In some editions Sept. 17, a Metro section photo caption incorrectly identified a musician playing the tambourine in Meridian Hill Park. She is Ciji Moyo. (Published 09/18/2000)
On a patch of Northwest Washington park, they come together weekly to talk. Not with words, but through their drums.
They are African American and Native American. Cuban, Puerto Rican, Colombian and Jamaican. Sudanese and Ethiopian. In recent years, young white men and women have joined in, too.
On most any Sunday afternoon in Meridian Hill Park, there are drums. And there are drummers. On this brilliant September day, there are 30, sitting in a drumming circle whose tradition in this spot dates back more than three decades and is rooted in spiritual and cultural expression.
Sweat-soaked drummers, palms rough and calloused, pound squat West African djembes and tall, sleek congas. One of the regulars, who brings an entire rock-and-roll drum set on the back of his bicycle every week, keeps time with his cymbals. A woman hits a tambourine, and others play maracas, bongos, cowbells--there is even a flute.
Sinewy dancers stamp the earth in African-inspired movement. Children bounce, then break into dance. Adults close their eyes and sway, transported to some other place, riding the beat.
"I still remember what I wrote in my journal the first day I discovered the drum circle," said Corinna Moebius, who moved to the District in 1998 from Los Angeles. "I wrote, 'I have found my D.C. church.' I come here, and I feel this symbolizes my ideal of humanity."
Others have a different reaction. Like many of the blocks surrounding Meridian Hill, also known as Malcolm X Park, the drummers have been touched by gentrification, too. This may be music to many, but to the tenants of some of the newer apartment buildings, it is noise.
Several weeks ago, in response to complaints, the drummers were evicted from their long-held spot along the 15th Street NW/Columbia Heights side of the park and moved across the lawn to the 16th Street/Adams-Morgan side, where trees and a retaining wall help buffer the sound. Park Police also are enforcing a nightfall curfew on the drumming.
"It's always nice to be able to go to the park and see all kinds of people having fun in their own way. And that's what we want to see continue," said Rock Creek Park Superintendent Adrienne A. Coleman, who oversees Meridian Hill Park. "But it's the balance we want to see, and the balance starts tipping when someone thinks their rights are being infringed upon."
The drummers ask: Whose rights? They say that it isn't the new location that most concerns them; it's what it may forebode.
"We made the adjustment . . . to continue to play," said Barnett Williams, one of the elders of the circle. He started drumming in Meridian Hill Park in 1967 when he was 11.
"We defused it . . . but I think they're trying to eliminate us," he said. "So we're playing a chess game right now."
Not so, Coleman said.
"We don't have any intention of asking the drummers to leave," she said. "But we may have to modify the way they have been doing things."
So far, the tenants of the Park Square apartments, once a Howard University women's dormitory, have been appeased. The building was renovated and reopened two years ago, offering efficiencies at $800 a month.
Last summer, two petitions were circulated in the park. One supported imposing a 6 p.m. curfew on the drumming, the other banning the drumming altogether. Drumming devotees fought back: They signed their own petition to keep them in the park.
"The whole tradition of the African drums is very, very important to our culture," said Robin Reynolds. "But the most important thing is the sense of community. We meet our neighbors and friends here. There are regulars who always show up."
She said she was "completely outraged" when the anti-drumming petitions were circulated last year. "This was our community before they came," Reynolds said.
This summer, the issue came up again and made its way to the offices of Coleman and the Park Police.
"It was just disturbing the peace," said John Theoharis, of Peabody and Theoharis Management, which manages Park Square. "It was the intensity of the noise and the length of time. If any other type of noise was going on, I think the police would have stopped it immediately. It's amazing to me that this goes on without anyone complaining."
For more than 30 years, the drummers have been a weekend fixture, a tradition that began as an expression of black consciousness during the height of the civil rights movement. The drummers, some of whom have gone on to perform on Broadway or tour with Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone or Sun Ra Arkestra, helped sponsor the now-defunct African Liberation Day celebrations and joined the movement to rename the park for Malcolm X.
The neighbors then--and through the 1980s, when Meridian Hill was virtually abandoned by the Park Service to vandals and drug dealers--were largely poor and working-class African Americans.
"This park was for black people, and we were here when no white would have ever come in here," drummer Ervin Breeden said. "Now we have white guys playing with us."
That, as much as the gradual transformation of the neighborhood, has changed the nature of the drummers circle, said the grandfather of the group, 70-year-old Baba Ngoma. His name, which he took in the 1970s, means "Father Drum" in Swahili.
"Anyone that has a drum, or any kind of instrument, tends to come up there and join into an open free-form," he said. "But it hasn't always been that way. When it started out, it was more of a sacred thing."
Ngoma still brings his drum to the park, but many times he sits apart just to listen. "It was a cultural expression, and it had a religious connotation. Now, sometimes it is very driving and motivating, and other times it is just a bunch of cacophony."
Dissonance reigned one recent Sunday, with some of the Afro-Cuban drummers trying to vie for the lead over those playing an African beat and novices trying to keep pace with professional drummers. Some of the experienced drummers walked away for a while after the competing beats became too intense. But they eventually returned to play until the sky turned dark velvet blue.
A police car drove up a park sidewalk and stopped alongside the last three stragglers, two of them still tapping out a beat. The officer said nothing. He just made a slashing motion across his throat: time to stop.
But the drummers say that as long as the weather stays warm, they'll be back on Sunday afternoons. Some come to practice and stay in shape, others to get in touch with their cultural roots.
"I play at church first, and then I come and play here for my human spirituality," said Gerald Fitzgerald, of the District.
Still others come to pick up gigs from fellow musicians and tips from the elders. It is also cathartic.
"It's a way of expressing the way I feel about so many things," said District resident Ihab Amen, who came from the Sudan. "There is a lot of pain. I've been away from home for 15 years. This just fills me up. It recharges me."