Let's Get Physical

Bent at the waist, with one ear near the rim of a large hand drum, Jim Seidel listens as first-timer Gary Ling beats out a rhythm at the Roots of Rhythm drum session at Wild Oats Community Market in Fort Lauderdale. A professional percussionist who helped get the weekly gathering underway, Seidel is straining to hear Ling, who is just one of a dozen drummers playing in unison. He stops Ling, pops out a few beats by way of example, then nods approvingly at Ling's next attempt.

No one's paying attention, because they're all too busy contributing to the roar. Should someone take notice, Ling has no reason to be embarrassed. The whole point of this session is to encourage people from all walks of life -- lawyers, teachers, poets, even an anthropologist -- to participate in some form of communal ritual.

"Drumming goes beyond the music," ventures Seidel, who lives in Hollywood. "It's a great way to build and reinforce community values in people, and that's why I'm doing what I'm doing. The world needs a sense of community to come back."

It's a rain-soaked Wednesday evening, which explains why less than half of the 40-odd regulars are present. One of those who have slogged through the rain is William Bacon, a North Miami Beach public school teacher and pianist who's been drumming for only a few months. He can't stay for the entire two hours because of another commitment, but he sits in for a ten-minute jam session, which is enough to get the sweat rolling down his forehead.

"Drumming helps me get more rhythmic," he says on the way out. "And I take that back to my piano playing." It's also a chance, he claims, to let go of the intellectual and embrace the physical. "You can't get into a good rhythm and stay with it if you think too hard about it," he says.

Bill Steele of Delray Beach is the anthropologist. The 47-year-old has been playing percussion for 31 years, and tonight he's brought along two drums: a large conga and a talking drum from Ghana, originally designed to send messages, which would be tapped out Morse code-like with a curved cane stick. Here the drum is simply another rhythmic outlet.

Performance poet Ellen Thea has brought along what she calls her "percussion toys." Aside from shakers and a tambourine, she has a frame drum, which resembles a tambourine with a skin stretched across it and is beaten with a hand or mallet. Thea, who's been playing with her "toys" for less than a year, says, "I've noticed a difference in my writing since I started drumming." The energy fuels her creativity, she explains, and the rhythm is reflected in her poetry.

Newcomer Ling is learning on a djembe, an hourglass-shaped African drum that varies from 18 to 30 inches in height. Ling's drum appears to fall somewhere in the middle, and held between the knees, it demands more than muscle to sound just right. It's all in the wrist, according to Seidel, who suggests playing the drum with the sides of the hands to get a regular beat going. For deeper tones, those found in bass-drum territory, he advises Ling to beat the center of the taut membrane with an open-palmed slap.

"Try to bring the sound out with the least amount of energy put into the drum," Seidel offers to the beginners. "You'll do that [hit harder] later just because you're getting excited. If you start out that way, you won't last ten minutes."

That may be true for novices, but during extended jams the experienced players prove their dexterity and stamina. Seidel began tonight's session by asking one drummer to beat out a simple rhythm, which was soon taken up by the rest of the group. While most of the beginners stuck to the basic cadence, others began to improvise with creative flourishes and quick-fingered fills.

Now that the session is rolling, Seidel leaves his seat to "conduct" from the center of the circle. At one point he leads by example by beating a player's drum; later he presses a finger to his lips, which reduces the roar to a whisper. Then, as he raises his hands, the volume goes through the roof.

"Drumming is something that everyone can do," Seidel says. "They release their creativity. They express themselves. Before you know it, what has happened is a new community has been formed."

-- John Ferri

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John Ferri