For more than 40 years, percussionists have gathered on warm Sundays between 3 p.m. and dusk to take part in one of the city’s most long-standing musical traditions: The Meridian Hill Park Drum Circle. The park’s setting is a fitting backdrop for what has become something of a spiritual spectacle: Musicians from throughout the region assemble atop a cascading 13-basin fountain to play in improvised unison. The tradition dates back to the days when African American Civil Rights activists assembled in the park during the ’60s, but like the city that surrounds it, the drum circle has progressively become younger and more diverse over the years.
These days, the scene is as much about the accompanying performances as it is about the percussion itself. Dreadlocked men bob and weave in Capoeira movements; barefoot moms dance and Hula-Hoop with their children; and a veritable paparazzi of camera-toting onlookers jockey to snap shots of the djembe, conga, triangle, cowbell, and bongo players who marry a medley of international influences into a common rhythm.
We talked to a few of the drum circle’s regular members to find out how they first became involved in the Sunday afternoon ritual and what impact it has had on their lives.
“I’m 53 years old and I used to come here back in the ’60s. I grew up on East Capitol Street and when I was a kid, I’d come here to listen to the older guys play. That’s how I learned to play the drums—listening to the masters play right here in the park. I’ve played with Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, George Clinton, and—you ever heard of Sun Ra? I played with Sun Ra, too. I’ve toured Europe with them and been all over. It all started with this master drummer named Andrew Cacho. Cacho had a group of guys he’d teach at Friendship House in Southeast, so I’d go there to play with him. A lot of the guys like Marvin and them, when they’d come to town, they’d ask Cacho ‘Who’s your best drummer,’ so he’d say me. I been playing professionally since I was 14 years old. That was back before all the revitalization of U Street—back when you could get into a club with no hair on your face. I’m in a group now called Franco Jazz up in Mount Pleasant, but I still come here all the time. It’s changed a lot, because nowadays, a lot of people come up here just to beat, not to play. You gotta be patient and listen first. That’s how you learn.”
“I started doing things like this in San Francisco back in the ’70s. When I came to DC, I walked by, heard the drums, and started coming pretty regularly. I was the first white guy to start coming here. At first, several people stopped the drumming and said things like, ‘We can’t play with this white boy.’ This went on for a while and the leader of this finally said, ‘You cannot pull any racism into this, this is about music, it isn’t about black or white. This man can play, he stays.’ And as soon as he said that, everybody shut up and it was over. Now, I’ve bought a specialty drum kit just to play here.”
“I came to the DC area about five years ago from California and first discovered the drum circle, like, two or three years ago. I heard that there was a Latin American community around here, so I was riding my bike nearby and exploring Mount Pleasant. When I came around the park, I heard these drums, so I rode up. I used to play percussion with my friends back in El Salvador—just playing around, you know—and this kind of reminded me of that. We are Africans, Latins, Caribbeans, Europeans, everyone playing together. I don’t think there is any one main influence, it’s just if you want to play, do it. Come, follow some other drummers, have fun, and enjoy it. That’s the key, you have to enjoy it.”
“I first came here as a refugee in 1992. I heard drums in this area and it reminded me of home in South Africa. I didn’t start playing at first, I just came to observe and to listen. That was 19 years ago. I didn’t play drums at home because my grandmother forbade them. In my country, they were traditionally used in ceremonies to put people in a trance, to remove spirits, and to draw out witches. As a Christian, my grandmother fought against those things and taught me to, too. When I first came here and started playing, I thought ‘Oh, my god! This is what my grandmother kept from me for so long!’ It’s beautiful and it’s helped me heal.”