Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ojai's Drum Circle


It’s springtime in the park.  Birds are singing, flowers are blooming, children are laughing, sage is burning and hippies are drumming.

I’m in Libbey Park on a Sunday afternoon and completely out of my element…and I’m swooning.  I’m swooning because I have found myself smack dab in the middle of Ojai’s inner circle; that elusive place that we hear of in whispers, witness from the fringes and rarely get to experience ourselves.  Yet it’s what makes this quirky little town so endearing.

I’m in the inner circle.  A drum circle.

I walked by Libbey Park several months ago and heard a steady chorus of rhythmic thumping.  A group of about a dozen people were gathered; men with a quiet intensity hammering away on drums of various sizes and young women with flowing skirts swaying to a beat that made their long locks of hair toss from side to side.  I sat and watched for a moment from a far away bench, not sure if this was a place for outsiders. 

I did this for several weeks before finally getting up the nerve to approach the circle.  When I did, I was met with a warm curiosity.  After all, I didn’t really look the part.  Me: t-shirt, blue jeans, red sneakers; typical Gap-girl garb and a dab of Ralph Lauren fragrance.  Them: dreadlocks, African print tunics, maybe even some hempware with a hint of patchouli oil.

I met Jay North first.  He’s known by the locals as an organic gardening guru.  I asked him why they come here.  He explained it as a sort of spiritual social event, something to do to get ready for the work week ahead.

“We’re always so stuck inside ourselves.  This is a way to turn your back on it all.”

I wanted to know who started it all.  Jay pointed to a dreadlocked African-American man, giving a pretty good wallop to his drum.  I think I asked if he was in charge or if he was the leader, a dumb rhetorical question that made me look even more naïve and would surely get me banished back to the bench. 

“No, Sartuse is the inspirer.”

And with that, the man with one name came over and introduced himself.  Sartuse had a pleasant way about him; a warmth and genuineness that I was immediately drawn to.  He told me he came to Ojai in the early eighties and has taught drumming to local youths for years. 

“He even recorded with Jose Feliciano,” revealed another member of the drum circle, Toby Lampson.  Toby, a local magazine publisher, told of Sartuse’s status as a professional master African drummer turned Ojai icon.  A CD that the two recorded recently featuring Sartuse’s solos is currently for sale at Java Joe’s.

I asked Sartuse if I could sit-in.  He escorted me to a drum and sat next to me while he demonstrated a simple tap-tap and I mustered up some courage to join him. 

“The drum has a voice.”

I wondered what mine would say.

I looked around.  About a half dozen drummers surrounded me and were pulsing out individual beats that came together in harmonious agreement.  An older couple wandered over from the arcade to watch.  Children splashed about in the fountain.  The vibrations were welling up inside me.  Time to take a stab at it I suppose.

With Sartuse’s coaching, I placed my hand next to his and mimicked the “tap-tap.”   After a couple of minutes, he could see I was ready to mix it up a little.  With my left hand, I added a “smack.”  This went on for several minutes.  “Tap-tap, SMACK, tap-tap SMACK.”  Sartuse started pounding out a very complex arrangement and I tried to follow.  Then someone asked me a question and I lost the rhythm.  “Tap-BONK, SMACK!”  My hollow thud shattered the circle’s beautiful cacophony with one errant stroke.  Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.

I talked a little longer with the three local legends I had the privilege of getting to know.  I was still inquisitive, wanting to know who comes here on Sundays. 

Toby summed it up well, “People just show up.  Most people probably question themselves, should they watch or should they play?  That guy who was just here next to me, I have no idea who he was.”

I noticed there was little opportunity for conversation, which is clearly why most of them come here.  “Words often times divide,” Toby advised.

Nodding in agreement, I found my way back to that bench on the outside of the circle and quietly observed from a respectful distance, knowing I had just experienced quintessential Ojai.


If you’re visiting from out-of-town, ask for a late check-out, grab a Chai Latte from Ojai Coffee Roasters and head on over to Libbey Park on a Sunday afternoon…and let the rhythm take hold! 

Published Spring 2006 in the Ojai Valley Visitors Guide.