or sage and the invocation of a higher power. A drum circle facilitator, or DCF might tap out a few call and answer rhythm games on cowbell to warm everyone up and then turn them loose to create their own. A director might have small groups within the circle play certain parts of a polyrhythm and then have the whole group play together (called "handing out parts"). Or you may show up at the beach where three of four people got a groove going and everyone else joined in as they arrived. It could go on for a few minutes or hours-- or days!
A drum circle usually has a mix of instruments. Djembes, a West African drum, are around in large numbers. Conga and ashiko drums are common too. The "bottom end" or bass pulse is held down by large drums like the Brazilian surdo or another West African drum, the dunun. I've played with bass drums made from plastic chemical barrels and old marching band bass drums. It helps to have a pulse that everyone can key together on.
From there, well anything is possible. You might see orchestral instruments being played next to pots and pans. I regularly play an instrument made from an old corrugated thermos that I call a Seattle Guiro , with steel beads inside for a shaker; the scraper/striker is a #10 knitting needle with the point removed. I use a number of small hand percussion items: agogo bells, claves, cowbells, shakers, tambourines, woodblocks, even whistles, bird calls and other sound effects. It's not unheard of for a guitar, digerido, or flute player to join in with public circles too.
I think drum circles are as much about community and people working together as they are about music. Drum circles can be the microcosm in the macrocosm, reflecting the world at large. When people cooperate and listen to each other, when there is give and take, something wonderful can happen; when those things don't occur, the world isn't as much fun-- or worse.
So what is it all about? Fun, community, fellowship, finding the lost inner child, letting go, creating with my friends. Nothing brings people together like sharing music.
Seattle, Washington, USA
What Is a "Community Drum Circle"?
by Arthur Hull
The Community Drum Circle, in the context of how we are using it within our non-professional hand drumming culture, is the most basic and simple use of the drum and rhythm. It is the use of a rhythm based event as a tool for unity. A community drum circle in the United States is a noisy and fun, family friendly event, where people come together in order share their spirit by entraining rhythmically as a percussion ensemble. They empower each other in the act of celebrating community and life through rhythm and music. People of all levels of musical expertise come together and share their rhythmical spirit with whatever drums and percussion they bring to the event. Everyone who comes and participates has something to offer the circle, and any one is welcome.
The spirit and magic of rhythm expressed on drums and percussion instruments cuts through all ages, sexes, religions, races and cultures. "Rhythm," as Gabriel Roth says, "is the mother tongue." Rhythm is a universal language known to every one, even the youngest child, if we can just "remember." So in a very objective, yet beautiful way, an interactive rhythm event puts us all on an equal footing with each other and brings us closer together.
Co-operation and collaboration is the basic glue to a community. A community drum circle is a collaboratively self organized musical event created, "in the moment," by all the people who participate. When we, as a community, drum together, sharing our spirit in the form of rhythm, it changes our relationships for the positive. As we play together, we give ourselves a rhythmical massage, an a emotional release and a healing. The release and healing is different for every person that is in the rhythm circle, and it happens whether we are entraining ourselves into the circle by drumming, or standing outside the circle and listening while tapping our feet and clapping along with the music. To make beautiful music together, with rhythm instruments, all we have to do is bring to the circle whatever rhythmical expertise we have to offer, along with the excitement of sharing it with other people.
People of all levels of musical expertise come together in a community drum circle and share their rhythmical spirit with whatever drums and percussion they bring to the event. They don't have to be a drummer to participate. They don't even have to have a drum. They can play a plastic water bottle turned upside down with the neck cut off. They can shake a soda can with rocks in it or hit two sticks together. It is enough that they are in the circle and participating.
The quality of the music produced in an event like this is not based on the rhythmical expertise of the players, but on the quality of their relationship with the other people in the circle. The result is those magical musical moments where one powerful voice is created out of the many. In those moments, the players stop worrying about keeping time because time, as they know it, has stopped. In its place is a living breathing entity, expressing timeless joy, passion and release through the power of rhythm.
That is the beauty of a community drum circle. Copyright (C) by Arthur Hull
Village Music Circles
A new study by Barry Quinn, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in neurobiofeedback for stress management, indicates that drumming for brief periods can actually change a person's brainwave patterns, dramatically reducing stress. Dr. Quinn calls the results of 30 to 40 minutes of drumming on the highest-stress clients "by far the most╩amazing results I have encountered thus far in my research".╩╩Studies have shown that spending one hour drumming can boost your immune╩system, reduce stress and improve your outlook.╩Christine Stevens, a music╩therapist, uses drumming to ease anxiety.╩ "Getting into the rhythm is great for╩releasing tension," says Stevens.╩ "Once you get going, it just feels good╩to let go." Researchers have noticed that drumming is╩a positive way of getting your aggression out, that it╩stimulates cognitive skills of perception, attention, concentration & memory, combats lonliness,╩exercises and enhances creativity, increases╩self-esteem and empowerment, gives a sense of collaboration and belonging, exercises╩gross and fine motor skills including coordination and╩mind-body connections, and it╩promotes peace╩and harmony amongst the participants. It's accessible to all regardless of previous experience or lack╩thereof. All skill levels can participate simultaneously without the need╩to modify any level. It's an opportunity for self-expression where you can produce your own music. It's╩live, active participation rather than passive╩entertainment (stupification?) by electronic devices.╩ Numerous indigenous peoples have drummed extensively for centuries for good reason. The universe is quite rhythmic indeed!