Keeping The Beat on Long Island

By Dara Smith

On May 21, Northport Park will be hosting Springfest, a free, all-day music and arts festival which will feature a drum circle event called Djembe Movement.

Djembe Movement is a community drum circle Rich Rivkin organizes, which is open to anybody. In addition to Springfest, Rivkin says he’s produced 39 festivals over the past 16 years. He says Springfest is the cousin to the Long Island Sound and Art Festival, which he will be organizing for its fifth year this August. The August festival also features a drum circle.

“There’s a very vibrant and active community of hand drummers on Long island, of which I’ve been a part since the early 90’s,” Rivkin said. “I like to make this contribution to the hand drumming community.”

A drum circle is when people get together and play percussion instruments in a group or circle. They date back to ancient civilizations, in which people drummed in groups as a means of bonding, celebrating and communicating. Villages in West Africa used drums like the djembe to send messages to other far away villages.

Springfest will open with a two hour drum circle, immediately followed by over four hours of live music. Rivkin starts the festival with drumming because he says it’s great for attracting audiences. The loud rhythms can be heard throughout Northport Village to passers by, welcoming them to the event.

“The Northport Arts Coalition (NPAC) seems to love the idea of the drum circle. It’s been such a success in the past that they request we include a drum circle at these events,” Rivkin said.

NPAC Board of Directors member, Lauren Paige, said they love the drum circle. “I always wanted to have a drum circle involved in the coalition. I think it’s great,” Paige said. “It’s just opened to everybody. It seems [like] more and more people [are] coming down and bringing their drums.”

Drum circles can be found all over Long Island. Tracy Hamilton, a drum circle facilitator, runs three drums circle events in Babylon, Riverhead and Freeport. The event in Freeport has continued for eight years, and is held at the South Nassau Congregational Church.

“You need that kind of outlet which is completely natural. Its participatory. Everybody has their own voice within the drum circle,” Hamilton said. “It’s the music in the moment. People come  together, and do a certain beat and next thing you know someone’s building on off that, and you have something funky happening which is awesome.”

People participate in drum circles for a variety of reasons. Many like the energy produced by the drums. Some like to play the drum circle to relieve stress, while others like the spiritual aspects of it.

“The drum is healing in all areas. I have a very deep passion for this,” George Schultze, owner of Spirit Sky Drum said. Schultze holds weekly drum circles every Friday in his Freeport home. His home serves as a drum store, as well as a space for drum circles and drum lessons.

“It’s so important for communities to get involved with this because I believe it will bring people together rather than separate people,” Denise Siano, an attendee of the event said.

“In Africa, drumming was a communication because people didn’t have telephones,”  Edwina Tyler, said. Tyler is a professional musician and performer who has traveled internationally to countries in Europe, Asia and Africa. “It was a communication to communicate to another village that there was either a death, a funeral, a party, a birth a celebration of some kind. It’s still a communication of the heart, of the soul and of the spirit.”

African drumming gained popularity in the United States from world renowned musician Babatunde Olatunji. His first recorded album Drums of Passion (1960) sold over five million copies worldwide. Olatunji held numerous drumming workshops in areas of New York City which attracted Rosemarie Ceraso, a student of native anthropology and shamanism.

The rhythmic beats made their way to Long Island in 1991 when Ceraso brought Olatunji’s teachings east of the city. She started the nonprofit organization Earthbeat. “Earthbeat was all about teaching the culture, creating unity through the culture, and culture through the drum,” Ceraso said.

Earthbeat had consistent drum circles on the last Friday of every month for ten years, ending in 2001. The initial location for the gatherings were at The Congregational Church of Huntington for five years, before they had to change locations due to noise complaints. Ceraso moved the drum circle to The United Methodist Church in south Huntington, where the group continued to play for the next five years before Ceraso retired.

“I was too busy. Ten years of having to be some place and having all these people, and being responsible… that was a 10 year commitment,” Ceraso said. Earthbeat’s monthly drum circles attracted anywhere from 75 to over 100 drummers.

Afterwards, the Long Island drumming community struggled to find locations large enough to accommodate its attendees. “35 people with drums can be pretty loud,”  John Ward, a professional percussionist and hand drumming teacher said. “So when those circles ran their course, people started putting smaller drum circles in their areas. So most people who came to a given drum circles didn’t live very far from it. Now, a lot of drum circles are held in drum stores like in Freeport or they’re held in yoga centers. Areas that are smaller, but it’s okay because the drum circles don’t get too big.”

The hand drumming community of Long Island has changed over the years, from one large gathering to several smaller gatherings. As locations for drum circles spread across the region, more people are finding interest in the musical activity.

“When the drum circles first started here on the island, there were only one or two,” Ward said. “Now, there’s lots of them. The drum circle scene is certainly alive and well.”

About Author:

My name is Dara, and I’m a journalism student at Stony Brook University. I’m a Long Island native who loves telling stories from creative perspectives. I was multimedia editor for this website, managing all graphics, videos and sound slides.

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