The rhythm of the city: The Meridian Hill Park drum circle evolves

August 28, 2014
For nearly 50 years, Sunday has been a day of dancing and drumming in D.C.'s Meridian Hill Park. The Washington Post's Jahi Chikwendiu has been filming the drum circle and all of its spirited participants for two years. (Jahi Chikwendiu and Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

Summer’s Sunday circle of drums and dancers has been a constant heartbeat of D.C.’s Meridian Hill Park for nearly 50 years.

The circle is said to have officially started the week of the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. “It started as a spiritual revival,” says Bill “Babalu” Caudle, who, at 63, has drummed there since the early 1970s. “It was about black awareness — self-awareness, cultural awareness. It was an all-black neighborhood.”

As Chocolate City has changed, so has the circle. In 1992, it was not easy for Kevin Lambert to be one of the first white guys to play. “There was a kerfuffle,” he recalls, but one early member, Barnett Williams, put to rest the idea of Lambert not playing.

Today, the circle is a rainbow of people, the rhythms a soundtrack for yoga, hula-hooping, slacklining, whatever.

The gathering is open to anyone with something to strike, shake or scrape, but there’s a fine line between individuality and democracy. The playing must serve the beat, and the beat must serve the group.

“It’s become a jamboree,” Caudle says. “Jubilee is good but … some form still has to exist. It has to be a celebration of life, not so much a celebration of self. A lot of respect has been lost just for the science of drum music.”

William H. Taft, who has overseen the circle’s park permit for about 20 years, is campaigning to make it a national landmark. “I want to die knowing this thing never dies,” he says.

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