Keeping the Beat
The Southport Drum Circle extends an open invitation to anyone who would like to share in the art of drumming.
The fun, camaraderie and sheer joy of feeling music and responding to the beat that the Southport Drum Circle participants share all started because a man named Tim Terman went to a movie, and that movie introduced him to the djembe drum. Here’s what happened.
On a Saturday night in 2007, Terman watched the movie The Visitor. It is about a professor who lived in Connecticut but kept an apartment in New York City, which he rarely visited. On one rare occasion when he did, he was startled to see it was occupied by two illegal immigrants. The professor felt sorry for them so he let them stay on. One of them was an exceedingly gifted djembe drummer, and the professor became fascinated by the instrument and eventually learned to play it. On seeing this in the movie, Terman was immediately intrigued by the djembe and decided that if he ever saw a drum circle meeting nearby, he would join it.
The next Monday morning he saw a sign on a kiosk in the middle of Morgantown, West Virginia, inviting guests to come to a drum circle on the following Saturday afternoon. From that day on, Terman was hooked.
Terman and his wife moved to Southport in August of 2014, and in 2015 he started the Southport Drum Circle, first on the grounds of Franklin Square Gallery and then at the Senior Resources Center. With the Senior Resources Center closed due to COVID, they now meet at Dutchman Creek Park off Fish Factory Road every Friday at 2 pm. All ages, youth to seniors, are invited to join them.
This is a wonderfully eclectic group of accomplished drummers, and they welcome all newcomers whether they are an experienced drummer or have never even seen a djembe (pronounced JEM-bay) drum before.
Bobbie Acker is proof of that. She was loaned a drum and encouraged to try it out by her good friends and longtime drummers, Zeb and Julie Starnes. “It is incredibly easy to play and it’s great fun,” Acker says. “I just watched the person next to me and I thought, ‘I got it.’”
Tina Nelson organizes the group but likes to share the leadership role with anyone who feels inspired at the moment to take the lead and set the beat. Others add to it as they wish, some playing more complicated rhythms in time with the beat and less experienced drummers adding only one or two beats. Nelson says it is very free form. “It’s all about what you want to get out of it,” she says.
According to Joni Knapp, another of the longtime, accomplished players, sometimes an experienced player will play for a short time and then revert back to the basic rhythm, allowing another player to take the lead and play something fancy. “I enjoy presenting some true structured African rhythms with several parts,” Knapp says, “and many regulars learn the parts; others just play what they feel and that’s okay too. The drum circle is not a performance; it is a form of communication, back and forth, always going back to the basic rhythm.”
Some drum circles, like the one that meets at Bottega in Wilmington, occasionally have belly dancers join their group. Nelson says she hopes the Southport Drum Circle will one day have dancers as part of their group as well.
To celebrate the rich cultural history of the djembe tradition, the group often starts with a Nigerian welcoming chant called Fanga Alafia, which means “Hello, welcome.” The djembe drum is 400 to 800 years old and was created during the Malian Empire by the Mande people, who played it and felt a spiritual connection with the rhythm of life. It is said that the first djembes were made by blacksmiths who custom fit each one to its owner. The making of the drum was a sacred endeavor, and the owner who had it commissioned was responsible for carrying on the oral history of his people.
As popular as the djembe was in Africa, it did not make its way to the United States until sometime in the 1960s, when an African by the name of Babatunde Olatunji was a student at New York University and started a small percussion group to earn some extra money. Some years later his group was picked up by Columbia Records, and they recorded the first in a series of albums called Drums of Passion. Today drum circles are very popular in the United States.
Most members of the Southport Drum Circle play the djembe because it is the easiest to learn; however, some play a different kind of drum. One gentleman plays the Remo Rhythm Lids. These are steel lids that fit on top of almost any five-gallon bucket or pail. They can be purchased on the internet for as little as $10 to $50. Another woman plays the dundun drum, which lays parallel to the ground and is hit on both ends. Then there is Nick Zaccaro, who used to teach the drums; he plays two congas. For first-timers who may feel intimidated by all this, Nelson brings a selection of easy-to-play percussion instruments for their use.
Experienced drummers will tell you that the choice of which djembe to buy is as individual as the person playing it. They suggest that a beginner try several before making a buying decision, and they are very generous about loaning their drum to help you make the right choice. There are all different sizes, materials and prices, from $50 to $500, depending on the construction, the complexity of the design and the materials used.
Each player brings his or her own chair and plays under huge beautiful old shade trees, which are large enough to allow social distancing no matter how many people show up. They will continue to meet at Dutchman Creek Park until the Senior Resources Center reopens.
Want to play?
For more information, check out Southport Drum Circle on Facebook at facebook.com/groups/SPdrumcircle