There is another reason why we brought you here, we didn’t tell you about

“There is another reason why we brought you here, that we didn’t tell you about.”

excerpt “History of the Groove, drummer’s story”

Russell Buddy Helm ©2013 all rights reserved

2000. “There is another reason why we brought you here, that we didn’t tell you about.” Selene, the festival promoter said to me in their tent. It was the middle of the night, in the Midwest. They had flown me in, treated me like a rock star, drove for hours until we arrived at a huge, private festival site filled with thousands of happy campers; families, kids, kilts, bare breasts which meant it was a safe place for women, flowing hippie garb, costumes, flute music on the air and the unmistakable rumble of a drum circle high up on the ridge. The festival organizer was a woman, that impressed me.

She explained to me in very concise concerned terms. “We’ve had this festival for twelve years. We bought this land; four hundred acres . It used to be a boy scout camp. There are three guys who drum and they have ruined the festival for everybody for the last three years. They are djembe cowboys.”

“I’m your hired gun?” I said incredulously.

“We read your book. You’re the only one who understands this problem.”

Patrick, her partner/husband added carefully, “They are big guys, really big. Toughs. They dominate the circle, don’t let anyone else set a beat, they don’t let the dancers move around the fire. They are aggressive, angry, loud, rude and not part of the tribe. They come from back East, New Jersey or someplace. I don’t know…”

“Well…This a horse of a different color….” I said, checking my internal radar on this one. I thought of the stoney faced Richard Boone in the vintage TV show, ‘Paladin’;  Have Djembe, Will Travel.’

“I’m here. OK. Let’s do it.”

Their worried expressions lightened up. The Lone Ranger had arrived.

This was what I had signed on for. These were really sweet people. I had been through so many different scenes; psychedelic pop festivals where the cops herded alligators onto the festival site,  Redneck state trooper confrontations down on the chitlin circuit between Miami and Dothan, Alabama, Otis Redding’s road manager slicing my shoulder pushing me out of a second story window, Punk rock concerts in LA where kids slammed into me, Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami where mental patients jumped on my drumset while I was playing it, Rock n Roll suicides, junkie/ jazz intrigues, art/ damaged performances ending in police riots, Afro Cuban  gun confrontations in Little Havana, The Bethlehem Asylum’s typical concerts that oft went astray, Tim Buckley  in Boulder, refusing to leave the stage and singing until they shut the power off and I had to restrain the promoters’ son, preventing him from breaking Tim’s wrists. Peter Ivers confronting hardcore punk TV show guests with his recurring question, “What’s the meaning of life?” Bikers, mercenaries, FBI/CIA assassinations,  music business murders…..on and on. If this was to be my OK corral; then so be it.

“Let me go up to the drumming circle and see what’s going on.” I said calmly. I was curious but there was also the familiar pinging in my head. This was a moment in history. As I walked up the hillside, the drums were sporadic, unfocused,  subdued. I hefted my djembe onto my shoulder and crossed the meadow toward the huge glow of the fire. Embers danced up into the night air.  There were banners, the moon was bright,  I felt like Toshiro Mifuni in ‘The Seven Samurai.’

The people were very nice, humble even, standing around the big fire, tapping on their various drums. This was a beginning night for the festival, so not everyone had arrived yet. I sat down and surveyed the scene. Mostly young people, one girl in a kilt, a djembe hanging off her bare thin shoulders. There was no pretention here, also not much of a groove. I decided to learn from them. I sat down on a log, set up my tambourine foot pedal and lightly hit the downbeat in the middle of my Ghana Djembe head and followed their lead..I liked this approach because I invariably would learn something; a new beat they were trying to get to, or I would understand the most important drum group leader’s lesson; find the beat that even the most novice player can play, that way no one is left out and their life force energy, their orgone, was the truest and often the most potent. I stayed soft so as not to disturb this meditative mood. I was enjoying myself immensely, fitting in, when a rangy, thin guy strolls over to me. He had a leather stained cowboy hat on, a smattering of whiskers in a goatee. and he had a drum. He came up gently, “Excuse me. But could I sit next to you and try to keep up?”

That took me by surprise, “I’m not playing much.” I said simply.

“Yeah, But what you’re playing is right.”

“That’s the correct answer.” I smiled,  “Sit down.”

He followed my pattern as best he could, the group was starting to wake up, but I was not leading it…yet. After a few minutes he said,

“You know, I found a book a while ago and it changed my……” He focused on my face in the firelight. His eyes lit up, and his face showed real amazement. “You wrote the book!”

“You read my book?!!” I was also amazed.

He gestured to the rest of the group, “Hey! Everybody! He wrote the book!!” He pointed at me and all the people smiled knowingly and nodded. I was not expecting this.

“Can I study with you?” He asked earnestly.

“Sure.”  I said, for some reason, I felt Timmy hanging over my shoulder, laughing with that twinkle in his eye. “Let’s have a  lesson right now.” I suggested, taking the lead as the zen drum master teacher. He looked scared but willing. “OK”

I looked around the fire at the women, standing, waiting for the drummers to get a groove going so that they could dance. This is what my life was all about. “Pick a woman, any woman. Don’t let her know. And we’ll make her dance.”

He introduced himself as Cy. He looked around, suddenly intimidated by the weight of the choice facing him. I sympathized with him. I remembered being paralyzed like that when Tim had told me to pick something out on the jukebox in a bar in New York city while all these powerful musicians were hanging out, talking. I was so afraid, I could not choose between Frank Sinatra or Marlene Dietrich. Tim finally came over and chose something for me.

I looked around at the women and chose one; mid twenties, wearing a sari, bare breasted with bindi on her forehead and around her nipples. Her hands resting on her hips with that attitude of, ‘Come on guys get a groove going.’

“Her” I whispered to Cy, “But don’t let her know. Just follow my lead, don’t play anything more than I do, hit the downbeat, steady, don’t speed up.” He followed my instructions and she started to sway to the beat. He got too excited and started to bang too much. “No, don’t do that! Keep it simple, just the downbeat, leave the space. don’t get excited…” She felt the anxiety and faded back into the shadows.

I stopped and looked at him. “We lost her. Now its going to be more difficult to get her to dance again, but we have to. So do exactly what I tell you to do. No more. Just the downbeat. Stay STEADY.” Slowly like a deer coming out of the forest, she reemerged and started to move again. Soon she and others were dancing around the fire, safely, with an entranced, fluid energy. I kept admonishing him, “ less. Hit the Downbeat.” The firedance grew and the rest of the drummers were following us. It was a perfect moment. Eventually the groove ended and she faded away. Cy was beside himself with excitement, “I have NEVER  done that before.”

“You’re a drummer. That’s what you’re supposed to be doing.”

I realized that the world that I wanted to live in had arrived. Manifesting on the drum works.

Suddenly the woman dancer materialized behind us. Cy knew her.

He introduced me. “This is the guy who wrote the book.”

“We’ve been watching you dance.” He said excitedly.

She frowned.

“No.” I said. “We were learning to drum by watching you dance.”

“Well, in that case. I’ll dance some more.’ She said directly to me.  I was sitting and her nipples were at eye level a foot from my face. The bindi’s around her aureoles sparkled invitingly in the firelight. I wanted to kiss them.

“Do you like my bindis?” She asked me holding her breasts forward.

“Yes.  They are beautiful.” I said almost speechless. I looked up to the stars and thanked them. She disappeared and I never saw her again.

excerpt “History of the Groove, drummer’s story”

Russell Buddy Helm ©2013 all rights reserved


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