And the Beat Goes On

Posted November 11, 2011 at 5:23pm

Neal Goldfarb may be a lawyer, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy a good drum circle now and then.

As an attorney who focuses on litigation, the Washington resident can often be found during his off hours at local drum circles and classes. 

“It’s not your typical lawyer scene,” he said.

Goldfarb is one of a number of local drummers who defies the drum circle stereotypes being revived by the liberal Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and D.C.

In recent weeks, drum circles have become a kind of shorthand for protesters as well as the butt of many jokes. Pundits such as Bill Maher and P.J. O’Rourke have made fun of the “hippies” playing “bongo drums,” in keeping with a reputation that dates back to the 1960s.

But drummers say politics is often the furthest thing from their mind.

Elementary school teacher and drum circle enthusiast Nelly Hill, 62, said she does it to improve her listening skills and find a sense of community. She says the idea that drum circles are liberal hangouts is wrong.

“Back in the ’60s, yes, they were all like that,” she said. “But it has evolved, and it’s not your grandfather’s drum circle anymore.”

For local participants, drum circles are a place to relax, make friends, practice a musical skill and even get a workout.

Jonathan Murray, a teacher and founder of the Drum Circle Facilitators Guild, sees drum circles as a space for people to get away from the stress of the workweek.

“My drum programs bring better interaction and something that is fun where they get to blow off steam,” he said. “It’s like a stress-relief program.” 

For Kristen Arant, drum circles are more then just music.

“[Drum circles] healed me, so I wanted to empower young women with drum.” 

In 2005, Arant started the Young Women’s Drumming Empowerment Project, which works to empower young women through positive development, self-esteem and creative self-expression through drumming. The project focuses on students from 8 to 22 years old. 

“We have a mission that goes beyond drumming,” she said.

Many drummers say they find the hippie stigma of drum circles annoying.

Katy Gaughan, a drum circle facilitator from the group “Music Heals. Us,” says the stereotype is a disservice to drumming.

“Right now, [drum circles] are getting a bad rap with all the Occupy DC stuff, and it’s just ignorance,” she said. “It’s not just hippies banging drums in the street.” She says the politically oriented drum circles she has observed at Occupy DC are not facilitated or structured, but something she calls “thunder drumming.”

“If you’re down on Wall Street, and you’ve got go to work, and you hear this, you’re probably like, ‘What is this?’” she said. “It’s chaos and noise.”

Others say the drum circles they’ve seen at the protests simply aren’t very good.

Mark Nickens, a D.C. street performer, visits and plays music on the corner of 15th and K streets Northwest, at the heart of the Occupy DC protests. He says their drum circles lack organization and musicality. 

“I can’t be a part of anything like that,” he said. “I tap them on the shoulder and tell them to stop.”

When Nickens receives resistance from drummers he reacts like an angry banker.

“I will stop playing and leave,” he said, animatedly. “If they are gonna do what they do, then fine, hippie, go do what you want!”

Still, not every drum enthusiast gets that worked up about it.

In a cozy music studio in Northwest, Goldfarb sits with his eyes calmly shut. His legs cradle a large West African djembe drum, while his hands fluidly strike its surface to the rhythmic groove of “Badabada-tock-tock. Badabada-tock-tock.” 

With their teacher away, his fellow drum students chime in together, joining in unison, “Badabada-tock-tock. Badabada-tock-tock.” 

They smile happily through each four-count measure. Then, after Goldfarb mistakenly loses count, a sly grin washes over his face. 

“If I’m called a hippie, then I don’t really care,” he said. “It’s fun just being part of a big rhythm and making music.”