The beat goes on

“They are getting noise complaints and that’s real. But the drum circle is real too.”

— Drummer Gregg Levoy

Odd as it may seem, when drummers gathered in Asheville last Friday night — just one week after being dispersed by the police — some did so hoping to get noise complaints.

Prichard Park drummers
photo by Jonathan Welch

But this apparent act of civil disobedience — in defiance of the city’s July 14 crackdown on the longtime Pritchard Park tradition — was in fact held with police blessings.

The intention, says Asheville Police Department Captain Tim Splain, was to draw out the complainants so they would become part of a negotiation process already underway. “We’re in kind of an evaluation mode, to see what the level of complaints are,” he explains.

The strategy emerged from a July 20 meeting between drummers, Splain and Assistant City Attorney Curt Euler. So it was according to plan that the drum circle gathered again at Pritchard Park, with the promise from Splain that he would instruct his officers to “stand down.” If noise complaints rolled in, Splain told Xpress, officers would go to the caller’s residence to gauge the noise level themselves and then urge the residents to come forward and enter into some form of mediation with the musicians.

“We’d like to talk to them too,” explains Euler. “I think we would like to get all the parties together … so that the drum circle can keep going.”

Euler’s sentiments are shared at least in part by the city, which acknowledges the drum circle’s value to downtown business and culture. Lauren Bradley, the city’s public information officer, emphasized an interest in working with the drummers to resolve the situation, telling Xpress that “Pritchard Park is not completely off the table.”

“It’s just a wonderful community-building event,” asserts drummer Sunny Keach. “It’s one of these events that makes Asheville what Asheville is.”

Drummer Gregg Levoy was at the July 14 circle when it was broken up by police, who were responding to a handful of complaints about the cacophany. He told Xpress that two officers “very politely” told the drummers they were no longer allowed to use the park. The circle then moved to Pack Square, where the drumming continued.

Levoy and others quickly set out to highlight the drum circle’s positive impact on the city. “They are getting noise complaints and that’s real,” Levoy says. “But the drum circle is real too.”

A former journalist, Levoy prepared a defense of the circle by calling more than a dozen businesses near or next to Pritchard Park. He says he found overwhelming support for the Friday-night drumming, because the crowd that is drawn by the sounds generates significant business for the surrounding shops and eateries.

Levoy said that to persuade the city of this, the drummers would have to produce such facts. “We’re not going to be able to go in there, raise a fist and scream about people power,” he said.

In light of the small number of complaints the circle has received, Levoy believes the support shown the week after the crackdown makes a good case for the drum circle’s continued existence.

“This seems to come down to the proverbial ‘greater good’ — the number of people who are put out by it versus those who benefit from it,” he argues.

But the fact remains that more and more people are moving downtown. Condos are filling, and instead of falling on just restaurant windows and boarded-up storefronts, the thunder of the weekly ritual increasingly makes its way through bedroom windows.

“What we’re seeing is [that] our downtown occupancy is sort of hitting critical mass,” Splain observes. For new residents, he said, the issue is one of “enjoying your property in this huge swirling activity of downtown.”

The letter of the law

Asheville’s noise ordinance is not only complaint-based — in other words, no complaints generally means no police — but it’s also pegged to the subjective valuation of what is loud to a “reasonable person,” Euler observes. The standard is a fuzzy one, contingent not only on time and place of the noise, but also on the person making the complaint.

While a single complaint can trigger a police response, two or more people from separate residences can, without any police involvement, file an official complaint. Such complaints are then presented before the city’s Noise Ordinance Appeals Board.

The drum circle has a few options for working within the system. A co-sponsorship by the city would effectively protect the gathering from noise complaints, as would a judgment in their favor by the Noise Ordinance Appeals Board. Both options are under consideration, says Keach.

In the immediate future, Keach hopes the circle will self-regulate noise levels and perhaps voluntarily quit a bit early in order to extend an olive branch to neighbors. But the circle faces its own interal obstacles. Because of its spontaneous nature, it lacks any centralized organization. One player’s fair deal may be another’s raw deal.

Spontaneous combustion

Evening drumming and conflict with neighboring residents are not unique to Asheville. Since the new-bohemian resurrection of the 1990s, drum circles have drawn both awe and ire, depending on who’s listening.

Around the country, drum circles are handled with varying degrees of city discussion and police involvement. In some cities, the events are tolerated. In other towns, circles have required delicate negotiations, with a give-and-take between drummers and city officials. In a few rare instances, like Salt Lake City in 1999, drum circles were broken up by riot police. In the most extreme instances, on-site drug use has resulted in police intervention. That’s not the case in Asheville, where police and drummers have long shared a polite discourse.

The drum circle’s loose organization makes for an organic, changing event. Even Keach, who founded the drum circle, isn’t exactly sure when the Friday-night ritual moved to the recently redesigned Pritchard Park. “It was one of those things that was just an instant hit,” he says. As the event grew both in drummers and spectators, so did the drummers’ contact with the authorities. Those encounters, drummers and police agree, were always cordial, with the officers alerting drummers to the 10 p.m. quitting time and the drummers agreeably shutting down. In more recent times, the drummers have honored the curfew of their own accord.

Despite its live-and-let-live history, this isn’t the first time the drum circle has fought to stay in the park. Last year, drummers came before City Council to argue their position at the park, which was then being trumped by city-issued permits for other events. The group and the city arrived at a fragile truce, with the drummers officially obtaining a pass to play at the park once a month. But the drumming phenomenon was larger and more spontaneous than its more structured event — and the weekly sessions continued.

Last Friday, dozens of drummers and hundreds of spectators took in the beat-filled park. Reportedly, the police logged no noise complaints.

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