Voices of the drums, purveyors of rhythms

I WANT TO BANG ON THE DRUM ALL DAY Participants of all ages enjoy the Community Song and Drum Class, offered every Wednesday through Feb. 7. Janine Volkmar | Union

Janine Volkmar
Mad River Union

BAYSIDE – The room at the Humboldt Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is set up. A circle of empty chairs are set out. In the center are drums of all shapes and sizes.

Mike Kimmel and his son, Sean, sit behind big bellied drums, waiting patiently. Yemaya Kimmel, Mike’s wife and a talented singer and drummer in her own right, is on her way, having drawn the ridepool turn for one of their many children.

A group of little girls rushes into the room. Each pick a drum and dragged it to a seat. A parent helps them get settled, easing wooden drum stands under each drum to make it taller. These children are r-e-a-d-y to drum. And drum they do.

As Mike Kimmel welcomes everyone to the workshop and explains the different sounds each part of the drumhead makes, the girls drum along with confidence and skill.

“How old are you?” I whisper to the one nearest to me.

“Six,” she says, tossing her hair out of her eyes and getting back to the serious and fun business of drumming.

A friend who knows the Kimmels says, “Mike and Yemaya are all about empowering children.”

She is right because every child at the workshop is having the time of his or her life. Some have chosen small drums; others have drums so large that they can just see over the top.

And the workshop isn’t only for children. Parents drum along side their kids; other adults have come alone. Some are clearly experienced drummers; others are novices but Mike welcomes them all.

“In Africa,” he explains, “every voice is important, from the smallest child to the oldest person in the village. They all play music together.” He has studied with the well-known Nigerian drummer, Babatunde Olatunji, at the Omega Institute.

“I met Babatunde around 17 years ago,” he said. “He told me that I should come to a 10-day workshop he was giving. I said I did not have the money. He just smiled and said, ‘It’s my workshop and you’re my guest. You should share these songs and rhythms with others.’”

So that’s what the Kimmels are doing.

Every Wednesday, through Feb, 7, from 4 to 5 p.m. they are offering a Community Song and Drum Class, co-hosted by Therese FitzMaurice at the fellowship. All ages are welcome. Drums and other percussion instruments are provided but participants are welcome to bring their own drums as well. Cost is on a sliding scale.

Mike Kimmel demonstrates the first sound, hitting the center of the drum. “That sound is goon, like a big elephant,” he says. Then he gives a series of beats that means: change to a new rhythm, and another series that means: all stop together on the last note.

The group follows his lead and makes the changes. Kimmel smiles at each person and says, “Perfect. I didn’t hear any big elephants after the signal.” Then he demonstrates two more places to hit the drum, naming each one as he goes. The group is ready to try one of Babatunde’s songs, a song that translates to “Welcome, Peace.”  Old and young voices sing the song together while drumming. The sounds of the drums and the voices fill the room with joy.

Yemaya Kimmel comes swooping in, apologizing for being late. “I was caught behind not one, but two, schoolbuses,” she says. Everyone laughs. She asks for a drumming introduction around the circle. Each person in the circle gives a drumbeat or a series of beats, and then says their name. Then she starts a drumming round-robin, first inviting everyone to pick an extra percussion instrument from the duffel bags in the center. Mike gets up from behind his drum and carries the bag over to a little kid too shy to leave his parent, encouraging him to choose an instrument. The music starts with one person playing a rhythm with the next person joining in.

When the sounds go to the third person, the first fades out, and so on, around the circle.

The second time around there are no fade-outs and percussion instruments from all over the world replace the drums. What might be a cacophony is instead a symphony of beats and counterbeats, all building to a chant of polyrhythms. The workshop ends with everyone learning the drumbeats and words to a new song about Martin Luther King Jr. that Mike has written.

Mike plays drums and Yemaya sings and plays French horn in their band, Asha Nan. Yemaya is also a frequent soloist and longtime member of the Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir.

When the choir sang at the Humboldt County jail, she introduced her solo by telling the inmates that she had been locked up in the New Orleans jail for busking on the streets of that city.

“I’m back,” she said to the delighted applause of the inmates before launching into a soul-searing gospel solo. Mike often sits in with the choir on conga drums. Their daughter is in the youth choir as well.

The Kimmels have done workshops all over the community but they are particularly pleased to be offering the workshops at the fellowship. “The room is perfect,” Yemaya said.

For more information, contact Therese Fitzmaurice at (707) 498-3564. The fellowship is located at 24 Fellowship Way in Bayside and is wheelchair accessible.


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