a story from my fieldwork on the Venice Beach drum circle, cross-posted from my blog, Praxis Mundi
"They say that they're celebrating the sunset..." said the cop.
He surveyed his handiwork, struggling to keep the smugness from corrupting his professional demeanor. As we spoke, the broken multitudes milled aimlessly, faces wiped of expression. There was an occasional angry glance at the three uniformed men. Eventually, like the crowds on Calvary, they dispersed into the shadows. Blood spilled, shows over, time to go home.
"...but everyone knows, it's just an excuse."
I asked if he had ever been to a drum circle, other than to break it up. He laughed - my query wasn't worthy of a response. A few yards away, someone softly rapped their fingers on a pair of bongos.
"Hey kid, stop playing that drum!"
Fifteen minutes earlier
The flashing lights didn't even register on my consciousness at first. I'd been drumming for hours and was getting deep. My world ended at the edge of the circle; had I been inclined to think about other things they would have seemed very far away. It takes time to get that deep. The lights were a welcome addition to the enclave of sensory stimulation I found myself inhabiting. Modern invention and ancient practice woven into a techno-shamanistic dreamcoat.
Then the sirens started up and I began to understand what was happening. Intruders. From the Outside. The free exchange of energy between drum circle and environment broke down, disrupted by the very notion of Power. Drum circles have survival instincts just like any other organism, and all moved as one without conscious thought, without deliberation. We closed our borders, contracted the circle, upped the tempo. Only drummers and dancers remained; the casual observers who generally constitute the bulk of the drum circle population had long since fled to the safety of the boardwalk. Tension coalesced above and between us, fluid and thick. It was a double-shot of 190 proof adrenaline and we used it to spike the mixing bowl of the drum beat. Now the rhythm had kick to it. Again, we upped the volume and tempo.
By this time all three vehicles had their sirens going. It was a display of dominance - they were trying to drown us out. Structure maintains itself by continually enforcing its hierarchies, and dominance is the only game in town. I too succumbed to the primal thrill of battle. At the prospect of engaging the cops in sonic warfare I threw myself entirely into the drumming, banishing the pain in my hands and shoulders to the periphery of awareness. This was it, the final showdown. Drums vs. Sirens.
That night the drum circle taught me a valuable lesson about non-violent resistance. The cops and sirens aren't the enemy. Neither are the corporations, the government, the oppressors of freedom. The only thing to be resisted is the binary script of winner/loser, dominator/dominated. It's the construction of arbitrary categories of people and the assignment of arbitrary value to those categories. This is conceptual violence, subtler than physical violence, but violence nonetheless. And I, in my willingness to use drumming to battle and defeat the police, was just as guilty as they.
That's why the drum circle never fought back. As far as it was concerned, there was no "our sound" and "their sound." Sounds are sounds, and sounds are meant to harmonize. So when the sirens blared we responded in the only natural way.
We played along.