The rhythm goes respectable
May 29th 2003 | CHICAGO
From The Economist print edition
Now it's for corporate executives and old buffers too
SITTING in concentric tiers, they beat on their African drums into the
early-morning hours. All eyes are on the woman in the centre, who
gyrates to the rhythm wearing an outfit that is part punk, part bellydancer: nose-ring, five-inch platform boots, ankle bells, black
bodysuit, sequinned bikini top and a flowing pink skirt. It may sound
like a California beach; but this is Rhythm, a warehouse-turned-club
on Chicago's trendy near-West Side that shows the growing popularity
of group drumming.
If the phrase makes you think of Grateful Dead concerts and druginduced states of mind, think again. This is something pretty new.
Drum circles have been around since the 1960s on the west coast,
with its new-age culture. But in recent years the movement has
pushed beyond its anarchist roots, drawing in old folk and corporate
executives as well as the usual kids. Arthur Hull, a 53-year-old
Californian who is considered the father of drum circles in America,
says: “It no longer has the bad connotation of hippie thunderdrumming. This is family-friendly.”
Community drum circles meet in parks, coffee houses and local pubs. Cities sponsor drumming
groups for teenagers. There is an accepted drum-circle etiquette (“Leave rhythmical space for
other people to express themselves”) and terminology (“percussion puppies” should not tease a
“rhythm dork”), all laid out in Mr Hull's book, “Drum Circle Spirit”. A key figure is the “facilitator”.
This particular night, she is the funkiest person in the room: that gyrating lady at the heart of the
drum pit. Otherwise, your correspondent is surrounded by clean-cut 20- and 30-somethings
banging modified djembe drums.
A few young men sport earrings, sleeveless vests and rippling muscles, but most people look as
ordinary as the fellow in shorts and hiking boots who says he has a senior job in a medicalproducts company. Mr Hull has put drum circles into corporate settings; his clients have included
Apple Computer, General Electric, Motorola and Toyota.
Beyond the fun of getting together to make noise, enthusiasts say the benefits of group drumming
include healing of both mind and body. Psychotherapists hold drum circles with aggressive juvenile
sex offenders who respond to little else. A paper published by several doctors in 2001 claimed that
group drumming, under the right conditions, can improve the body's immune response. John Yost,
who leads drumming classes for the Chicago Park district, says “I've seen kids with Down's
syndrome, severely autistic people; someone who can only drool becomes completely animated
and can play with the beat.”
Mr Hull, who wants to take the drum movement to Europe, tries to be cautious. “This is a
community-building process,” he says. “Even if you're not looking for any deep healing, religious
or cosmic experience, when people get together, stuff happens.” Beat that.