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The NBUU Circle: A History



As legend has it, one Sunday during a church coffee hour a woman approached me and asked if I would be interested in joining a drum circle she was planning to start. I asked her how she knew I played drums. She said, "I didn't. Do you play?" I replied, "Maybe you should tell me what a drum circle is, exactly..."
Over the next year about eight of us would gather monthly and drum together. I was the only experienced drummer in the group in that first year so I did my best to restrain myself and concentrated on finding my place in the mix. I worked on being heard without being overwhelming. I noticed how close...how connected... I felt to everyone.
By the end of that year we had our first 'gig'. We would be providing the music to the churches Kwanzaa service!
It was a success and we got some recognition from the rest of the church. We had learned to play together!
At this point my wife got involved...both drumming and playing flute every 3 or 4 songs. About a handful of others joined too at this time. Two distinct styles were developing: The very powerful, upbeat African, Middle Eastern and Latin-inspired rhythms and the quiet, more meditative ensemble pieces. I realized what was happening. We had developed an unspoken rule that allowed any member to start a piece of drum music. The rest of us followed suit...backing up that piece the best we could while preserving the original mood and rhythm. Sometimes a piece of drum music would go through several transformations. The more we played...the more intuitively we created together.
Then the real gigging began. We were invited to open for a local jazz festival...which led to an invitation to open for a local percussion festival. Performing was always voluntary so you never knew who would do the gig. The more we gigged, the more people became interested in playing with us. Numbers of us played for several Earth Day parades, a local First Night celebration, public schools, church services, a teen retreat, a Beltane festival as well as other C.U.U.P.S. events...Several of us were even invited to drum at the head of Providence's First Night parade!
One evening we were talking between drum pieces and one of the members expressed the desire to learn some basic drumming techniques. Many of the novices agreed. For the next few months I thought about what I could teach novices that would allow them to develop skills independently. I taught one class and the group later asked for a follow-up class. That was how my Intro to Drum Circles workshop was born. I would later start teaching it through the local adult education network. It too, seeded the drum circle. The students who really loved drumming in class would make the transition to the NBUU circle.
By the time we moved to Maine in late December 2002, there were 60 people on the NBUU email list. We had gone from 8 people to 60 in 5 years! As I recall, our record attendance was 27 people in one night! I was no longer the only experienced drummer in the group. We had been joined by incredible lead drummers. We had strong, solid heartbeat drummers. We had creative geniuses who could place a single sound where it made all the difference.
I am proud and privileged to have been associated with that incredible group of people. Together we created moments ...of music ...of laughter ...of peace ...of community... that will be forever in our hearts.


Ralph and Rick dueting at Oakwoodstock 2004

One evening, Ralph and Rick decided to "duet" on Ralph's great big African kettle drum he called "Bertha." It wasn't really meant to be a duet...they thought they were just starting a beat. But when they got going, the playing was so intense and so connected that all the other drummers just watched.
Ed was there that night and was so moved by that moment (which would become a circle tradition) that he wrote this wonderful piece to describe it:


By Ed Rooney

You have to see it.

I’ve heard the recording and it just doesn’t catch it. It’s not a strictly auditory thing. You need to be there. You need your eyes.

You have to see it.

Dig. The big guy almost dances up to the drum, gleeful, mallets waving loosely in his hands. The other one, lean, tight, hawk-like and intense, is already seated and glowering over a huge kettle of wood and leather.

Their eyes meet for a moment over the surface of the drum and the rhythm seems to start out of nowhere. They don’t so much play it as conjure it. Deep, driving, compact thunder, reaching you from the soles of your feet as much as your ears This is a rhythm to dance the gods into your body. Possession rhythm.

Presiding over this barrel of sound, the hawk does not waver. He leans into the drum, his head cocked at an inquisitive angle, every muscle in his face, in his whole frame, set. Taut. Listening. You can almost see the energy vibrating under his skin. He.barely moves anything but his wrists. There is no other motion from that side of the drum.

The big guy is another story. A face splitting grin, laughing, head bobbing, shoulders rolling, the great belly shaking, his eyes as bright as a child’s. His whole body caught up and playing with the rhythm. If you can dance in your seat and drum, that’s what he’s doing.

The power of the sound is carrying us all off, awed and enraptured. Heartbeat and breath join the drumbeat automatically.

The lead of the rhythm passes between them, volleyed back and forth across the drum like a tennis ball. It passes without a gesture, without a hitch, anticipated.

This is one kick ass riff, and it’s getting faster Now both of them are sweating, droplets flying off the big guy’s face as his head sways wildly. I think if it got disengaged from his heaving shoulders right now, he’d just keep drumming; the head rolling under a chair, still laughing.

The hawk still hasn’t twitched above the forearms, but as the sweat runs down his face, an almost imperceptible smile cracks the fierce expression. His eyes glitter.

They’re playing so fast now the sound is almost changing to light. You can’t even see the head of the mallets any more, just a blurred arc over the surface of the drum. The world begins to disconnect. The pounding is causing the room to melt, to unhinge and roll with the deep pulse. They are both lost, gone into the rhythm, and the rest of us are nearly gone with them. The drummers have almost merged to become a part of the instrument, the rest of us, part of the sound.

It ends sharp and tight and right and there is a two beat pause as we all return, rushing back from wherever we’ve been taken and the whoops and applause fill the space left by the drummers, both of them now laughing, reaching over the drum and shaking hands in triumph.

This stuff just does not happen on tape.


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