Alternative Culture MagazineCougar WebWorks Celebrating Nature, Culture, and Spirit
Alternative Culture Magazine

Of Drum Groups and All-Night Jams

...tracing the beginnings of my personal journey (1991-96) with...

African Drumming, Drum Rhythm Groups, Jamming and Trance Dancing

<hear mp3 tracks from 2008 jam, Strange Moon>


Starting a Drum Group 24-Hour Drumming
Friday Night Jam Trance Dance
Roots Jam: Hand Drum Rhythms and Lesson Book

"The Creator wants us to drum. He wants us to corrupt the world with drum, dance and chants. Afterall, we have already corrupted the world with power and greed....which hasn't gotten us anywhere - now's the time to corrupt the world with drum, dance and chants."

--Babatunde Olatunji

The Friday Night Jam


Introduction (1996)

During the last six years a number of the local neophyte drummers have attempted to breathe life into and out of that longer-lived institution, the Friday Night Jam. Haven of Elvis aficionados and Credence Clearwater hacks, Willie Nelson impersonators and would-be-Dead-heads, the Friday Night Jam has lived by one rule: anything goes. Unfortunately for my taste, the "any" part of it sometimes gets lost in the Standards shuffle. Which is to say, group improvisation is hard to do well. When it works, however, it's dynamite, true inspiration, golden. It can even redeem the most tired of oldies, given an injection of altered lyrics, rhythms, and original solos.

The chronic problem at the Friday Night Jam has been to amalgamate the Afro-Latin drums and percussion with the western guitars, accordion, piano, harmonica, and their associated forms: primarily straight-ahead four-four. The drummers generally want to lean the beat over to the offbeat, the syncopated, the reggae. Reggae has been a convenient meeting ground because the compromise is simply found in the regular upbeat. But more than that is the issue of a controlled, recognizable "song" versus an extended, authentic and moveable jam.

Drum energy works best in waves, without restrictions of straightjacket lyrics, measures, predetermined chord changes. You can put it all together in a great package, if you're Santana or Olatunji. For us amateurs, that challenge takes work and practice as a group, and these are not appropriate to the looser anarchy of the jam. Even the oft-attempted "Let's take turns and go around the circle for starting something" is hard to maintain consistently in that venue. So success is left to chance, to who shows up and the mood they're in, to the phase of the moon or the health of the crop or the status of one's lovelife, to how many drums can support each other for the occasional detour down Africa lane. It's all about listening, and sharing leadership, and these are qualities that don't come to us easily or automatically.

The biggest obstacle in this culture comes from the worship of the guitar god. The lead guitar calls the shots: sets the melody and mood, determines the volume (easily overpowering drums with a twist of the amp button, or toning them down if there's no amp until the life goes out of them). It's true that rhythm is fundamental and so a single percussionist can take any song and shift its character, ruin it or drive it to new life. But in terms of group dynamics, the guitarist is generally preeminent, by default. Everyone looks to them for the next song, waits for them to retune, and depends on the structures that they have memorized and are offering as a well-furnished boat for everyone to ride in. What the drummer offers is support: this is what is expected. For a drummer to share or take the lead is not expected or easily allowed. Conversely, it's hard for other musicians used to taking lead melodic parts to learn to settle for supportive, truly rhythmic roles.

So lately the jam is in decline. Lately there haven't been many drummers showing up, because when we do, we're held back by the inertia of low energy, low volume, and low creativity. We, like the other musicians, are aging, or have a lot of distractions on our minds, or are afraid to boldly take the loose reins, or have simply given up trying-for now. But as always, it's different every week. Who knows what stranger or visitor will show up this time, or what random collection of hideaways will decide to come out and celebrate this full moon? When it fails it's deadly dull, and a Friday night wasted. But when it clicks, and moves into magic, there's nothing like it in the world.

jam book Read more on Kindle: Friday Night Jam, by Nowick Gray

Audio update, 12 years after: Strange Moon

Starting a Drum Group 24-Hour Drumming
Friday Night Jam Trance Dance
About the Editor | Site Map | Homepage | Email | ©2006 Cougar WebWorks