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Seattle's World Rhythm Festival: The World's Hottest Drum Circle

Updated on December 11, 2013

The World Rhythm Festival: Rocking Seattle Since 1994

Seattle's own World Rhythm Festival will next be erupting across the Seattle Center on April 5-6, 2014--its 21st consecutive year!--and anyone within driving distance who owns anything resembling a drum, rattle or tambourine simply must not miss it.

Here you will find scheduled performances of drumming and dancing. There will be a nonstop program of workshops ("playshops", some call them) on many varieties of percussion, dance traditions from across the world, and the spiritual aspects of drumming from a multitude of cultures and belief systems. Spontaneous drum-and-dance jams spring up around the grounds of the Seattle Center. A large marketplace of drum-related vendors will set up shop for visitors to check out (and play) all sorts of drums, rattles, shakers and sticks. And, of course, there is the Great American Drum Circle at the end of the day on Saturday and Sunday, led by the irrepressible Arthur Hull and several of his drumming cronies, which will make every cell in your body rock and roll!

This drumming photo is courtesy of Gregory Scott Clarke.

Percussionitis: Seattle World Rhythm Festival, Growing by Beats and Pounds

They say this festival was founded in 1994; but there were hints of it slipping into view here in Seattle before then, as a small drum circle, then a bigger drum circle, then a day or two of workshops at John's Music shop in Wallingford. In any case, 1994 was the year that I performed on tabla at the festival--myself and a dozen or so of Tor Dietrichson's tabla students, featuring a tabla whiz kid named Anil. We'd been rehearsing several kaidas for weeks beforehand, trying to keep our rhythms and speed coordinated among the lot of us. We got a great response from the audience; but I discovered later that a single set tablas are way too soft for the huge group sound of the evening's drum circle, where heavy-duty djembes and other larger hand drums predominate.

The festival, and the drum circle community, have seemingly been getting bigger every year since then. There is a full program for the three-day weekend, beginning with opening ceremonies on Friday night--but you're encouraged to bring your own percussion instruments with you every day, whether you're officially performing or not. On Saturday and Sunday, there are workshops in drumming and dancing from a multitude of cultures, from Middle Eastern bellydance to African djembe and ashiko to Afro-Caribbean ritual drumming. A majority of the facilitators are drawn from local teachers and performers; but each year, guest facilitators from out of town--even from outside the country--are also featured. These have included the late Babatunde Olatunji (whose workshops I was privileged to attend, even though I lack any form of African drum), Italian tambourine master Alessandra Belloni, master frame drummer Glen Velez, and Afro-Brazilian drummer and bandleader Carolyn Brandy. Our most famous drumming facilitator, local or otherwise, is of course Arthur Hull, a drummer and drum circle facilitator of such renown that his methods of bringing a percussion community together have become known as "Arthurian technique." His is the charismatic presence at each of the evening drum circles; and he has even been recruited to head up the drum circle segments of other Seattle festivals, including the Northwest Folklife Festival and the Bumbershoot Arts Festival.

The workshops emphasize international traditions of drumming and dancing, though there are also workshops for facilitating drum circles, and a few that are not readily categorized, such as a workshop I took one year in shamanic drumming, that appeared based on so-called core shamanism, rather than on culturally-specific practices. Some workshops are extensions of the facilitators' teaching practices, especially those by Northwest-based drumming teachers such as Simone LaDrumma and Karim Koumbassa. Likewise, the dancing workshops teach a mixture of traditional dance forms and modern innovations; and some of them require a certain degree of physical prowess. The bellydance and trance dancing workshops are relatively low-impact; but you'll want to be fairly fit beforehand, if you want to attempt traditional Guinean dance or capoeira. You'll be out of breath minutes into these workshops otherwise. I speak from experience.

I highly recommend taking part in at least one of the evening drum circles on Rhythm Fest weekend, even if you're just dancing on the periphery, or shaking one of those egg-shaped rattles. I also recommend wearing light ear plugs if you join the big indoor drum circles, as the intensity of the collective sound (especially by the larger dundun and djembe drums) make the windows of the venue shiver; so you can imagine what it may do to your eardrums. Arthur Hull, a few of his cronies, and one or two of his drums hold court in the center of the circle. Arthur has developed a kind of code for facilitating drum circles that includes dramatic gestures, recitation of rhythms, layering the sounds of different percussion instruments (just imagine dozens of drums "singing a round", if you will), and repetitive call-and-response rhythmic patterns. After many years of group drumming activities, and interacting with Seattle drummers, Arthur has perfected his own art of making scores of amateur drummers start and stop on a dime, with his bag of tricks and cues.

However, if the "Great American Drum Circle" proves a bit much for your senses, there are almost always impromptu drum and dance groups forming, breaking up, and blending into each other across the Seattle Center grounds, even if they have to duck under facades and walkways in case of rain. Though less structured, these groups are still lots of fun, and give one a lot of scope for improvised drum and dance patterns. If you enjoy drumming or dancing yourself into an altered state of consciousness, these informal groups are probably the best way to go. In any case, there are few things more fun for drummers than playing together, as well as learning a few new things one can do with one's instrument. So go to play, to learn, to listen, to dance, to purchase new drums or accessories (I bought some great homemade shea butter and bodhran sticks one year); and above all, to have fun with rhythm.

*The above photo features Navaro Franco and Diva Drum at the World Rhythm Festival in 2007.

Some Videos of the World Rhythm Festival - The RhythmFest Vids from 2013 are the newest feature!

Here are some workshops and stage performances from the past couple of World Rhythm Festivals!

Assorted Percussion on Offer at Amazon - New Feature: mp3's by World Rhythm Fest Artists!

Check out some recordings by some of RhythmFest's favorite performers and teachers!

Yosheh Amayo-Baptiste: What Happened at the Rhythm Festival in 2004

An Afro-Brazilian dancer and teacher literally danced her heart out.

The Seattle World Percussion Society's special tribute page summarizes what happened before our eyes in the Seattle Center's main building (known as the Center House) on a day I will not soon forget--because I was right there, on the opposite side of the main floor's stage: "On April 3, 2004, Francine Bazy (known locally as Yosheh Amayo-Baptiste) stepped off the stage at the Seattle Center House during the 12th Annual World Rhythm Festival. Yosheh had a severe medical emergency and collapsed. Despite valiant efforts by the Seattle Center Staff and the Seattle Fire Department, Ms. Amayo-Baptiste was unable to be revived and passed away at the age of 43."

What I remember, though, was this. I was beside the south-facing end of the stage, eating a lunch of Thai green curry, and watching off and on as several dancers, in differently-colored dresses and headscarves, swooped and pounded the stage floor in an African dance jam of sorts, accompanied by a small ensemble of drummers led by Eduardo Mendonça on djembe. At some point, though, the drumming and dancing stopped; and I noticed that a crowd was gathering at the opposite end of the stage for some reason. After some minutes, a man came up to the microphone and asked if anyone could locate relatives of Yosheh Baptiste. More and more people began to pay attention to something that was occurring at the far end of the stage from where I was standing; and then I noticed my good friend and former tabla teacher, looking distraught, being held back by several other people, and beginning what looked like a form of Buddhist prayer. Turns out he was a good friend of this dancer in a red dress who had just collapsed, literally right in front of him, minutes after walking offstage.

Paramedics came into the Center House shortly afterwards, running to the side of the stage where the dancer was lying, motionless, just inside the backstage entrance. They worked CPR measures on her for an hour, as I watched, curry plate in hand, along with scores of other drummers and visitors, and everything happening onstage came to a halt. Alas, the paramedics were unable to get Yosheh's heart going again, and eventually lifted her body onto a stretcher, entirely covered in white sheets. Immediately, a number of people began slowly clapping, a west African gesture of respect for someone who has just departed. The clapping was taken up by dozens of other observers as Yosheh's body was wheeled out of the building; a couple of fellow dancers burst into tears and wailing, and were embraced and calmed down by friends.

That evening's drum circle, held outside in clear weather, was just getting started as word of Yosheh Amayo-Baptiste's sudden passing began sending shock waves through the workings of the festival. After all, Yosheh had just taught an Afro-Caribbean dance workshop a few hours before, and had seemed perfectly fine at the time. It seems she had had a heart condition that few others were aware of. Drum circle leaders suddenly found themselves surrounded by a group of shell-shocked, grief-stricken people, and wondered what they could possibly do or say that would be of help to those for whom this was a personal tragedy. John Avinger made the announcement of what had happened, and the decision to dedicate the rest of the festival in honor of Yosheh. Arthur Hull then delivered a spontaneous homily of sorts about the importance of community bonding at times like this, and how drumming and dancing together played such an important role in building community, as Yosheh herself had certainly known. As the drum circle began a shared rhythm, many of us noticed a trio of seagulls hovering over the center of the circle for the longest time, one gull in particular circling, hovering and calling out over the pounding rhythms. The gulls, in fact, did not leave the circle until the ambulance carrying Yosheh's body left the nearby parking lot. At least some of us figured that Yosheh's spirit had something to do with this, perhaps taking the form of one of the gulls.

A few weeks later, on Sunday, April 25, a memorial celebration for Yosheh was held, also at the Center House. I felt a need to be there, because I had been there when she died, even though I'd never known her personally. It was a true celebration of life, not a dreary memorial-service type of event at all; and, of course, much music and dancing was done. The whole roster of the group VamoLá was in attendance; people were encouraged to get out of their seats and dance in Yosheh's honor; and the highlight of the event was a performance by a gold-clad Afro-Brazilian dancer who seemed to personify the river goddess Oshun. Many of us were unable or unwilling to end the celebration at any designated time; and the drumming and dancing spilled out of the Center House onto a nearby lawn, continuing on for an hour or two into the evening. I truly believe that this was how Yosheh wanted to be remembered--with dance, music, singing, and joy, not sadness. Her name has continued to be remembered and invoked with each succeeding year's World Rhythm Festival; and is no doubt recalled by many who drum and dance, outside of any workshop or festival. Yosheh Ashé!

*The image above is an original cross-stitch design of mine, representing a fire elemental dancing, more or less in the poltava style. © 2004 by Karen I. Olsen

Friends of the World Rhythm Festival

Here are links to just a handful of the performers, workshop facilitators, and other drumming dignitaries who have blessed the World Rhythm Festival with their presence and knowledge over the years. More will be added later!

Arthur Hull and Some of his Drum Circle Exploits - This wild, crazy drum circle innovator hasn't missed a Rhythm Fest yet.

Now on eBay: The Finest in Drums, Percussion and Accessories - Current Feature: Ashikos!

I think I've featured these before; but they're still one of my favorite species of hand drum...

World Beat Drummers' Social Networking Corner - You don't have to be a drummer (yet) to sign, of course...

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      MemoryMistress 4 years ago

      Drummer checking in. I had no idea about the rhythm festival in Seattle. It's a long way for me to go but I'd love to get there one day.

    • PNWtravels profile image

      Vicki Green 6 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

      Great information about something I didn't know about right under my nose! Featured on my visit Seattle Wa, the emerald city lens.

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      I've really enjoyed teaching workshops at the WRF the last two years, and can't wait for 2011!

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      grannysage 8 years ago

      Drum circles are great. I am not a great drummer, but I like to listen and dance. My daughter wants me to buy her a drum. We are planning to move to the Pacific Northwest in the next couple of years. Maybe we can get to this festival. Very nice lens.