21 Aug 2014
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Drumming Up Understanding

Noyes Cultural Center's drumming circle brings Evanston's diverse communities together.

It’s 3 p.m. on an oppressively humid Sunday afternoon in Evanston. Outside the the only sound is the relentless whirr of the cicadas sequestered in the trees. Suddenly a slow, hallow beat begins pulsing from an upstairs window. The sound grows faster, louder and more intense as the beat of the congas, bongos and djembes can be heard—and felt—from the scorching black asphalt of the parking lot. 

Inside a second floor studio, the west African drumming circle has just got underway. Six percussion enthusiasts sit in folding encircling a pile of drums, bells, shakers, pop bottles and anything else that can be used to make a beat. 

The group is as diverse as the instruments before them. The drummers range in age from 22 to 62. They have traveled from Chicago, Skokie, Wilmette and neighborhoods around Evanston. Their occupations vary from student to lab technician to full-time grandma. 

Each of them has braved the heat and humidity to perfect their skills, learn about a different culture and most importantly, to jam. 

“Coming out to the drumming circle is a great way to ground myself and get out all my nervous energy,” public health student Casey Kettering said.  “I come here to connect with people I haven’t necessarily met before.” 

Connecting Evanston’s many neighborhoods is the sole purpose of the bimonthly drumming circle, according to its organizer Tony Garrett, or Tone-ji as he is known in local musical circles. The veteran percussionist and 25-year Evanston resident started putting on drumming circles in Evanston in 2003, frequenting churches, cafes, boutiques and even a perfume shop before settling in at . In moving the circle to the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, he hopes to bring Evanston’s diverse communities together under one centrally located roof.  

“In a small African village, you would expect people to know a lot about one another,” Garrett said. “But here in Chicago and Evanston, you have neighbors that don’t know each other at all. You can live two doors down from somebody for ten years, yet you don’t know that person’s name. You don’t know what they’re about.” 

Meeting people in a casual yet liberating atmosphere is especially important to new Evanston residents like Hiro Miyauchi, 32, who moved here from Japan to take a chemistry research position at Northwestern University. Garrett is Miyauchi’s landlord and invited him to come to the bimonthly drumming circle after hearing about his passion for Japanese drumming. 

“It’s very different than what I’m used to,” said Miyauchi of the West African drumming circle. “But I’ve found it very interesting. I’m still learning all that I can.” 

Throughout the course of the three-hour drumming session, Garrett taught participants a variety of different rhythms, stopping to explain their origin and purpose. 

“In Africa, almost every event calls for a drumming circle,” he explained. “A baptism, a marriage, a death… even something as simple as a baby-naming ceremony. It’s the drumming that brings people out and brings people together.” 

Most of Garrett’s instruction focuses on learning to work with polyrhythms, the quick and sometimes complex beats laid over one another which give West African drumming its distinct sound. He likened the array of beats to the diverse neighborhoods in Evanston. 

“Every one of them is moving in a different way, at different speed,” Garrett explained. “But at some point, they all have to fit together to keep the beat moving. They have to figure out how the other ones work. There has to be some commonality there-- a synchronicity.”  

So whether participants walked into Noyes Cultural Center looking for a drumming lesson, a cultural event or simply a jam session, judging from the cohesive beat emanating from the studio, each of the drummers left with the same thing: a better understanding of how the others work.  

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