One day travelling back from a trip into Camden, I headed for the tube and heard the familiar sound of djembe drummers on the street. I live in London and street performers, in particular street drummers, are a fairly common theme once you get past 9 O’ Clock or so.
I’ve played African drums for many years but stopped to look across the street. There was something different about that rhythm.
I looked across and saw that quite a crowd was gathering. Admittedly, Camden attracts new visitors all of the time, so some observers may have never seen djembe drumming outside HSBC before. But something felt different.
I’ve seen plenty of decent drummers and without a doubt, these guys were really good. Even so, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why the grooves felt so attractive, more so than the many drum performances you will see on the streets of London in any given month.
The time was crisp and sharp The tempo brisk and the rhythms played tightly. There were three drummers in all, each with a different sized drum. The two djembe were supported by a djun djun player, the bass drum of the African drum orchestra.
The interlocking melodies from their drums created a glorious grooving tapestry. But this wasn’t a new groove they had invented or some cutting edge rhythmic interpretation. This was African drumming with a traditional intent. Played with heart and spirit.
I noticed that each of the drummers were smiling. Continuously. Their rhythms were shaping an appreciative crowd around them and the intoxicating beats were creating a joy in everyone experiencing them.
I crossed the road to trade a closer look.
As I moved closer it was clear how loud they played. The drums crashed into your senses like cold stormy waves. Metal discs and shells strung to the drums added a percussive jangling on top of their tones. The music moved yet stayed static. It breathed on fire like a lion sprinting across a plain. Beauty, raw power and energy.
I looked around and noticed that people were smiling and laughing. We were at a party. On the street outside the bank we shared unexpected joy in our day. It was hard to pull away, the rhythm seemed to hold onto you. Although it repeated in cycles you felt like if you stepped away you would miss something. It was feeding me and I didn’t want to end that.
Eventually, pressed by time of another urgency I dropped a pound coin into a bowl next to them and moved towards the tube still listening to the rhythms and wondering what that experience had meant but knowing just how powerful rhythm when played with truth.