Every Sunday there is a drum circle at Griffith Park near Crystal Springs Drive past the first sign directing guests towards the merry-go-round. People from all walks of life gather under large trees to play traditional African and Cuban drums such as congas, tom-tom drums, timbales, small percussion, cow bells, shakers and cabasas from noon until sundown.
Christine Leal, 28, has been playing the drums since she was 4-years-old. She said she especially enjoys drums because of ‘the way they talk to each other.’ To her, the instruments played back and forth become dialogue between drummers and their instruments.
She added that drumming is also about stress relief and ‘channeling energy.” The connection felt while drumming is like nothing else, she said, ‘You can drum for hours and it makes you lively.’
Leal said the first rhythm she ever learned was a bembe as she hit the edge of her little drum on her lap called a djembe. She hit the drum’s edge close to her with one hand, hit the edge further away with her other hand, and continued switching between hands. Four beats later, she played a small triangle twice, hitting the edge closer to her first and then tapping on the outer edge.
‘This is the bembe,’ she said.
Right outside the drum circle, Valerie Pomerantz slowly moved to the rhythm while her husband danced with their 18-month-old toddler in one arm. The boy held on tightly, clutching his dad’s T-shirt with his tiny fists. ‘He’s a bit scared, but if we come here often, I’m sure he’ll get used to it,’ said Pomerantz, adding they were at the Griffith Park playground when they heard the music and came over.
‘ ‘I’ve lived in many hippie towns,’ she said. ‘This one seems to have a good mix of people. They’re not just rope-head Rastafarians.’
It’s typical on a Sunday to see young couples sharing food on picnic blankets on the grass.
A few steps away from the drummers, as if especially choreographed to match the rhythmic beats, two little boys were sword fighting with sticks while their parents cheered.
For musician Jeff Mortimer, 41, drumming is a form of meditation.
‘It helps me focus my mind,’ said Mortimer.
He compared the drum circle to friends gathering and taking turns telling musical stories. ‘Doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s the same language,’ he said.
According to Mortimer, there are teachers as well as students who gather each Sunday to learn from each other.
Mel Wiggins was one of the teachers Mortimer referred to. Wiggins, 58, started playing the drums at 22 as a way to relieve aggression and then began to really enjoy it. ‘It’s like anything else. If you find a food you like, you eat it. It’s just like that,’ he said. ‘Over the years, the drum circle has become more of a tradition than anything else,’ he added.
Wiggins said drumming requires discipline and patience. It took him a long time and a lot of discipline to master the tumbao rhythm, a beat of Afro-Cuban origin played on the bass drum.
‘Look at my hands,’ he said, proudly showing the calluses on his palms. Then he demonstrated the beat saying, ‘Heel, tip, slap, tip, boom, boom’hellip;’
Wiggins added, ‘Some play because they know the rhythms and others play what they feel. If the rhythm is good, it would still be in my mind the next day. I’ll wake up and I can still feel the movement of it.’