On Thursday nights, from 7:30 to 10, a corner of Gas Works Park becomes something out of a Tom Robbins novel.
A drum circle pounds out hypnotizing rhythms that repeat and fold into each other. Around the clutch of drummers, a makeshift carnival of jugglers, fiddle players, and flame-spinners make what they will with the pounding din. As the evening progresses, everything starts to feel more visceral, and primordial yelps and howls begin to pour out over Lake Union.
Na’tan Collins is the closest thing this weekly ritual has to a leader, even though he insists he’s nothing of the sort. “This is because of me, but it’s not of me,” he says over the sound of about 15 drummers gathered last week beneath the awning of the old boiler house, the steel pipe of which one woman raps with a drumstick to keep the beat. Collins has on a Bob Marley tunic in the Rastafarian tri-colors and wears his hair in a neat ponytail. He says this “long-running hippie gathering” has been going five years, becoming the “most-membered drum circle in Seattle history.”
Eager to tell the drum circle’s story, he guides me to a strip of grass just outside the pavilion where the drummers are set up. He begins picking up pieces of litter—scraps of paper and small broken chunks of plastic. “Every week we go through here, literally on our hands and knees, and pick up this trash,” holding his hand up, palm full. “We don’t want our children playing in this. That’s why the police in this area like us.” He also notes that conspicuous drug or alcohol use aren’t allowed in the area, and the air is indeed notably bereft of marijuana odor.
Soon after this public-service spiel, he is running around like a mad kindergarten teacher, handing out plastic percussion instruments to people who’ve wandered into the area out of curiosity, giving quick tutorials on how newcomers can join in with the drumming.
Later, Brian Clayton, a 25-year-old drummer built like a football player wearing long basketball shorts, marvels at the scene. “I see this growing,” he says with mirthful eyes. “It’s all accepting. It allows full, creative outlet in a very gentrified city.”
How did he come to join? “A few years ago I was looking for a new social circle in Seattle, and came across the Seattle Mind Travelers meetup,” he says, referring to a community that focuses on expanding consciousness through shamanic techniques and “plant medicine.” “That led me to this.”
And the beat went on.
Later in the evening, Kathy Frasier stands on her condo balcony in Eastlake and looks into the waning June light over Lake Union. Thuds of bongos course through the air, and once in a while the glint of a fireball being twirled by a “spinner” can be seen across the water.
“Isn’t it wicked?” she says. “This is Thursday night in Eastlake. Two and a half hours. Imagine trying to entertain, sleep, enjoy the quiet outside air . . . At its worst, it’s louder than anything else we hear from Gas Works.”
If the scene in the park evokes Robbins, then the scene in Eastlake Thursday nights evokes Wallace Stegner’s All the Little Live Things, which follows a retired book editor as he copes with squatting hippies doing sound experiments on his property.
Stegner is sympathetic to the editor, who is just looking for a little peace and quiet. (Stegner is thought to have based the story on his own conflicts with his writing student at Stanford, the Merry Prankster Ken Kesey.) But as the editor finds, no matter how obnoxious young people making new noises are, it’s nearly impossible to complain about it without coming off as a fuddy-duddy.
People in Eastlake incensed by the drumming noise are learning much the same lesson.
“I’m just getting beat to heck on this,” says Jules James, another Eastlake resident who took to Facebook a few weeks ago to try to organize neighborhood opposition to the Thursday-night drum circle. “People always equate noise pollution with freedom of speech.”
The Facebook conversation, which is yielding lots of support for the drummers, gave birth to perhaps the most Seattle sentence ever written, penned by James in response to a houseboat owner’s defense of the bongo players: “I appreciate your appreciation of the acoustic diversity of the Lake.”
But it didn’t bring about anything like a resolution. So things seem to just be boiling over instead.
Back at Frasier’s condo, she mentions that her husband actually left to go see what it’s like at Gas Works. When I note that I’d received a text from a photographer at the drum circle saying that someone from Eastlake had just “started a fight” with the drummers, she says she doesn’t think that was her husband.
“It’s almost gotten to that,” she allows. “You want combat. You want to go over there and tell them you have just trampled all over my rights, my pleasure.”
But as it turns out, it was her husband, Buddy Frasier, who confronted the drummers. When he gets home, he’s still fairly exercised by the confrontation. “I just went over there and told them they were showing a blatant disregard for anybody around them,” Buddy says, more to his wife than me. “It’s total chaos. There’s no leader. Nobody knows what’s going on.”
By Collins’ own telling, the Gas Works drum circle was actually born out of another neighborhood conflict, in Alki Point. “I was actually doing Wednesday-night drumming here and Thursday-night drumming in Alki,” he says. “But there are condos above the Irish bar there, and one—one—lady complained about the noise, and we were shut down. So I told everyone to just start coming to Gas Works instead.”
He started an online group on Meetup.com to get the word out about Thursday-night drumming, and has started a business out of it, Seattle Handdrummers (seattlehanddrummers.com).
Collins believes that whatever conflict exists with neighbors is a matter of misunderstanding, not noise. “These people in the houseboat, at first they complained, but then they came over and it changed everything. They come drum with us now,” he says.
By the letter of the law, the Gas Works drum circle does violate Seattle’s noise ordinance. While they are careful to stop drumming at 10 p.m. sharp, when “unreasonable noise” becomes illegal in Seattle, the ordinance also prohibits “repetitive or continuous sounds.” The drumming certainly is that: Both sides comment on how hand drumming’s trance-like quality affects them at a very deep level, but to very different ends.
“There’s something about group drumming—I hope you look this up—that has effects on the mind,” Collins says. “It synchronizes the hemispheres.”
“It’s illegal according to a noise ordinance that has been very well-crafted,” counters James, who owns Lake Union Mail and has his own lake-facing balcony. “It’s incessant noise.”
But James is measured in terms of what he wants done. He’s emphatic that police shouldn’t have to be the ones to enforce the noise code. They have bigger problems than a group of people making music, he says.
His solution is to have the Parks Department enforce the noise ordinance instead. But the Parks Department says it doesn’t do enforcement; it only refers complaints to the police. David Takimi, of the Parks Department, said last week that parks staff and police have been in “direct contact” with the drummers and “repeatedly explained the law to them.”
For their part, the Frasiers say they’d be satisfied if the drummers cut their sessions from two and a half hours to one, “plus a little time to warm up.”
But Collins doesn’t seem to be in a mood for compromise, and thinks the neighbors who are complaining are far in the minority. “Everywhere we go, there’s a needle in the haystack, somebody who turns their nose to it and tries to get us shut down,” he says. “One man tries to throw a rock at an army.
“But we’re not militant. We’re peaceful.”
That Buddy Frasier guy, whatever his real problem is, could have done it a much peaceful way. The guy appeared belligerent, combative, mad out of his mind and/or drugged out. It took afew people to claim him down and get him to his senses. Then he left feeling mighty stupid for acting so immature. Even his 2 poor little dogs was scared from how he was yelling at us.
Ours is a community drum circle. We are a diverse group of people sharing a common experience. Our emphasis is on intuitive, improvised, and emotive rhythms and not rehearsed, formal or traditional ones. We welcome your voice in our 'group song'.
Drumming is fun. Drumming can change your mood and connect you powerfully with others. Drumming can entrance and heal. Drumming can provide a vehicle for expressing joy, frustration and peace. Drumming can raise energies and provide relaxation. Whether we participate for the spiritual experience, the musical experience or the community experience, drumming can bring a dozen hearts and souls to a dozen destinations...yet we journey together...as a community.
I've been working with the SPD and the Parks Department off and on for two years now. We've been trying to reach a compromise and organize a meeting with neighbors to work out a win-win. A town meeting was suggested or city council in both disctricts. Nothing ever came off it and we've had no direct contact with any of the neighbors until last week. Personal threats and insults are not a neighborly way to build bridges and make peace. We are a community after all. As is are drumming circle. A community within a community. There is no opposition to comprise, we encourage a healthy and open dialog. Compassion on both sides will show to be fruitful and bring a calm to the neighbors of eastlake.
Seattle Hand Drummers
Okay 1. I'm an eastlake resident and I don't hear drums, all I hear is that INSANELY LOUD i5 bridge and guess what, it's been there for years and we live in a city. If you have a problem with noise and other people, perhaps a city is not for you.