Field of Drums

Every culture has a drum, every life has a rhythm, says percussionist Ndugu Chancler to an audience of so few that I am embarrassed for him. An event like this -- drummers from around the world, free, with parking, at noon, a Saturday on the heels of summer -- there should be a couple hundred folks filling up the clean white seats, at least. I am sitting up close, beneath a white canopy, third row, so eye contact with Chancler is easy. He's a passionate man -- I can hear it in his voice, see it in his excitement. After all, it is the 19th annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival; Chancler is master of ceremonies, and Watts is his home. The towers are open for the first time since the '94 earthshake, and in the sunlight, Simon Rodia's broken glass hearts cast long, lovely shadows across the afternoon. A rare day indeed.

Drums bring us together, Chancler says, connect us with history, with the spirits. Drums communicate --- one soul to another. The congas talk to the bongos and the roto toms and the timbales and the dholaks and the rainsticks and the taiko and the snare drums. Drum to drum, drum to heartbeat, heartbeat to soul. I look at a woman sitting nearby, in purple African dress. Her dreads are tied up, wrapped in folded cloth, like a queen. She smiles, closes her eyes. There are a couple dozen African Americans in the audience. I am one of a few whites, Latinos and various others. Together we are a nice mix, but we are too few. There is ground and reason to meet, and yet, another rare opportunity lost. Sad, it is.

I am here with a West Indian friend, a drummer in his own right, from St. Thomas. He is anxious for the beat. It is his heritage, his roots, and he brings along a small Asian drum of sorts that he can keep time with. I wouldn't be here, were it not for him. A West Indian with rhythm in his blood can wander anywhere the rhythm calls. Watts, however, is not my world. The rhythm has never called me here. Yet with a few powerful words, Chancler has opened the gates onto this world. Very soon I will push them open even wider.

The first thing I notice as I cross the MTA tracks and turn down 107th Street are typeset signs that direct festival goers to the parking area. It is a dirt lot and the Explorer kicks up dust . Two men dressed in street clothes guide traffic, and welcome guests to the Watts Towers. The city of L.A. wants us here --of this I am quite sure. The gestures are everywhere: brightly-colored banners, healthy trees, pleasant winding paths, the LAPD. I had come here as a child, when I was too young for it to matter; today it matters. I look at all the small homes flanking the towers. They are neat and clean, some painted green, some pink, all shut up tight against the neighborhood. The bars on my windows in South Carthay are fashioned into the architecture, as ironwork. The bars on the windows around here are not for show.

I wonder if the locals feel reverence for the place, as I feel just now. Rodia's wire mesh towers, built over three decades beginning in the '20s, are like the pieces of Joseph's shining coat. Red and blue and orange and yellow, they are made of shells and bottles, bits of tiles and broken plates. They are an offering of sorts, an Italian laborer's gift to the future, a prayer for peace in a battle zone that the artist could perhaps envision. Standing before the tallest tower, some 100 feet high, is almost like being in church. I watch for signs of life coming from the houses, dogs, kids, bicycles, men mowing lawns, fixing cars. There is nothing. Intruders we must be.

The festival begins with Felipe Garcia Villamil, who blesses the grounds with Afro-Cuban chanting and prayer. It doesn't matter that I can't understand him. He is a holy man with a holy rhythm, and the audience, all of us, we listen. Then comes a troupe of drummers called the Rhythm Regiment Drum Corps, a group consisting of kids, some white with blonde hair, some Asian, some black, some Latino, some hip hop, some not, all drumming to the direction of Terry Moore, a small, mighty woman with an amazing grace that unifies two year olds with 12 year olds, children all, into a spectacular oneness, a whole that is like thunder among the small crowd of onlookers. I look at the little girls, the white ones and black ones, with their pony tails and their bows, and I think how lucky they are to be drawn together by the music. Their lives will be richer; their understandings of each other deeper. I grew up near Inglewood, before gangs and drugs and this culture of division and fear. A rich world mine was.

The vendors fire up the barbecues, preparing for crowds that haven't come. The smell of jerk is in the air. I follow it away from the stage, past the women selling T-shirts and dresses, past the entrance to the towers, to a stand selling hibiscus ginger tea. "Want one?," my friend asks. He hands it to me, tells me he has heard ginger isn't good for women because it's too yang. I laugh, and drink the tea from a plastic bottle. Who has time to think about such things?, I ask him. Caribbean women, he says. The ginger in the tea is strong. It opens up my nose and spikes the taste buds. I want the jerk chicken now. I decide to buy it from the Jamaican woman. I have seen her before, sampled her fare. It is fiery, if I remember correctly. $6.95 buys rice and peas, greens and more than enough pieces of sweet chicken. It is perfect with the red flower tea. I sit in the sun, on the grass, and listen to the West African drum rhythms in the distance. People walk around me, chat, comment on the aroma of the jerk. It is the friendliest of crowds. Perhaps it's the music, I think, as I sip the tea. Or maybe it's the towers, the awe-inspiring nature of the place. Strange, I think, not the cold, sneering L.A. that I have come to know so well.

As I wander back toward the stage, my friend calls out to me. "I'm over here," he says, pointing to a big tree, under which perhaps 40 drummers have gathered into a circle. Some are from the Watts Towers Drum Workshop, some from the Yoruba House on the Westside, some from the Will Rogers Memorial Park. There are old women and two year olds. There are bright fancy drums and simple tambourines. There are congas and bongos and cymbals and samba whistles and drum sticks that seem moved by magic. My friend has asked a Native American man with a thick ring through his ear for his drum. The man gives it up, and my friend puts the drum between his legs. He finds the rhythm. A Rasta brings his handmade version of a steel drum, and sets up a small seat. He finds the rhythm. A turbaned man with a long red beard and an Indian instrument of bells finds the rhythm. An African woman with a basket balanced on her head enters the circle, dances for the drummers. The dance is in her waist, and the basket stays still. The drummers get louder and louder and the rhythm gets more complex and more amazing. It is fundamentally Cuban, but has jazz, and Middle Eastern elements. I try to study the beats but am too enraptured. It is like a drug, and it pulls me in. My hips become part of the rhythm and can feel it in a way they have never felt it before, not in Los Angeles, anyway. In an audience the feel is quite different. A drum circle is participatory, inclusive, larger than one or two or even 20 performers. For the drummer I imagine ecstasy, a perfect moment when instruments and bodies and cultures co-mingle to create such a beautiful fusion that everything else is lost. A belly dancer finds the rhythm. A sax player tries, but fails. An old man takes his drum and hands it to a stranger. He then helps a little girl tap, tap, tap with some sticks. It is music for its own sake, but it is also something else. It is about community. And it is happening right before my ears.

The frenzy moves out from the circle, across the grounds to Chancler, who feels it on the stage, where just now he has a free moment to kill. He sends a message to the drum circle to bring this beautiful thing to the stage. It is open mic, he says. I watch as dozens of people, some of them friends, but most not, regroup on a stage in Watts, to give the people what they came to hear. It is from the gut, this music, unrehearsed, raw and as wrenching as it gets. The crowd, now considerably larger on this Saturday afternoon, rises to its feet. They will hear Aztec drummers, South Pacific drummers, Panamanian drummers, terrific all, but this is what they will remember.

There are gates here in Watts, imagined ones, but they keep people out, and others in. I tell a friend at my Culver City gym on Sunday morning about what happened to me on Saturday. I tell him that today there will be a day of free jazz in Watts, and about the beauty of the crowd, and the music, and the community. He's a homeboy with a shaved head and a way-cool attitude. "I don't go to Watts," he says. "Been there, done that." I tell him I didn't think that he had, that in fact I was quite sure he hadn't, and go about my workout.

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