I did it with 25 other people in the middle of Central Park. Maybe 30-something? There was just so much banging, I couldn’t tell.
The stranger next to me had his eyes closed and was swaying back and forth, praying almost. In the height of it, I could feel the pulse, our collective rhythm, swelling like bees that couldn’t be contained in their hive. I was letting go and simultaneously embracing a new way of connecting with others.
Almost intuitively, our volume gradually fell to a soft ripple. When I finally put my drum down, I felt euphoric. This was the first drum circle I had ever experienced; yet it felt so instinctive.
I looked at the group of people surrounding me: a frail old woman holding a pair of maracas, a young couple sitting down sharing a djembe, a toddler playing a cowbell.
In New York, finding friendliness among strangers is like finding a fork in the dining hall during the dinner rush. Only music could have brought this diverse group of people together. I don’t know why, but I wanted to hug some of these strangers, or at least talk to them. I did strike up a conversation with one young Lebanese woman from Queens, who wore her hair in tight black ringlets alongside olive skin and bright red lipstick.
Like me, this was her first drum circle, and she happened upon it while walking through the park. “I’m not a dirty hippie,” she said to me, “but I just saw this group of people, and I wanted to dance with them. I wanted to make music with them. I’ve never picked up a drum before!”
On the train back home to New Haven, Conn., I realized the music of the drum circle was secondary. What really struck me wasn’t the complex sound of djembes, claves, cowbells, tambourines, rattles and gongs, but it was the people that came together on an ordinary Sunday afternoon to form a community.
Even though I was only immersed in the drum circle for less than an hour, I was moved by music’s power to shatter boundaries and unite a mixed group of people. I knew this powerful form of music expression was something that could bring people together at college.
On another ordinary Sunday afternoon, seven years later, at Brandeis, I took a BranVan to Hannaford supermarket to pick up some groceries (Greek yogurt, avocadoes, Band-Aids, Solo cups, cheese balls). Until I dared to venture off campus, I hardly noticed that my entire social life here consists of a very narrow group of 18-to 22-year-olds.
Weaving my way through the aisles, I smiled at an elderly man riding in a motorized shopping cart in the dairy aisle; I watched a young Indian couple laughing as they picked out tomatoes; I overheard a mother arguing with her son, in Spanish, about which cereal to buy.
How strange it is, I thought, to feel so alienated from the diversity of our surrounding town.
I imagined the people I saw in the aisles of Hannaford beating, shaking and tapping out rhythms in a drum circle.
I can barely read a drum chart, and I’ve never had formal percussion lessons as a kid. I’m not a Music major; I’m an Anthropology major. In class, we study ways of confronting and understanding “the other,” or “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”
In a lecture last week, my professor, Sarah Lamb (ANTH), criticized “armchair anthropologists,” who smoke their pipes, lounge in leather-cushioned chairs and write about civilizations without ever actually encountering them.
My cramped seat in the Olin-Sang American Civilization Center hardly resembles an armchair, but taking notes on all different cultures in a lecture hall felt slightly like the type of anthropology my professor simultaneously criticized.
We respect and trust what our professors teach us because they have accomplished so much outside of Brandeis working in their own fields. Many students take semesters abroad to glean some real world application of what they study in the classroom.
But I don’t want to, and Brandeis students don’t need to, wait for Junior year to plunge into a new cultural experience.
Rhythm can inspire the fusion of cultures on our own campus. A public drum circle offered to everyone in town can be the musical platform on which we can come together and interact with Waltham’s unique community.
This summer, I applied for a grant from the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel Repair Campus Ambassadors to start a new service project called Brandeis Beats.
Brandeis Beats will bridge the gap between Waltham residents and Brandeis students through drum circles, workshops, education, popping the “Brandeis bubble” and encountering the unexpected unlike the “armchair anthropologists” I learned about in class.
The BYFI Repair Campus Ambassadorship is a new leadership program supported by the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel (BYFI) and Repair the World Foundation.
Over the course of ten months, several other ambassadors and I will work together to craft mission statements for our respective service projects, learn about project budgeting and study texts exploring the real roots of social justice in Judaism.
After our first seminar last month, I left feeling inspired and motivated to share my project with the University and surrounding community.
Picture the Great Lawn, enveloped by students, faculty, men, women and families with their children. An inner circle of drummers will be tapping out a basic rhythm on various percussion instruments, some provided by our drum circle and some of their own. On the outside of the circle, we will be dancing, clapping or meeting new faces.
The rhythm will intensify, someone will be break dancing in the center of the circle. I will hear the woodsy, watery notes of a marimba; the crash of a cymbal; the chatter of castanets.
Together we are celebrating, no special occasion besides this occasion itself, and even though we are in the heart of Waltham, our rhythm belongs to the entire world.