Archive for December 4th, 2011

Drum Circle

drums made by Rusty Wiltjer

About 10 years ago, I visited a certain State Park in Maryland.  There, in the parking lot, was a woman sitting in the back of her open van, listening to a tape of Middle Eastern music.  She was playing a djembe drum.  The hypnotic beat mesmerized me and I stood there for a long time, listening.  From that moment I knew I wanted to take drum lessons so I, too, could play the djembe!

Three or four years ago, someone was making aliyah and had a yard sale.  When I saw her djembe for sale, I knew I had to have it.  But once in my possession, it just sat there.  I was always running around doing errands or helping someone with something, and I just didn’t have the proper “alone time” to really get into trying my djembe.  By then it was terribly out of tune but I had no idea how to tune it.  And then the goatskin “head” (the part that you beat) split and needed replacing.  I contacted several music stores but no one knew how to replace the goatskin “head.”  So my djembe continued to sit, unplayed.

Maine has an interesting mix of people, and that includes a tremendously creative and artistic segment of the population.  Craftsmen, artists, musicians and writers abound.  It seems like every town, no matter how small, has concerts and cultural activities.  So I made sure to bring my broken djembe to Maine.  Even though I don’t live anywhere near a music store, I had a feeling that I would find someone to fix it.

Sure enough, in the next town over, just down the road from the bison farm,  lives a man by the name of Rusty Wiltjer.  Rusty is both a successful drummer and a potter.  In the last few years he has combined his two passions:  he throws giant drums on his potter’s wheel, adds the goatskin heads, and then plays and sells the very drums he has created.  On weekends he plays drums for different jazz bands (some gigs take him all over the country), but he also sells his drums at crafts shows, drummers’ festivals,  and via the Internet.  After speaking with him by phone, Rusty Wiltjer confirmed that he could fix my djembe, and invited me to his Wiltjer Pottery house/studio near Bear Pond in Waterford, Maine.

just up the road from Wiltjer Pottery is this bison farm. Too bad they don't do kosher slaughter. But I do get bones there for my dog!

A view of the inside of Rusty Wiltjer's still-unfinished house that he built single-handedly.

Rusty owns a beautiful piece of land where he single-handedly constructed his home (still a work in progress); another building that serves as his potter’s studio; and a huge kiln for firing his work.  He had many giant djembe drums for sale, no two alike, each with beautifully colored glazes and wonderful range of tone.  He also created several other types of drums, all with very unique shapes and sounds.  The drums cost $400 – $1200.

Rusty Wiltjer's one-of-a-kind djembe drums for sale

Pipe drums

Rusty Wiltjer built this huge walk-in kiln next to his house

To ensure that the kiln's heat is evenly distributed, he places small clay cone strips around the kiln and does a test firing. If all the strips look identical, then he knows the kiln will fire his drums evenly. The temperature is so hot, that the outside bricks of the kiln actually glow. It takes 3 to 4 days for the kiln to cool down once firing is completed.

Amidst the clean but somewhat cluttered environs, Rusty told me, “I have a couple of rolled-up African goatskins lying around here somewhere, but I’ve looked and looked and I just can’t seem to find them!  I will have to order a new supply, and then as soon as I get them, I will start working on your drum.”

Meanwhile he invited me to a drum circle he facilitates, which meets in the winter months every Thursday from 6 pm – 9 pm at the Harrison Fire Station.  Harrison is a pretty little town next to Waterford, which is about 20 miles from my house.  The fire station has a “community room” which the town uses as a gathering place for various classes, meetings, etc.  In the summer, the drum circle meets at the beach next to Long Lake.  (Imagine the intoxicating beauty of a warm summer night, sitting on the sand next to the water; a bunch of people beating drums as the sun sets over the lake.)

Now I know what you’re probably thinking:  if I enjoyed the drum circle, then I’ve turned into some sort of New Age Hippie Earth Mother.  In fact, many drum circles do attract this type, or emphasize a certain spiritual-worship facet, but Rusty’s drum circle was nothing of the sort.  Instead, it was 40% drum lessons, 40% drumming, and 20% shmoozing.  Although anyone can beat a drum, there is actually a “right” way to do it, and getting in the habit of using proper technique and correct hand order takes more advanced and quicker-paced drumming to the next level.

When I was invited to join along, I felt very self-conscious, so I told the group that I would just sit and observe.  Soon I found myself beating my thighs, as the rhythm was irresistible.  While this was useful for reducing cellulite on my legs, I was soon itching to try the real deal.

Grasping the djembe between my legs, at first I stumbled and felt very intimidated, but not only did the group set me at ease, they stressed that the purpose was not to be perfect, but to simply relax and have fun.  I gave myself a pep talk and decided to just “go with the flow.”  Much to my surprise, I found I actually had some natural talent for the djembe (who knew?), and was able to master some complicated rhythms using proper technique within seconds, surpassing even the more seasoned beginners!

There were all levels of drummers present, and the group was extremely diverse.  Ages ranged from 30s to 60s.

The woman who sat next to me was a neighbor of Rusty’s, who was at the drum circle for the first time, too.  She is an artist, and for the past 2 years has been building her own house.  When I say “building her own house,” I don’t mean that she’s paying a general contractor.  Not only did she design the entire house by herself, she even cut her own trees, peeled the bark and stacked the logs for the exterior.  Everything – plumbing, electricity, carpentry – – has been installed by her and her SO.

In the summer she works as the art director of Camp Wigwam, which is a boys’ sleep-over sports camp on Bear Pond that has a Native American Indian theme.   As a result of her working for the camp, she became interested in Native American culture.  She built an 18′ diameter teepee which she has been living in for the past two years while her house is being built.  She is also creating a wigwam as a separate outbuilding.

When she mentioned the wigwam, that got the attention of another drum circle member, who is a Native American from the Abenaki tribe.  He began discussing various components of wigwam architecture, and mentioned how his father would build temporary birchbark houses and longhouses and heat them by building fires on the outside, then digging trenches leading into the structures which would act like heating ducts and carry the fire’s heat into the inside of the wigwam.  This was living history – it was so interesting!

Meanwhile Rusty’s neighbor mentioned that she has two Labrador retrievers who like to wander the neighborhood, and she was wondering if they may have ventured onto Rusty’s property.

“Oh, so they were your dogs?” Rusty asked.  “I was on the roof of my barn fixing something and they were barking at me!  I was afraid to come down because I didn’t know if they bite!”

The neighbor assured him that they didn’t bite, but that they are very curious and “get into stuff.”

“In fact,” she said, “a couple of weeks ago they brought home this weird looking piece of rolled leather.  My husband took it away from them and stuck it on top of a shelf.  I forgot all about it until just now.”

My eyes practically popped out of their sockets.  “Rusty!” I exclaimed, “I’ll bet the dogs stole your goatskin “heads!”

Rusty looked at me, and it was as if you could see a light bulb turning on in his brain.  “Wow!  It hadn’t occurred to me, but now that I’m thinking about it , I left the goatskins in the garage with the garage door open!  So yeah, the dogs could have taken the skins!  I mean, what are the odds – – you finding me on the Internet and coming last week for the goat skins, and then my neighbor showing up tonight for the first time at the drum circle, and mentioning that her dogs retrieved  some “weird looking rolled leather!”

I guess you could call it Doggy Divine Providence.

Then the group discussed the upcoming Xmas parade this coming Saturday.  Small towns throughout Maine love to hold parades.  There is a Memorial Day Parade, a Veteran’s Day Parade, a Homecoming Parade, and a Xmas parade.  Local interest groups put together “floats” – usually flat trailers pulled by tractors or pickup trucks – decorated with streamers and ridden on by members of the group.  The only problem with the parades is that everyone in the towns likes to participate, so there are always more participants than spectators!  Rusty wanted the drum circle to play the drums on the float, accompanied by . . . belly dancers!  Apparently another woman member of the drum circle is a professional belly dancer, and brings in several of her belly-dancing friends to dance to the drumbeats.

Needless to say, this is one parade I would not be participating in.

But I did have a question:  “How do belly dancers dress when performing outside in the Maine winter?”  The forecast was for temperatures to be in the 30s.

“Oh, we have velvet costumes for winter, which keep us plenty warm.”

Who knew?

To see a drum circle in action (although not the one I participated in; I found this video on youtube), click here.