Give me drum circles or give me death!!

Dear Big Government: You can take these djembes out of our cold, dead hands! 

I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks about what the year 2020 will look like in history books. No doubt there will be entire tomes devoted to the social and economic devastation rendered upon us by an uncontrollable superflu. Students will highlight the death toll — a numerical value that, even living through it, is difficult to comprehend. Don’t forget the social uprisings, a USPS crisis, a surge in fringe conspiracy devotees and a phoned-in election. 

But what about the smaller-yet-significant impacts? How can history books articulate the numbness that comes from so many months of uncertainty? Or the emotional toll of not being able to see friends? 

Most importantly, though: Will future students know the sheer bravery of souls who fought for their right to form a drum circle in Ocean Beach?

On Tuesday, August 11, an orange mesh fence appeared around a small grassy area in OB, that’s been the home to Wednesday night drum circles for years, and has remained popular despite the pandemic. Photos posted by organizers Ocean Beach Drum Circle & Fire Dancing show crowd sizes that rival any spring break, complete with zero social distancing and very few face coverings. This, of course, has become a contentious issue for OB residents, law enforcement and anyone concerned with public safety. The orange fence, supposedly, was an effort by police to discourage these massive get-togethers in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

But the drummers weren’t having it. What kind of draconian world would this be if we can’t converge with our dreadlocked brethren and palm-slap through some deep-seated issues on very expensive djembes? I’ll tell you what kind of world it is: an unchill world. An unchill world, indeed. 

Which is probably what was going through the heads of the residents — nay, heroes — of OB who quickly took down the fences with knives and a steadfast adherence to freedom. 

“Freedom. Because we want our drum circle.” 

I’ve never seen American civil disobedience summed up so succinctly. I can only hope that my dying last words will have the same resonance. When I get to American Heaven I want to present St. Jesus Santa Claus Washington with a note that says “Freedom. Because we want our drum circle” as admittance through the pearly gates. 

Watching numerous clips of OB residents take down the fences, it’s funny to think about what “freedom” has come to mean during the past few months. Attending a Smash Mouth concert? Freedom. Eating in restaurants? Freedom. Not wearing a mask if it makes you slightly uncomfortable? Oh buddy, you better believe that’s a freedom. Some could say that this drum circle thing is just another example of how self-interest and a selfish pursuit of a good time gets confounded with Constitutionally-protected rights, but those people would be missing the point that drum circles are hella fun. Quit ruining the vibe, government. 

The Wednesday after the orange fences came down I head to Ocean Beach to watch the Battle of the Drum Circle. Will the drummers step down and acknowledge their own self-interest is putting public safety at risk? Or will they bang the drum (literally) of “freedom”? I’m curious to see. 

The scene is a testament to how hungry everyone is for spicy drama amidst a summer of depressing statistics and harrowing injustice. The place is crawling with media. I count at least three different news crews. The police presence is heavy. A helicopter circles the area, and curious bystanders wait at the edges. There are five drummers banging out a rhythm, and we’re all just waiting to see if the cops will dismantle it, but since four of the five drummers are white, I kind of doubt it. 

All around me, police and employees of San Diego’s COVID-19 response team hold boxes of facemasks, and I witness more people decline than accept them. “These are free,” an officer says, holding a mask out to a bare face. 

“Nah, man.”

A man in a full grim reaper costume stalks the area, also trying to hand out face masks. I don’t understand the point of his costume, but at least his face is covered. 

A woman in a blue dress alternates between dancing and yelling at film crews pointing cameras at the little drum circle, as if we’re disrespecting some sacred ritual. She forgets her anger, however, when a young man in a purple shirt lets her play his djembe and he busts out a tambourine. 

Oh god, I think. Please god, no.

It’s a reminder that 1) no matter how good you are at tambourine, you will always be the most annoying part of the band, and 2) nobody has ever underplayed the tambourine in the history of tambourines. It’s either no tambourine or Animal-from-The Muppets-style tambourine. 

One of the drummers walks toward a garbage can near me and throws away a single, minuscule piece of trash. He notices my bandana, which reads #pedal4justice, and says, “No justice, no peace, man.” I say yeah. A few minutes later, he comes back with another tiny piece of trash and says “You’re the lord. Keep the sun behind you.” I assure him that I will. 

A few feet away, there’s some commotion going on and I think this is it! This is the drummer uprising we’ve been waiting for! but then realize that it’s just my good buddy, news anchor Dan Plante from KUSI — San Diego’s right-wing propaganda machine — trying to rile up passersby about the injustice of anyone trying to stop the drum circle. A group of disaffected teens walk by him and say, “we don’t want you here” and Plante does that Yosemite Sam thing where he kind of stomps around and fumes. He turns back to his interviewees and says “Those fucking assholes trying to tell us we can’t have a drum circle!” 

A white, dreadlocked woman selling beachside trinkets commiserates with Plante and it’s not long before they’re best friends. 

“Dan, you should join the drum circle!” she yells. “Prove that you’re on our side!” Plante makes a move like he’s going to fulfill his new hippie friend’s request, but it’s a fake-out. What a goofball, that Dan Plante.

My boi Dan Plante (left)

“I don’t want to embarrass myself!” he yells back, pulling down his mask to show his incredibly white teeth. 

Back at the drum circle, Tambourine Boy keeps smacking away. The harsh, metallic sound embeds itself into my inner ear, the me-equivalent of a dog whistle. It instills in me a vague desire to harm. I mean, don’t know if you’ve ever been to a drum circle, but the hours-upon-hours of solid, repetitive noise is normally super good! 

A man wearing a paper bag mask over his head joins the circle holding one of those body-less, futuristic violins. Because I’m in Ocean Beach, my perception of normal is altered, so this seems like a very normal thing in the moment. Bag Head accompanies the drums, broadcasting his violin through an amplifier strapped to his body. I have to admit, the violin gives the drums a delightful swashbuckling sound, and it’s not long before a bearded man begins to perform a jig.   

Gradually, more drummers arrive. A young man with jorts strolls up, carrying his very own ornate stool and a large case for his djembe. After a very intricate process of setting up his drumming area, he pulls out a shawl and flings it around his shoulders with the same panache as a pianist flipping out their coat tails before sitting on the bench, and goddamn, it’s cool.

And beneath it all, Tambourine Boy continues to smack. 

As the sun dips into the water, it becomes clear that no one’s going to stop the drum circle. There are no arrests, nor bloodshed. Just the perpetual smack of a tambourine. Everything I’ve witnessed tonight is a testament of selective perseverance and anti-dignity of the American spirit. Drum circle = 1, Big Government = 0. Well done, fellow freedom-lovers. That sound you’ll hear on Wednesday nights in OB? It’s not just a circle of relentless djembes, but the sound of our country’s heartbeat, accelerating because it’s stricken with disease, beating forever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.


Watch this

I love karaoke. Before the pandemic, you could usually find me on Sunday nights at Til Two Club’s karaoke night, barking off-key into a microphone. Luckily, Scotty Pants of Pants Karaoke has been keeping the Sunday tradition alive with Zoom karaoke. Last week, Pants held his annual Weird Al night, which encourages participants to write their own Weird Al-style parody, which Pants will then turn into a karaoke video. This year, I wrote “QAnon” in the style of Springsteen’s “Born To Run,” which I’m quite proud of (although, admittedly, it’s no “My Chopped Boner”/”My Sharona” from last year, but, really, what is?).Below is a video of me singing “QAnon” (poorly), and here’s the vocal-less track if you want to try it yourself. 

Do this

San Diego-based writer/artist Adam Gnade announced this week that he had COVID-19. This comes after what sounds like a very stressful move after the owners of the farm where he lived decided to sell it. He’s not asking for help, but I’m sure he’d appreciate it if you ordered his newest book This Is the End of Something But It’s Not the End of You. It’s a wanderlusty, sad bastard of a book about finding connection and authenticity in love and art, and it’s set largely in San Diego. I doubt I’ll read a more lovely book this year. Highly recommended. Get well soon, Adam. 

Experience these

Ever since my 9th grade media productions teacher played the original War of the Worlds for our class,I’ve loved a good hoax. I think there’s something incredibly powerful about using a trusted format to tell a fake story, which is all the more interesting now, when people are so willing to believe just about anything (see “QAnon” above). Lately, I’ve seen two really good examples of this: the Instagram account of @cassandra__clemm and a mysterious, 2500 sq foot house with only two beds and two baths. @cassandra_clemm’s account looks identical to an influencer’s account. Her captions, self-care platitudes and carefully-composed images are so benignly formulaic that it’s almost easy to miss that she’s gradually descending into madness. It’s basically an interactive horror story, and it just keeps getting creepier. 

As for the mysterious house... well, you decide.  

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Julia Dixon Evans edited this post. Thanks, Julia. Go follow her on Twitter.