By: Vera Carothers
November 6, 2015
The drum circle in Meridian Hill Park in Northwest D.C. has been going on for over 40 years. The weekly tradition started in the 1960s to celebrate black liberation. These days, the circle has changed to include people of all races and walks of life. It’s a vibrant scene where pétanque players share space with picnickers, jugglers teach little kids their tricks, and Acro Yogis create impressive human pyramids.
Julia Ticona, who lives a few blocks from Meridian Hill Park in Northwest D.C., says this is the scene every Sunday in the warm months of the year.
“It becomes this patchwork of blankets and yoga mats, dancers, drummers, families eating food and all that stuff. It’s like a music festival,” she says.
The circle is a rare place where people from different backgrounds can encounter each other, she emphasizes. Her husband Dan Ticona is originally from Peru and moved to the neighborhood 14 years ago. He likes how diverse the area is, but says that different groups don’t mix much on the street.
“When you see different on the street, you don’t usually stop and stare or comment on it or learn about it, but at the park it almost feels like you enter the park and that weirdness or feeling uncomfortable around difference is out the door,” he says.
Drumming with a historic place
What may not be obvious to passersby, however, is that the circle has a very specific history and meaning. The circle began during the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.
William Caudle, a 64-year old D.C. native, has been drumming at the circle for over 40 years. Growing up in Anacostia, he started playing drums in his basement at age five.
“Kept my clothes clean, kept me out of trouble, I was always down there with the radio and I was in heaven,” he remembers.
For Caudle, drumming has been somewhat like a religion throughout his life.
“Drumming is spiritual for me, it’s good for my heart, its art, it’s an art form, it was what God gave mankind to communicate with him,” he says.
Drumming at Meridian Hill Park is special in particular for Caudle because of the circle’s history that dates back to February 1965.
“The day that Malcolm X was assassinated, I think, was the day that Baba Ngoma started drumming in Meridian Hill Park every Sunday,” he explains.
Caudle remembers when it was just Baba Ngoma, the house drummer for Howard Theatre, practicing alone in the park. But as the fight for equality gained momentum in D.C., drumming became the soundtrack for the civil rights movement. In 1969, protestors rallied at Meridian Hill to change the park’s name to Malcolm X Park.
Caudle says drumming provided a way for black Washingtonians to connect with African culture.
“African Americans have grown here out of slavery, all of that is our composition, so we have to go back to move forward now,” he says.
Howard University is about a mile from Meridian Hill. Students and professors of Howard had been studying African history and culture since the emergence of Pan-Africanism after World War I.
Blair Ruble is a historian and author of “Washington’s U Street: A Biography.” He explains that at the time these fields of study were ignored by mainstream white universities. In D.C., however, black cultural movements were widespread and growing.
“It was a city that was open to and supported African American cultural visions which ranged from integrationist, to separatist to nationalist to Pan-African, this was the place where they all had institutional roots,” Ruble says.
The park was the center of the action. It was a natural gathering point in the heart of black Washington. Caudle says that drummers gathered there on Sundays to riff off each other’s rhythms and to release feelings of stress, frustration and anger from the week.
“It was good therapy for African Americans,” he says with nostalgia.
Is the magic gone?
These days, however, he says the spiritual magic is no longer working.
“No, I feel a little beat down at the circle, ignored. I want it to be spiritual, I want it to be holistic, and that’s not happening,” he says. To his eyes, it has become a musical free-for-all and tourist attraction with all the new people joining the circle in recent years.
“It’s too much frolic going on, it’s no real one-ness, unity, the electricity is not really flowing honestly, it’s just all ya ya y’all in free, type of thing, no respect of seniority in knowing the technique,” he points out.
Today, the neighborhood around the park is one of the most diverse in D.C. Ruble says that the drum circle reflects the vibrancy of hometown Washington in a city often dominated by official images and national culture.
“I think it really symbolizes and continues to symbolize the cultural energy that exists in Washington among Washingtonians,” he says.
For some residents, like Julia Ticona, who moved here two years ago, the circle is a way to learn more about D.C. Ticona says attending the circle exposed her to the civil rights struggle here in the district, something she knew little about.
“As a white person living in this city, the park and the drumming circle in particular is a space that lets me understand a bit more about the long history of the city and the history of the civil rights struggle in this area which is such an important part of that history,” she says.
“I don’t think I would have every understood that if I hadn’t gone to the drum circle and been like, ‘Oh hey, this has been going on for how long, why?’”
See original post and drum circle photographs here.