Originally published on The Pillar, November 2012
If I stop playing for a minute, I can feel the beat pulsing through me, the collective beat of 400 drums playing in time together, 400 pairs of hands slapping down on the plastic drums, and 400 voices yelling the melody back at full volume. My hands are red and painful from the frenzied, repetitive drumming, but the noise and stimulation makes it easy for me to ignore them. I can barely distinguish the sound of my drum from the sound of the drums around me and the crisp, syncopated beats coming to me from the stage through the speakers around me.
* * *
My fellow drummers are delegates of the 2012 Round Square Conference in South Africa. We were not given any explanation about what we were about to do, we were just told to all get a drum and sit down. It is about 8:00 p.m. and we are at an outdoor theater about 45 minutes away from Penryn College, the school hosting the conference. We had smoky BBQ chicken for dinner as we listened to Penryn students perform in small groups.
There is a drumming group that has come bearing drums for us to play. They get no introduction, but just get up on stage and begin playing. The six guys in jeans and t-shirts on stage are all smiling really big and look like they completely enjoy what they do for a living. There is no pressure for us because no matter how loudly or how out of sync we play, we will be drowned out by the collective noise and the steady beat of those on stage. The energy is amazing. People who back in their respective countries would be the cool, laid-back kids are really into it.
A few of the students from Penryn are dancing in the middle of the amphitheater. As our hands become tender and raw from drumming, more and more people get up to join them. Along with my new friend from Thailand, Minnie, who was born in the year of the mouse and named after Minnie Mouse, I join the throngs of people dancing. I have never danced to simply a drum beat before, but it was easier than I would have expected. I didn’t care how silly I looked, because I had never seen or met most of these people before and they would probably not remember me. Even if they did, I didn’t really care because I was enjoying myself so much.
Big circles of people form and someone leads a dance move or movement that everyone else follows. It is the kind of thing that would seem really stupid by yourself, but when you are doing it with several dozen other people it is entrancing. Circles break up and form new circles as leaders emerge. Every now and then the lead drummer sings out a phrase and everyone yells it back. Maybe it is in Zulu or something, but it sounds like gibberish to me, and even more like gibberish when 400 teenagers from different countries yell it back.
When I was in middle school, as a community building day we had someone come to our school with 150 drums of various sizes and types. This is how I remember it: the whole middle school sat in the main hall in a big circle on chairs that had been set up in neat rows. No one was allowed to touch an instrument for the first half hour or so while we talked about (or rather were talked at) respecting each other by playing only when we were supposed to. We were told that a drum circle would help us build our community and bring us closer together. The drummer who had come to teach us clearly explained what we would be doing. Then we finally got to play, certain groups at a time playing exactly what he told us to. Other sections were gradually added in a very organized, structured way, and after each activity we stopped and discussed what we had noticed and learned about playing with others.
My hands at the end of that day were exactly the same color as they had been that morning. I remember feeling frustrated that during the community building day, we had spent so little time drumming and so much time talking about drumming.
* * *
When the time for the final piece comes, the drummer with the microphone starts singing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” the South African National Anthem. The plurality of students at this conference is from Penryn or other schools in South Africa, and many of the students start singing at the top of their lungs. I can feel their pride in their country and history, and for the first time I feel I am beginning to understand African culture. Mark had suggested we try to learn as much as we could of the national anthem before we left, and I am glad that I am able to stumble through the first verse (there are five different languages represented in their national anthem). I know no one can hear me and none of the other students would care, but after two weeks of witnessing foreign views of Americans, I feel happy that I made an effort to learn something about this country. As I head off to the bathroom in an attempt to beat the rush following the performance, I try to imprint my brain with the feeling of this night; the feeling of being absolutely and totally one with a group of 400 people, all completely different from me, but in that moment completely unified.
Read more about the trip here:
Africa photo from http://www.round-square.co.za/