The drum circle every Saturday and Sunday at the Ashby BART station is another one of those unique happenings that Berkeley offers for aficionados of the flea market and a collection of devoted drummers. It’s all part of their weekend routine.
Nobody can say when it started in Berkeley, but some people remember a drum circle happening in lower Sproul Plaza as long as 25 or 30 years ago. The move to the Ashby BART station happened gradually, apparently with the more serious drummers being the first to set up there and finding that venue more desirable. For one thing, there is parking nearby, which is important considering the instruments and equipment they have to carry in.
Some say that the roof overhang in front of the station where they play seems to enhance the acoustical quality, and it provides some shelter on rainy days. Yes, rainy days don’t faze them. Unless it’s really miserable those truly passionate drummers are there. And they are there from morning till night, long after the flea market closes down.
Drum circles started in Africa long before recorded history. They became part of the musical culture in the Caribbean and more recently came to the U.S. where they are still primarily carried on by African-Americans who accept it as their heritage. The instruments played come from Africa; the wooden, goblet-shaped djembe, the larger wooden barrel-shaped conga, and the bell. This is not like the round bell with a clapper that we are familiar with but a hollow piece of metal struck with sticks or a metal rod. These are the basics with various other percussion instruments included.
The bell provides the foundation. The rhythm is given by the man who strikes the bell, the others fill in and improvise around it. They get in a groove, creating intricate patterns, playing off each other, building up to a climax. Eventually some of the less experienced drummers get confused, make mistakes, the sound becomes chaotic and they stop. Everyone takes a breath as they regroup to begin again.
Fast Eddie is the man who plays the bell. He has been drumming for over 40 years, sometimes in other venues, coming here regularly for the last ten years. He talks about what it means to him. As the person setting the rhythm he has to be fully focused. “It clears my head.” More than that, “It’s part of me, it’s part of my culture.”
Art Briscoe, who plays the conga, feels the same way. At 58 and retired, he says, “it’s just a way of life for me. Every weekend I get up and think I have to come down here to play drums.” And like Eddie and the other long time serious drummers he continues to work at improving his skills. “I’m constantly evolving and studying and trying to learn.… It’s a passion that I have.”
Mike, a retired lawyer, is an Irishman from New York. He says he loves traditional Irish music but had never played anything until he began drumming.
“I was going by a drum circle one day and that’s all it took” he recalled. That was about 16 years ago. “I had a law practice for 35 years and getting down here was like going on the other side of the universe. Getting away from work, forget all about that tension. Then it became a habit.”
For Yukon Hannibal drumming is also a kind of spiritual outlet. He recalls coming to Berkeley many years ago passing by lower Sproul and hearing the drummers.
“I was so intrigued by the magical sound of the congas that I had to get a conga myself and sit there with the brothers,” he said. “Such good vibrations when we’re playing together,… and I’m still learning.”
Drum circles are often formed for ceremonial or therapeutic purposes while others, like this one, are more informal. The drummers get together to share their love of creating the rhythm and the sound of their collective effort. One described it as almost an addiction, it fills a physical and a spiritual need. Someone else talked about getting satisfaction in being “part of something big”, part of a community.
For Briscoe there is “a real community feel out here.” It’s not only the community of drummers but the flea market vendors and regulars. (The drum circle is not part of the flea market, which rents only the space in the parking lot.)
Passersby can’t help but get drawn in. Stopping to look and listen, they begin to tap their feet and start moving to the beat. There are few women drummers because it is so demanding physically, but often they will join the drum circle with some beautiful exotic improv dancing.
There may be many happenings around town but the drum circle at Ashby BART is a unique experience—and it is totally free and accessible for anyone to join in.