The drum circle’s early beats began at Vance Monument

Thank you for allowing me to share a bit of true Asheville history, at least my recollections of the origins of Asheville’s drumming and how the Pritchard Park drum circle came about.

I was born and raised in Asheville. I was taught percussion at South French Broad Middle School. My love for percussion instruments has been with me my entire life and led me to teach the art of drumming at many different venues throughout Western North Carolina and elsewhere.

I had the opportunity to read the Sept. 17 article in Mountain Xpress regarding the origins of the Pritchard Park drum circle [“A Call to Drums”]. Having grown up in Asheville, I can speak with certainty about the origins of drumming here. It has been here, thriving for many years, particularly in the African-American community, where the origins of drumming go back many generations. I began teaching African drumming in Buncombe County schools to elementary, middle and high school students in the early 1990s. My students showcased their skills by performing at different venues. I also had predecessors who were drumming and teaching drumming in Buncombe County long before I came along.

In 1990, I was hired by the YMI Culture Center to teach a class called the Ancestor Legacy Tours, in which I taught drumming, making shekeres, adrinka cloths and other arts and crafts related to African culture. At the same time, I was teaching African drumming in classrooms at Asheville Middle School and a few of the elementary schools in Buncombe County, and I led workshops in Ashe County and at the McDowell County Center for the Arts.

Over time, the Ancestor Legacy Tours classes at the YMI  grew and the focus of the classes changed from arts and crafts to djembe drumming. Over those years, I amassed a large collection of djembe drums, as well as other types of hand drums and instruments, to accommodate the various sizes of my workshops and classes.

One night in August 1997, while driving home from one of my drum workshops, I contacted several friends and suggested that we go hang out downtown and drum. I provided all the drums. They agreed. There were initially six of us: Michael Forney, Gaford Funderbird, Terrance Johnson, Darius Edgerton, Dave Johnson and me, all African-Americans. We met up downtown at the fountain near Pack Place that sat right behind the Vance Monument. The fountain is no longer there. However, this is where the first public drumming started in Asheville. There were no other groups doing this outdoors in the downtown area.

After this first spontaneous drum session with my friends, we began meeting at this spot regularly on Fridays, usually after I would finish up my workshops in Ashe County. Starting around 7 p.m., we would drum for an hour or two, always drawing a large crowd from all walks of life.

Slowly, others (some friends, some strangers) would join us to drum. Our beats were resonating and full of spirit, and the spectator crowd grew much quicker than the actual drummers.

My friends and I met up that year every Friday from August through October. Occasionally, if it got too late, or if I finished work early and wanted to come out earlier than normal, my friends and I would go to The Block, aka Eagle Street. This area was more isolated and did not draw the racially diverse crowd that we would get at the fountain, but we could drum all night if we wanted to. Funny thing is, we were never harassed in this area by business owners, police or anyone else for that matter. However, we loved the diverse crowd that would gather at the fountain, making it our first preference.

By the end of 1997, the downtown crowd was large, with many stragglers joining in (strangers showing up with their own drums). People who just wanted to dance and others who just wanted to watch came to hang out with us to join in on our beats.

It was also in October 1997 that the KKK marched through Asheville. I remember this vividly because I went downtown and drummed a wild beat while the KKK was marching. As serious as this situation was, it was comical, because, as they came around the corner near where I was drumming, they couldn’t stop themselves from marching to the beat of my drum. Imagine that — the KKK marching to the beat of an African djembe drum! Poignant.

One night in late October 1997, we were approached by the Asheville police. There had been complaints from surrounding businesses about the crowds, and the resonating beats from the drums were causing a “disturbance,” the police said. At that time, the officers suggested we move our drum group to Pritchard Park. The park had not yet been renovated; that wouldn’t occur until 1999. The police also suggested that I facilitate the group. However, moving to the park meant there would be restrictions, particularly date and time restrictions.

Considering all the business obligations I was committed to, I wasn’t interested in heading up the move. After that night, my friends and I stopped drumming at the fountain — although we did continue to get together and jam on the drums on The Block and in other areas where we could jam without being harassed.

After Pritchard Park was renovated, a few of my friends that I had been drumming with, particularly Michael Forney and Dave Johnson, as well as other seasoned drummers, began gathering in the park — starting with nothing but seasoned drummers and “facilitators” but quickly gathering momentum and attracting the tourist crowd. I participated occasionally, but not as often as I used to. I didn’t have any great expectations when I went.

Through the years, I’ve known what I am in for when I get there: There are still facilitators, a handful of seasoned drummers and many amateurs trying to catch hold of a seasoned drum beat … their heart beat … a tap … their place in the beats … their own special rhythm … they’ve got it, they now are part of the group.

Not everyone can drum, but they try. Everyone has fun. This is all that matters. The energy and positive vibrations that pour out from the drum circle are inspiring. Everyone there for the same purpose — positive energy and good feelings and connection.

My wife is from the Midwest and had never seen a drum circle before we were married in 2010. I brought her to Pritchard Park to see the drum circle there. As we got closer and closer to the park, she said she could feel the energy. As the rhythmic sound of the drums, resonating through the air, got louder and louder and, at the moment when she was finally able to see the crowd that was gathered, she said, “This, to me, is equivalent to wolves howling at the moon. It’s hypnotic.”

What more can I say. Quite an analogy.

Terry Lee is an independent contractor and president of  T.L.E Company specializing in home remodeling, carpentry and masonry.   He continues to teach drumming and showcases his talents when requested. His most recent hired appearance was at Western Carolina University.




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