A call to drums: A view of Asheville’s drum-circle history

WE GOT RHYTHM: A strong, local drumming community and cooperation from downtown 
businesses helped foster Asheville’s drum circle. Photo by Susan Hutchinson

I moved to Asheville in 1996 from Santa Barbara, Calif. We had a great drum circle community out there. Every Sunday at a park, down by the beach, from early afternoon until late in the night, we would gather and drum and dance and enjoy all the beauty there. I really missed the circle when I moved here.

There was certainly some drumming going on in Asheville at the time. I played at some of the African dance classes, and there was a very small circle outside of the Westgate EarthFare on Sundays. It didn’t quite cut it, though, and I think after a while we were asked to stop playing there.

There was a history of drumming in Asheville: I’ve heard that Babatunde Olatunji had taught classes here in the ’70s. I recall Joe Roberts and Steven Trulock teaching classes when I got here. What was lacking for me, though, was that big celebration of an open drum circle with a mix of traditional rhythms and improvisational drumming.

Around 1998, River Guerguerian rolled into town, fresh from the Himalayas, as I remember, and Lonnie LaPour introduced me to him as a musical shaman. We had toddlers the same age and a mutual love for rhythm, and we hit it off. A handful of us gathered for weekly drumming and toning circles at his house in Kenilworth. I recall Joe and Debra Roberts, and Hobey and Sue Ford, Cappi Capolungo, Tata and a handful of others who would get together to make magic.

Out of that came the drumming and toning circle at the newly renovated Movement and Learning Center upstairs at the French Broad Food Co-op, as I remember.

Facilitation of that circle shifted over the years until it landed in the hands of Larry McDowell. And after all these years, he still gives his time every Monday night in service to the drumming community. It was under Larry’s leadership that a class was added to help those new to drumming and those who like a more structured circle. Through the years, various African and non-African drum teachers have taught in the space. Hats off to the French Broad Food Co-op for donating the space for the event all these years.

I met some great drum friends playing in that space. Some of these fellow skilled drummers and I would gather at our houses to learn and practice West African rhythms. It was from this group that I would recruit the Friday night drummers.

It was at the MLC drum circle one Monday night in the fall of 1999 or 2000, when the weather was much nicer outside than inside, when the concept of drumming outside was raised. We tried up at Vance Monument a couple times on Monday nights. Back then, the restaurants didn’t like the transients that hung out there and would call the cops to run any drummers off. It wasn’t all that great of a space either — too many cars and not enough room. Michael (I forget his last name) suggested the newly renovated Pritchard Park as a location and I jumped on the idea.

The new park was perfect for us drummers, with the amphitheater seating, room to dance and nature present — all in the center of town. I’ve got a lot of gratitude for Asheville creating what Pritchard Park is today.

That week, I made and posted some new drum circle fliers around town and called all my drumming buddies and invited them down to the park on Friday. That first night there were about 10 of us drummers and a handful of spectators taking it all in. It was great. As I recall, those in attendance in the early days were me, Serifa Markus, Daniel Barber, Jerry Donoghue, Lisa Wolfe, Eddy Greene, John Caterpillar, Kevin Staak, Andrew Weatherly, Bill Cavallaro, Michael and Larry McDowell. I’m sure I’m missing a few of you — sorry.

We played traditional rhythms and some improvisational pieces and took turns playing solos. The music was very clean and cooperative. The Friday night circle was very much a continuation of those of us getting together to learn and practice and have fun. There was structure and discipline to it. The circle died off over the winter as the weather turned foul, but I called and got people back out in the spring and it just took off from there.

I have a very vivid memory of being at the circle the next spring and taking a break from drumming and just looking up and around at all that had gathered there. There were hundreds of people having a great time, many of them having an ecstatic time. For some, it was all brand new. For others, it was a return to a drum circle they had left elsewhere. It came across as something that was missing, but people didn’t realize it until it was there.

I had the thought: All this took was a few phone calls; it was an idea that was totally ready to happen and just needed the slightest of budges.

The circles got huge real quick and were getting shut down due to noise complaints. We had to go through a period of getting legit with the city. We had to fight for the circle, as some of the folks who bought the new million-dollar condos at the time were complaining about the noise. The complaints seemed crazy to us: Why move into the middle of a city if you don’t like noise?

We owe a lot to Gregg Levoy, who went around and interviewed all the businesses in the vicinity of the drum circle. All the businesses were in support of us; we brought in big crowds that would eat and shop as well. A few of us met with Asheville’s police chief and city manager and presented our case. We all came to an agreement and got proper permits in place and agreed to end by 10 p.m.

The Asheville Downtown Association has backed us; the city provides free use of the park and blocks out Friday nights for us solely during drumming season. The local Chamber of Commerce and other associations devoted to supporting the city’s economy have used the circle to promote Asheville. We’ve been featured or mentioned in papers all over the country at this point and recently on David Letterman. Other people have used our circle as a model for creating circles in their town. There are hundreds of YouTube videos of the circle, if not thousands. Members of the circle have jammed with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead and opened for Smashing Pumpkins at the Orange Peel. All this “success” has had a downside though.

I wasn’t really excited about the growth of the circle, to tell the truth. It has turned into too much of a good thing for me. While I’m happy to report we’ve managed to keep it noncommercialized and ungoverned, that lack of control has led to what many call a “thunder drum” circle. At least in the later hours of the night, it’s a bit of a cacophony. Thunder drumming is basically beating the crap out of your drum; its therapeutic and primal. Lot’s of people get lots of joy out of that. I don’t personally.

The circle no longer supports my original vision and what it used to be in the early days — a music circle. Drums are instruments, and the original group was into learning how to play them well and cooperatively. We were an ensemble, in which you listen to the other players and play instruments and parts that fit together as a whole, as has been done traditionally since prehistory

Drums, bells and shakers are some of the few instruments people assume everyone can play. Many think all you have to do is grab one and bang on it. While that is an option, it’s a painful option for those that have been trained to listen to the other parts and make it all work together. If someone is playing erratic and off-tempo, it takes work to block them out and try to listen to those that are playing well and in tempo. The bigger the circle has gotten, the more novice players have shown up, which in turns drives away the more experienced players, which drives the quality of the music down. It’s much more fun when the groove is thick and supported. Chaos doesn’t lead to dancers shaking their booty. My wish for the circle is that more people think of drums as instruments, like a guitar or flute, and take lessons and learn how to play them well, and then come jam out with us.

Asheville Drum Classes

Mondays, 7-8:30 p.m. upstairs of French Broad Food Co-op with Larry McDowell

Tuesdays, 6:30-7:30 p.m. at Asheville Music School, 126 College St.

Wednesdays, 6 p.m. at Skinny Beats on Eagle Street, with Billy Zanski

Thursdays, 6 and 7:15 p.m. at Odyssey Community School, with River Guerguerian

Saturdays, 4 p.m. Carver Center, Black Mountain, with Steven Townsend

Sundays, 2 p.m. at Skinny Beats on Eagle Street, with Billy Zanski

Sunny Keach, co-owner of the Asheville Yoga Center, has been making and playing drums since the early ’ 80s and totally loves to get his groove on.

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One thought on “A call to drums: A view of Asheville’s drum-circle history

  1. HAha

    Cry baby. Your understanding of traditional is worn thin. You say a bunch of ya’ll were side men? oohh. side men. how note worthy! And you got blurbed on letterman? no way! Did you ever hear of gil scott heron? check out his most famous song… “The revolution will NOT be televised” What you all do is an anal retentive narrow minded form of ‘Yuppy’ drumming. The drumcircle happens despite ya’ll. people would be there whether it was tin cans or singing cats. It’s a tourist town! That’s why you went down town with your cronies! To get attention by way of spectacle. Its spectacle and thats NOT in anyway African or new age!. Spectacle is the way true culture is enfeebled. You play traditional rhythms? So when you play Kuku you have gone to fish ? When you play the young girls initiation dances with no one being initiated this is traditional. You play ‘traditional’ interpretations of African Patterns but this is like eating the plate and leaving the food. You are no more traditional than a museum directer of African antiquities is. So silly this bs.

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