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Contagious Rhythms 

Drum circles soothe the spirit and unite a community

by Susan Haas
Copyright Morning Call Nov 2, 2003

Diminutive Eala O'Se, wearing a Moravian Academy uniform jumper, savors a Charms lollipop while slapping a rhumba on her djembe.

An 8-year-old in an advanced African hand-drumming class?

At a recent Wednesday night rehearsal of the Lehigh Valley Drum Circle, 15 women, three girls, two boys, and two men were so comfortable with their skills that they were able to sit in a circle, their djembes steadied between their knees, thunder complicated rhythms, laugh and chew lollipops at the same time.

The Lehigh Valley Drum Circle is one of numerous area groups captivated by the rhythm of the drums. Growing numbers of people are attracted to the invigorating feeling, the stress-busting benefits, the sense of community and teamwork and the sense of spirituality and wellness.

In recent months there have been outdoor drum circles under full moons, with bonfires. There have been drumming workshops, drumming classes and performances everywhere -- in churches, businesses, nursing homes, schools. Today, the Lehigh Valley Drum Circle performs with Patagun!, a vocal and hand-drumming ensemble from Doylestown, at Palisades Middle School, Kintnersville, Bucks County, to raise funds to purchase instruments for the school's drum club.

"I go a day without drumming every once in a while, yeah, but I'd rather not," says Dave Reisinger, 17, of Allentown.

At 14, after six years of traditional drum set lessons, Reisinger walked into Dave Phillips Music and Sound in Allentown and slapped a rhythm on a djembe. Moe Jerant, Phillips' world percussion specialist and Lehigh Valley Drum Circle founder, offered him a seat in her beginner's class. Reisinger showed up for the freebie, and three months later moved up to the advanced performance group. He loves the circle experience.

"It's the spirit behind it, the rhythms. It's a great release of energy. It makes you want to come back. Everyone gets along really well, it's almost like a family."

At the recent concert rehearsal Jerant, strapped to a drum and wearing a headset microphone, hopped into the center of a circle that included O'Se and Reisinger. She raised a hand, extended one, two, three fingers, clapped a beat, then slapped a high tone. The class answered, in unison, filling the large concrete-floored stockroom at Phillips' store with the mesmerizing sounds.

"I'm moving you up to the major leagues, baby. Whoa!" says Jerant.

Two years ago, Karen Bedics, a learning support teacher at Palisades Middle School, arrived for one of Jerant's "Free-for-All" introductory sessions.

"I expected to find just a few people. When I got out of my car, I was aghast," says Bedics. "There were a hundred people in this huge circle."

Bedics says she arrived with a throbbing backache. "When I left, it wasn't bothering me anymore. I was hooked."

As Bedics' skills improved, she moved into Jerant's advanced performance group, then asked her principal for permission to start a drum club for students. She received a yes and a little cash to purchase small hand percussion instruments. Fifteen students joined her circle last spring.

Matt Stout, a Palisades eighth grader, joins Bedics's circle in the school cafeteria at 8 a.m. on Fridays.

"It's fun, it feels nice, it's loud and it's cool," he says. "You feel like you're allowed to express yourself." He says he likes the accepting atmosphere. "It doesn't matter if you mess up, you just get back into it."

Stout says when he's drumming on the outside, he's happy on the inside. "If I'm in a bad mood, everything gets left behind," he says.

Unfortunately, the Palisades students don't have real djembes and aren't drumming with their hands. Members play on industrial-grade plastic pails with sticks, but hope to raise enough money from their concert today to buy some drums.

Jerant has seen interest in hand drumming rise during her 12 years at Phillips' store.

"Customers started asking for djembes. I got tired of telling people no," she says.

Local dancer and drummer Tahya (Tuh-hay-uh) has helped popularize drumming in the region. A woman of Irish and German extraction who changed her name to an Arabic word for "greetings," Tahya has practiced and taught Middle Eastern dance for 25 years. She has conducted drumming workshops for employees at Air Products & Chemicals Inc. and PPL, and for students at Muhlenberg College and at Lehigh County's Senior Center.

"Playing the frame drum gives me an opportunity to tap into an ancient tradition," says Tahya. On Sundays, she plays at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Egypt, Lehigh County, with the choir. She regularly invites drum virtuosos such as Paulo Mattioli Glen Velez to the Lehigh Valley for workshops and performances.

One of those performances changed Jerant's career. Jerant started drumming by ear in eighth grade when friends gave her a snare drum. Seven years ago, at 42, while making a living giving drum lessons, playing in a local band, and working at Phillips's music store, she still wanted "the rock star thing."

"I tried hand drumming under protest," she says. Then, a performance by Mattioli changed her. Phillips agreed to let Jerant stock a line of world percussion instruments and to use the the music store's back room for lessons and circles. Fifty people showed up for her first "Free-for-All" in January 2002. Her Lehigh Valley Drum Circle now performs with Tahya at Musikfest.

There are as many styles of body language in the group as there are reasons for joining a drum circle. At the recent rehearsal, some drummers kept their bodies still, moving only arms and hands. Others nodded to the beat. Some swayed from the waist up.

Eala O'Se's mother, Jennifer Swann, 48, gets into the beat with her entire body, rocking and tossing her head and shoulders, eyes closed.

"Once I get the rhythm and transfer it to my hands, I have to let that become a subconscious mechanical thing. If I think about it, I immediately make a mistake."

Swann, an associate professor of biology at Lehigh University, took her first drumming lessons from an African national while she was on sabbatical in Holland five years ago.

"I'm an incredibly aggressive person. Drumming gets your aggressions out in a positive way. For me it's a non-

cerebral thing. I spend most of my day thinking, solving problems, putting abstract thoughts together, and drumming has none of that. It's a completely physical thing."

Swann joined the Lehigh Valley Drum Circle after attending one of Jerant's free-for-alls. A year later Eala asked to join, and Swann bought her a drum for her seventh birthday.

In her classes, Jerant uses a mantra practiced by New Yorker Ubaka Hill, an internationally recognized expert who performed and conducted a workshop in the Lehigh Valley in October.

"We're all master drummers," Jerant tells students before attempting a complex rhythm. Jerant, like Tahya, conducts workshops for organizations. On Thursdays at the Good Shepherd Home, Bethlehem, she is preparing 20 residents for a winter pageant drum circle performance. Some instruments are altered to adapt to residents' physical challenges.

Lehigh Valley Drum Circle members Jane and Greg Geist and their 14-year-old son, Casey, and 12-year-old daughter, Madison, joined Jerant's group one by one. Casey, a football player at Allen High School, was the last to join.

"He was filming us performing at Musikfest, and he said "Hey, why aren't I doing this?' Thank God we have a van," says Jane, noting that the family now owns nine drums.

At Nitschmann Middle School in Bethlehem, drumming is now a permanent part of the instrumental program. Band and orchestra director Ron Haas started a drum circle with nine students in 2001; now there are 45 students in five circles. The Bethlehem Area School District and band parents purchased 20 djembes. Now, sixth, seventh and eighth grade musicians compose original rhythms to accompany African, Turkish and Middle Eastern music and African folk tales.

"These kids are already instrumentalists," says Haas. "Drumming improves their rhythm and promotes camaraderie."

Kutztown University's Dr. Frank Kumor, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the international Percussive Arts Society (www.pas.org) and author of "The Drum Circle: A Guide to World Percussion," says scientific studies confirm the benefits of the alternating rhythms of hand drumming.

He says it is possible, through regular djembe work, to condition the brain to replicate the effects of a runner's high, when the brain is bathed in chemicals that stimulate euphoria.

Kumor's campus drum circle attracts 25 to 35 students each semester. On Nov. 20, his African percussion group will perform in Louisville, Ky., at the international conference of the Percussive Arts Society. Jerant's Lehigh Valley Drum Circle has performed some of Kumor's compositions.

At today's concert, Jerant and Caryn Cziriak, founder of Patagun!, will drum a "Sacred Forest Rhythm." Their ensembles will join for a "Fanga" welcome rhythm, with Caryn on vocals. The Lehigh Valley Drum Circle will play a rhumba, a call-response class exercise and a Jamaican ceremonial rhythm with students from the Palisades Drum Circle.

Then, in "Stop time, Face Fear," Reisinger and five others will take turns offering solo rhythms practiced in the safety of the group's drumming cocoon.

It's a cocoon that's magnetic. Electrifying, really. It makes a visitor want to toss the pen and notebook and join in. I do.

"Yeah, nice with the hands," urges Jerant. "Baba bum, baba bum, ba ba bababa bum, slap tata slap slap."

Susan Haas is a freelance writer.

Jodi Duckett,

Arts and Entertainment Editor

jodi.duckett@mcall.com

610-820-6704

 

 

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Maureen 'Moe' Jerant * (610) 428-0544
Lv Drum Circle  * P.O. Box 541, Bethlehem, PA 18016