Will Harlem Sway To A New Drumbeat?

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[Harlem News]

If Harlem were a beautiful woman, you would find her swaying to the beat of drums every Saturday at Marcus Garvey Park where the Drumming Association has been serenading her for the past 30 years.

The drummers hope things remain this way for decades more.

They are an eclectic lot of fulltime musicians and working professionals like Dr. Joyce Duncan who plays the cowbell but has a degree in organizational behavior.

The association has been meeting for the last three decades on balmy summer afternoons to play every conceivable percussion and rhythm instrument invented. The music emanating from the group sounds like a mixture of West African drumming with a hint of a Brazilian Santeria beat.

But nowadays Harlem has many new suitors and some are trying to force the drummers out of Marcus Garvey Park; the drummers' nemesis are new co-op tenants who have repeatedly complained about the noise. The story of these drummers, mirrors the remarkable transformations that are rapidly changing Harlem; mid-town style high-rise condos are replacing abandoned or decrepit buildings. Sometimes the new residents and old ones don't see eye to eye. 

The conflict between the drummers and the new condo residents began with an incident where the Police approached the group last summer and asked them to stop playing as they did not have a permit. The noise level was bothering the condo owners in the adjacent co-op complex, the drummers say they were told.

The co-op owners, new arrivals to Harlem, are unused to the noise. According to statistics taken from the City’s Department of Environmental Protection, noise complaints have risen dramatically; there were 123 complaints in 2002, last year there were 518.

The fight over the drumming association may become a protracted and explosive contest, with racial connotations. Agnes Johnson, a drummer, says that one of the first things slaves brought from Africa were told was to stop drumming.

Johnson, a dancer and a choreographer by profession, remembers what it was like when she was young. “Back in the late 1960’s Afro centric dance was taking hold and kids could take classes from Chuck Davis who taught African dance classes for fifty cents in Marcus Garvey Park,” she recalls and adds: “The drummers would just show up and play for us. Imagine 20 drummers; the magnitude of it was fantastic.”        

Her remarks resonate here in Harlem, the birthplace of the Black American cultural identity. Harlem was the incubator for the 1930’s Renaissance where famous musicians, authors and civil rights organizations like the newly-formed NAACP converged and caused changes to the American landscape as diverse as the universal appreciation of Jazz or the enforcement of the right to vote. 

Agnes is today mother to a grown daughter and laments that some of the experiences of Black culture that she was able to have are no longer available to today’s youth. “Dance classes are so expensive now,” she says.

Certainly the situation with the drummers is not helping with the preservation of Harlem’s unique cultural heritage.

Baba Kunle, 71, who can be found at his usual spot on a Saturday night came to Harlem via Trinidad as a young man and was one of the first to play with the drummers. Baba has the air of a humorous older uncle and points to the other participants, who have dwindled to 50 from the larger afternoon crowd; among them, a white woman from France and a young Black man, both his acolytes.

Baba whose chosen name means “father” host of prosperity, has been teaching people how to play drums for many years and can often be found in the local high schools giving lessons—his real name is Carl Alexander.

Baba says New York City officials went behind the drummers’ backs to the building and had a meeting with the tenants and then told them “to go up in to the bush.” The end result of the meeting was that the drummers were asked to move further inside the park and were issued a temporary permit to play in the new location.      

Baba explains that the drummers tried to comply but felt that they were at a disadvantage. Their playing hours clashed with other summer stage performances and some elderly members had difficulty getting to the forested and elevated area of the park.

They decided to return to their regular spot on the corner of 124th Street and 5th Avenue right in front of the new co-op. On this particular Saturday  the drummers have been playing from mid afternoon to around their usual curtain call at 9 PM, which is probably why an AP article reported one co-op tenant, Beth Ross, as saying “African drumming is wonderful for the first couple of hours but after a while it is pure unadulterated noise.”

The lines are being drawn on the sidewalks. James Goodridge, a paralegal, has volunteered his time and expertise should the dispute ever reach the courts. He believes that there is a culture clash afoot. “You have this undercurrent of trying to make New York into Omaha Nebraska and trying to get rid of certain cultures,” he complains.

This general feeling of being under siege is what has made the drummers try to organize themselves into an official association. At the last meeting, at the ATLAH Church on the corner of 123rd and Malcolm X Blvd., several measures were agreed upon.

Along with attempts to incorporate, a historical committee was formed to organize the pictures and recordings of the drummers' performances at occasions like the famous actor Ossie Davis’ funeral at Riverside Church.

The drummers are hoping that by organizing formally, they can gain leverage. The situation remains unresolved, with the drummers playing in the spot where they have always been and waiting for a resolution with the City and the co-op tenants.


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