(Marcus Garvey Park Drummers, Photo Credit: NPR)On September 28th, a group of percussionists will gather at Marcus Garvey Park on 122nd and 5th Ave. to protest the attacks against the playing of percussion instruments in the park. This protest seeks to preserve a cultural activity that has been ongoing for 40 years. It is difficult to not see this in racial terms but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...it's a damn duck! Several White gentrifiers have purchased brownstones along the avenue facing the park and they find the music objectionable. So a handful of people want to impose their will on an entire community that had no problem with the activities prior to their invasion. The law is clearly on the side of the protestors as it pertains to the playing of instruments in the park. The drummers have always maintained a good rapport prior to these problems by observing a self imposed discipline which included cessation of the drumming at a time earlier then that prescribed by law. Those who would maintain the culture have always faced these type of obstacles. I have experienced much more volatile reactions to my playing over the years.
In the late 70s I had a friend who lived on Wadsworth Terrace in upper Manhattan. There was a great little pocket park directly across the street from his building and he arranged a rumbon for one Saturday afternoon. There were several of us playing and singing and the community residents who were in the park were enjoying the music. All of a sudden it began to rain large glass bottles. The trees were in full bloom concealing the paths of the bottles so you had no way to see them coming and avoid them. Mothers grabbed their children and ran for cover. We took our drums and held them over our heads to deflect any strikes. This lasted for almost a minute. When the bombardment finally ceased we ran up on the roof but the cowards had gotten away. We then made the Jam session a regular Saturday feature in protest and even started playing Friday nights on ocassion. We lost that battle but won the war.
On yet another adventure, I was invited to play at the playground behind 210 E 230th St. just off of Broadway. During the course of the jam I felt a sharp pain on my upper thigh and a rumbero named Phil standing next to me was hit in the chest. The best we could figure was that we had been shot by BBs. I can only thank Olofi that neither of us took one in the face and lost an eye. I can say without fear of contradiction that these attacks had a racial motivation and despite the fact that I myself am white my association makes me a valid target in the sick minds of some individuals. I have had neighbors however of different races and creeds put all sorts of notes under my door and I even had one knock on my door with a hammer in his hand threatening to end my playing days.
(Speaks for itself doesn't it?)
There is something about the hand played drum that is powerful and mystical and people react very differently to its sound. Those of you who are old enough to remember the classic Tarzan movies will remember the British colonialist in his tent, the sound of drums clearly audible in the distance. Invariably, they would finally break and exclaim, "those infernal drums, I can't stand it any longer." There is no doubt that the drum, especially 30 drummers can have an intrusive effect on the immediate area where they are being played. However there is room and time for each to express their cultural preferences and we need to get to a place where we celebrate the diversity we enjoy instead of seeking to censor any aspect of it.