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What IS A Drum Circle?

Updated on January 13, 2019
Maren Morgan M-T profile image

Music permeates Maren's soul, whether performing (voice, piano, drum, guitar, clarinet) or acting as a crazily enthusiastic audience member.


A drum from western Africa known as a djembe or jembe.
A drum from western Africa known as a djembe or jembe. | Source

Drum Circle Defined

Drum circles are activities and events. They are open to people dropping in without any equipment and without much training. Usually, they are based around playing African and middle-eastern hand drums. Latin American and Caribbean instruments may also be present. However, the most important thing to bring to a drum circle is openness to learn and the desire to bang something with some kind of rhythm. After that, the spirit of welcoming acceptance ubiquitous to drum circles guarantees a comfortable experience for participants.

It Is Not Chaotic

Usually there is a leader and a few drummers who are experienced in hand drumming songs. Often the leader brings extra instruments for (1) those who have none, and (2) those who want to experiment with auxiliary "toys." The leader will set up chairs in a circle (duh) and put instruments in an accessible area. If fees are charged for drum rentals, the leader takes care of that. Also, sometimes donations are collected for either rental of the space or other charitable purposes.

Teaching During A Drum Circle

Although a drum circle is NOT a group lesson, a little bit of teaching can occur. The leaders help newbies get accustomed to whacking at a hand drum, such as a djembe or doumbek; or smacking a stick on a djun-djun. The leaders often get the group started on simple patterns to warm up. These simple warm-up rhythms can serve as the foundation beat for subsequent group creations.

Improvisational Music

Circles are held in church basements or backs of music stores or public parks. All drum circle music is spontaneous creation built on a base rhythm. Beginners can stick with the basic foundation beat. Then, the more experienced (or daring) drummers will build on that with creative flourishes. It all is "a becoming." And it is rather exhilarating to react to each other. The energy just builds and builds!

The leader will help by making endings to the drum songs, so that participants can "digest" what they have just done, get a drink of water, or rest their arms and hands. Yes, it is arm exercise. Also, an official end of a song permits a new rhythm to be started for the next round.

Auxiliary Percussion Instruments

The instruments pictured are tambourine, guiro, cabasa (also called afuche), maraca, concert castanets, triangle. These are the fun "toys" that may be available to try at a circle.
The instruments pictured are tambourine, guiro, cabasa (also called afuche), maraca, concert castanets, triangle. These are the fun "toys" that may be available to try at a circle. | Source

Percussion Toys

In my book, any percussion instrument is fun. Consider, though, all the various instruments that fall within the percussion family: rattles, maracas, sticks, whistles, shakers, shells, tambourines, castanets, rain sticks, guiros, etc. Just about anything that can be struck or shaken is a percussion instrument. (OK, I know that a whistle is blown, but percussionists get to lay claim to police and slide whistles. Also, think what fun the Cuban 3-tone whistle could be for you!)

Accepting All

Acceptance is the supreme mandate of behavior. People play simple or complex patterns and it's all ok. People change instruments in the middle of a "song" and that is great. It is impossible to "play wrong." Like the saying "all God's critters have a voice in the choir," it really all works together and everyone's contribution is valued as a fiber in the fabric of the whole.

2 Djembes

If it's "one djembe," is it "two djembi?"
If it's "one djembe," is it "two djembi?" | Source

Emotional Release

Did you ever have one of those days at work where you were so frustrated and angry that it was all you could do to keep from quitting on the spot? Banging away on something is a great way to get all the angst out of your system. A big, heavy, sonorous djembe can take that energy and convert it into something positive! Or, have you been so happy to be alive that you need to shout? Again, the African drums allow you to share that joy with a community of drummers. Furthermore, if you are the sort of person to whom words do not come easily, drumming may be your mode of communication.

Give Drum Circle A Try

You'll like it. And, unlike lessons, there is no commitment for time or money. Show up when you can. Pay what you can. But beat the music of your soul out into the world!

© 2008 Maren Elizabeth Morgan


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