Drawn Into a Circle of Drum-Driven Rhythms
By Heather Murphy
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, Sept. 21, 2006
There is something hypnotizing about the ritual that keeps people going back, week after week, year after year, even if they don't play an instrument or dare to dance.
On Sundays for more than 40 years, the Meridian Hill Park drum circle has been bringing people together from across the region.
Every week, so long as Mother Nature permits, dancers, drummers and spectators of all ages and backgrounds gather in the park from 3 to 9. It usually starts with just a few people, but by late afternoon, it often grows into a crowd of hundreds.
Following the music to the edge of the park (also known as Malcolm X Park) in Northwest Washington, you never know exactly what you'll find. In the past three to five years, as the ritual has exploded in popularity, the circle has turned into a sort of human circus. On any given Sunday there might be capoeira artists tumbling over one another's heads, tightrope walkers dangling between two trees or a punk woman shaking her hula hoop to the West African beat.
"It's the safety valve for the mental health of the city," says Kevin Lambert, a journalist who lives in Columbia Heights and has been drumming at the circle for about 13 years. "The one place where people can jump up and down and scream without being carted off to jail."
It is a place where anything goes and people who would normally have nothing to do with one another choose to interact.
On a recent Sunday, a man with mismatched shoes handed out sticks of sandalwood incense to a group of picnicking preppies.
Across the way, a middle-aged German woman did a choppy African-inspired stomp, her fanny pack shaking up and down.
"Come dance," professional dancer King Baba James of Nigeria urged a group of young women before kicking his legs up and flying through the air.
"When I started coming here like 10 years ago, I was the only one dancing and teaching classes," said James, who performs across the region as part of Malcolm X Drummers and Dancers. James is now only one of several expert dancers who take it upon themselves to motivate spectators to start moving.
At the center of it all is always a circle of percussionists. The group varies in character and number every week, and consequently so does the music.
On a recent Sunday they played drums of all shapes and sizes, including djembes, congas, bongos and timbales. A few play cowbells, tambourines and even pieces of metal. There were professional drummers, such as Mamadi Nyasuma, who has played with the likes of Stevie Wonder, and there were novices who have owned drums for less than a month.
"One of the main reasons I go out there is because I enjoy the tremendous mixture of classes of human beings," said Doc Powell, founder of the Malcolm X Drummers and Dancers, who was one of the first people to play in the circle in the '60s. In 1975, Powell founded Malcolm X Drummers and Dancers, a group of performing artists that grew out of the cultural activities at the park.
Though the music appears to rise and fall spontaneously, master drummers like Powell are actually carefully directing the Cuban and West African rhythms. Some newcomers follow attentively, while others bang wildly, oblivious to the tradition.
"This is [a] new phenomenon, people just wanting to release energy," says Baba Aziz, a professional musician and drumming instructor who lives in Mount Pleasant. When Aziz started playing in the circle 20 years ago while studying at Howard University, no one dared to bang, he says.
Besides the tightrope walkers and wild hula hoopers, there is a history and tradition that is sacred to many. According to a widely accepted version of the circle's birth, the gathering began as a way to commemorate Malcolm X after his death in 1965.
"Drummers came in to hold him up in the form of a circle," says William Taft, co-chairman of the Capital City Juneteenth and U.S. Emancipation Day Council. After that, they kept doing it every week, drumming to honor the fallen leader and to express their African heritage.
The drum circle attracted the best musicians in the city and beyond. It became a place to hone one's craft, meet strangers and find old friends.
Sitting at its helm, year after year was Barnett Williams. As the neighborhoods around the park changed and newcomers flowed into the circle, Williams emphasized that anyone who respected the rhythms could join in. He taught newcomers, challenged old-timers, maintained order and provided inspiration, veterans say.
When Williams died in March, some feared that the tradition would go with him.
But the circle continues evolving like the neighborhoods around it.
"The energy is the same," says Tony Duncanson of Rockville, who began attending the circle in 1965. "But it's taken on a life of its own."