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Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Different Drummer ► Unpacking the Writer

A funny thing happened at the 32nd Annual King Mango Strut
Back in December, when I covered the 32nd Annual King Mango Strut, I could have hardly imagined it would be a life changing event. Yet, almost immediately I realized it was a transformational day.

TO RECAP: I attached myself to the Coconut Grove Drum Circle to cover the King Mango Strut from the inside. The parade, which went around a small 2-block circuit exactly one time, spent the entire morning marshaling on Commodore Plaza. I had a lot of time to think. It took 5 times longer to get ready for the Strut than it did to Strut. That was over almost before it began.

A journalist straddles a tiny grey area between participant and observer. One tries to stay out of everybody's way, without blending too far into the background. Taking notes, taking pictures, taking impressions at once removes the journalist from the action, while it immerses the writer in the experience at the very same time. It's an anomaly.

One thing became clear to me during all those hours: I DID NOT want to be covering the King Mango Strut. I just wanted to be hitting those drums instead.


I'm no drummer. I barely have any rhythm. I'm not even a musician. The blog post My First Band ► Cobwebs And Strange recalls my HIGH-LARRY-US teenage attempts at being a lead singer in a Rock and Roll band. To sublimate my lack of musicianship, I love listening to all genres of music passionately. It's not a fair tradeoff, but it's all I've got. [That and 42 linear feet of CDs, more that 25,000 tunes on my hard drive, and enough Spotify playlists to last several lifetimes. Whoever has the most music when they die, wins!]

Djembe drums awaiting use
But...but...but...on the day of the King Mango Strut, all I wanted to do was to slap those drum skins. Every once in a while one of the drummers would let me have a few whacks on their oddly shaped drum, which I now know is called a djembe. But, walking past a drum and giving it a few taps is different from putting it between your legs and banging away. And, I was desperate to put one of those things between my legs and bang away. The only other time music had such an immediate, visceral effect on me is told in The Day I Met Bob Marley, another popular post at Not Now Silly.

By the time the Strut was over, I knew I would be joining the Coconut Drum Circle again, but this time as a participant. I would get my chance soon enough. There's one held on the first Saturday of every month, just a few hundred feet from where we marshaled for the Strut.

So, skip ahead. It's the first Saturday of the month. At the corner of Commodore Plaza and Grand Avenue I was handed a djembe. I spent the evening pounding away like a mad man, until my hands hurt. Sadly, it was nothing like what I had anticipated and it turned out to be a very unsatisfying and deflating experience.

To begin with, I should have brought my own camping chair. I don't mean to be churlish because I was graciously supplied with a drum and a tiny stool. But that little thing hurt my delicate ass after several hours. To make matters worse, I couldn't hear myself. That's why I hurt my hands. I was trying to make my drum loud enough so I could hear it over all the other drums. Not being able to hear meant that I couldn't tell how hitting the head in different places affected the sound. Only later did I realize I sat next to all the BIG DRUMS that people were hitting with big sticks. No wonder I couldn't hear myself.

Worse still was the fact that, once again, I had to face up to the limitations of my left hand. Back when I was a teenager my guitar teacher told me I had no absolutely coordination in my left hand. To quote myself:
It turns out that time proved him right. Over the years I have learned that my left hand is pretty useless for most tasks. When I smoked I couldn't even use my left hand to hold the cigarette because I managed to drop it so many times. Trying to use a remote with my left hand? Forget it! I'm the EXTREME opposite of ambidextrous. Hell! I'd give my right arm to be ambidextrous.
It's probably just as well I couldn't be heard in the mix at the drum circle. Whenever I tried to find my own beats within the group's rhythm, my left hand would lurch out spasmodically, finding crazy syncopation never intended for music of any kind, even Jazz. I drove back to Sunrise from my first drum circle dejected. It was not at all what I had hoped. Nor did it feel as if I could ever fit myself within the group's rhythms.

Yet, there were moments that first night that transcended thoughts, transcended time, transcended my crappy rhythm. I would find myself transported, soaring through millennia of music making. I imagined myself back in Kebo, the name the original Bahamians gave to this area of Coconut Grove a century ago when they settled here and built Miami. At night there would have been music-making. I could feel the energy we created merging with rhythms from the past, present and future. Outside was one thing. In my head I could fuse what the circle created with Gospel melodies, horn sections, Rock and Roll, Jazz, New Orleans, and Reggae rhythms. Again, it penetrated me deeply in a way that words just seem so inadequate to describe. This paragraph will have to do instead.


I was pissed. As much as I was drawn to the drumming -- as much as I wanted to be a part of it -- my lack of left-hand rhythm kept me at a distance, kept returning me to reality. I was running these thoughts through my mind the next day as I listened to music. I soon became aware that, as always, I was tapping my feet and 'drumming' the fingers of my right hand on my desk to the tunes. What was going on?

TANGENT: My odd relationship with music didn't quite make sense to me until I read Musicophilia by Dr. Oliver Sacks. That's also when I started to over-think my lifetime contract [sic] with music and how I process it. I've been reading Sacks, who writes fascinating books about people who have anomalies, diseases, or damage in their brain, for many years. However, this book was the first time I ever thought he was talking directly about me, in part.

I happened across the Sacks book right after reading This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin. Musicophilia is about the [almost mystical] effect of music in (on?) the brains of case studies, both normal and abnormal. This is Your Brain describes the science of measuring the changes in the brain caused by listening to and/or playing music. These two books summed up for me my relationship to music, whether it's shaking my eardrums or being created inside my head.

Growing up, adults always told me I was fidgety. It took many years to realize that I wasn't nervous. I was keeping a rhythm to music by tapping my feet and/or drumming my fingers. Even if there's no music playing. Especially if there's no music playing. My mind is always creating music when there is none: the ticking of a fan, the hum of florescent lighting, or the sound of footsteps can all lead to my brain over-laying a tune on top of it. My toes and fingers are reacting to that. As a child I never had the language to describe it. As a young adult I figured if I told that to people, they might lock me up. Now that I am -- ahem -- mature, I'm quite comfortable with the music in my brain. TANGENT OVER. MOVE ALONG.

I spent almost a week of analyzing my disappointment to my first drum circle. Friends told me I was over-thinking the whole dealie, but that's how I process events that rub me wrong. One friend tried to make me understand that all that was needed was for me to feel the music. It wasn't necessary to think the music. I especially didn't need to over-think the music. But I did. I knew I did. How did I know? Because I couldn't get the problem out of my head.

Then the light bulb went on. I realized that what I really wanted to play was what I heard in my head and what I was hearing in my head was not a drum. A drum circle plays budda-duh-budda-duh-budda-duh-budda-duh-dum-dum-daddah. [repeat] What I was hearing in my head was tink, tink, tink, tinka-tinkahh, tink, tink, tink, tinka-tinkahh on top of the rhythm.

It came to while I was 'drumming' my fingers on the desk again. Paying better attention to what my fingers were doing -- over-thinking it, you naysayers -- I realized they weren't beating out a steady rhythm at all. My fingers were popping off accents within the rhythm. I was hearing the syncopation inside the rhythm.

Mine looked exactly like this
until I knocked the logo off
Over the next week I visited a couple of music stores and tested out a number of percussion instruments. I really liked the sound of the wood blocks, but they were all far too expensive for this weird, new obsession I was chasing. What if I didn't like it?

I finally settled on a set of claves and a cowbell. I spent the next little while practicing the claves as various genres of music played on my computer jukebox. I knew almost immediately I had found my instrument! My left hand needs to do nothing but hold a stick. How hard is that? My right hand only needs to bang another stick against it. How hard is that?

Since finding my instrument I've also learned about several different drum circles in my area. Until recently I had no idea drum circles were even a thing, but they're all over the place. There are a few nearby on each full moon and several within an hour's drive at other times during the month. There are drum circle classes and larger, yearly, conglomerations of drummers. These bring together many drum circles and people make a weekend of it and howl in the woods (in my imagination). I'm learning there's a very primal need being fulfilled with drum circles. The journalist in me says they require further investigation. The neanderthal in me just wants to bang sticks together.

I have now guest starred with a few separate drum circles, insinuating my tink, tink, tink, tinka-tinkahh, tink, tink, tink, tinka-tinkahh within the budda-duh-budda-duh-budda-duh-budda-duh-dum-dum-daddah. I've now sat in enough drum circles to note each have a different personality. I'm not quite sure how anyone else takes what I do, but I'm having a great time finally playing what I hear in my head and meeting new friends along the way.

And that's the story of how covering something as a writer changed my life.

NOT NOW SILLY NEWS FROM THE NOT NOW SILLY NEWSROOM: There are several new posts already in the works, with the research pretty much finished. Just within the last few days so many things have occurred on Charles Avenue, that I've barely had time to keep up. I have a few outstanding phone calls, but that will get its own post coming up in the next few days. I'm also part-way through documenting a second chapter of Where the Sidewalk Ends, Racism Begins. And, as I keep promising, there's a new chapter of Farce Au Pain coming up. While on the subject of books, don't miss The Johnny Dollar Wars ► Chapter and Verse, in which I expose my crazy cyber-bullies for the malevolent creeps they are, last thing Mark Koldys wants anyone to know.