Still drumming up a Siesta Beach sensation
A: It was originally started by David Gittens, a local polymath who organized a full moon drumming ceremony in 1993 by the site of the “grandmother tree” on the south end of Siesta Key. It was attended by nearly a dozen drummers and one dancer and was led by David in meditative African drum rhythms. It was so inspiring that the group collectively decided to make it a weekly event which was held at Beach Access 8 until it outgrew the parking a few years later and was moved to the main beach.
By the mid-’90s, it was attended by a younger crowd more interested in the drumming than the spirituality and many of the older regulars felt relegated to the sidelines.
Even David left, replaced by what we elders jokingly called “the drum Nazis” because they dominated the circle with very loud driving rhythms. These rhythms were enjoyed by the many dancers and flow artists who came to play inside the circle with hula hoops, flowing veils and creative costumes.
After dark a fire was lit in the center and fire dancers performed for about seven years before the authorities decided to ban open flames on the beach.
The only thing that could put a damper on the circle is rain, which is hard on drums, but once the new pavilion was built it became a non-issue. Occasionally, a bad red tide chases us off the beach.
Q: It has grown and grown in size, and now is even considered a tourist attraction. What do you estimate as your largest gathering? And share some details on its fame.
A: It was estimated that during peak times in season, more than 1,000 people attend, including a core group of two dozen dedicated drummers and an equal number of dancers.
This group was so dedicated that even three drummers and a dancer attended during a hurricane when the beach was only 10 feet wide. The wind was so loud and strong that the drummers were hard to hear and the dancer was at a 45-degree angle into the wind!
One never knew what would show up on a weekly basis — we witnessed proposals and conducted wedding and memorial ceremonies in the center; we were invaded by a group of a dozen pirates in full costume one night (never got the story); we saw giant puppets, light puppets, furries, aliens, and even on a couple of occasions a full Celtic band including bagpipes.
All are welcome (except the Jesus freaks who harangue attendees with signs and bullhorns telling us we are going to hell). It became famous because news outlets as varied as the New York Times and AAA have covered the shenanigans.
An award-winning locally produced rum was named after the circle. At least two movies and half a dozen music videos had scenes shot at the circle Award-winning photographers and amateurs have documented the circle.
It has spawn other circles, including the Nokomis drum circle.
Some lament the popularity as it can attract a certain party element just interested in being entertained.
We original “organizers” did not do this with the intent of making an “event.” For most of us, it is our “church” — a chance to put the cares of a busy week behind us and lose ourselves to the rhythms. For some of us it has led to a community, relationships, and lasting friendships.
Q: Is there a lead drummer during the event who sets the pace? Do the beats change? And are there any rules associated with the performers?
A: There is no “head” of a circle. All are equal and all contribute.
The rhythms can vary depending on the mood of the attendees, from chaotic to sublime, but overall if I am surprised at anything it is how often it works.
The drum circle as it exists has few rules other than to respect the other attendees and of course we must shut it down by 10 p.m. due to the noise ordinance.
Drummers invest a fair amount into their drums so another rule is to be respectful and not try to play someone else’s drum without permission or take items like hoops or scarves from the dancers without permission
Any noise-making instrument is welcome as long as it does not overwhelm the others. We have seen every kind of drum, including garbage cans, and people bring flutes and stringed instruments as well.
One attendee brought his electric guitar and battery-powered amp, although some of the drummers didn’t care for it and made him do it on the opposite side of the circle.
As in most collective engagements, some drummers stand out because of the strength and skill at holding rhythms. This is not necessarily the loudest drummer.
People are calling for the return of the “Goggle Guy,” aka Shawn Bowen, who holds forth on the djuns. Unfortunately, due to the recent lack of respect seen at the circle, he is staying away for a while until the pandemic quiets down. As a dancer, I can move away if someone is behaving in an unsafe fashion. But the drums are fixed.
Q: What is your favorite type of inner-circle performer?
A: It is hard to pick what is my favorite flow art. Sometimes I am as delighted by a 2-year-old twirling a ribbon on a stick as I am seeing a pro hula-hooper standing on their hands and hooping with one toe.
Until I stopped attending during the pandemic, I set up the center of the circle with a large LED ball as well as flowers and ferns.
Q: For those who want to join but may not have experience, is there something online that teaches this type of drumming?
A: Don’t worry about learning online. I learned to drum by bringing my drum and watching the drummers. They set up such a standing wave that your hands/sticks will literally vibrate on your drum.
If you insist on learning, check out the Siesta Key Drum Circle page on Facebook, as we frequently post videos on certain rhythms.
Or, check out Rhythm Inlet in Nokomis. It sells percussion instruments of all kinds and provides classes on drumming.
Q: Any closing thought?
A: A frequently asked question I get from first-time visitors is, “What is the meaning of this circle?”
I honestly answer, “It means whatever you want it to mean.”
If you come to the circle, as in life, with respect and good intentions, you will be rewarded with an incredible experience which you have collectively created.
What is most important to me, and I suspect to many other attendees, is witnessing the joy of others forgetting about the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” and letting loose whether on drum or in dance. There is nothing like a crowd of all ages, colors, genders, socioeconomic backgrounds, religious and political persuasions joining together for free on the most beautiful beach in the world, creating an experience that lasts for a lifetime.