Sondra Tatum moved to Venice Beach three years ago from the San Fernando Valley hoping the nearness of the ocean would help speed her recovery from surgery. On the days she was too sick to climb down the flight of stairs from her second-floor apartment to the beach, she would position herself at the window to feel the sea breeze on her face and listen to the drums.
Nearly every weekend for the last 50-odd years, the drummers have come. They come together for as many reasons as there are drums in the Venice Beach Drum Circle, and the members--who number anywhere from 30 in winter to 100 in summer--have shifted over the years. But always they come.
Tatum does not play the drums, yet the 46-year-old advertising sales manager was steadily drawn in by the circle's spirit of freedom and inclusion. Nor is her devotion unique. Nearly every weekend, John Camarena, 69, a retired barber and reverend with World Christian Ministries, drives in from Azusa to pound his bass drum, because "it takes away my tiredness, the loneliness, the old age." And 30-something Emily Sharbania moved here from San Francisco because "even when I come here down and exhausted, the collective energy elates me."
But not everything is love and harmony by the sea. Complaining about the noise level, some beach-side residents are trying to shut down the circle. Eileen Hagen, 40, an online auctioneer who last year bought a home two blocks from the staging area, knew about the drum circle when she and her husband moved in. But, she says, "we assumed they would be treated the same as a loud, rowdy party."
Instead, she says, "all we hear for 10 hours straight is TA-TA-TA-TA. So, we can't keep our windows open; we can't use our decks; we can't do anything other than try to get the police to do their jobs."
Steve Schlein, a 60-year-old former public defender who has lived in the area for 26 years, says the drum circle noise has escalated to the point that "often, I can feel the drums' vibration in my floor." Still, he says, his repeated complaints to the police have been ignored. "The police have caved in; they have simply abandoned the residents of Venice," he says.
Los Angeles Police Capt. Gary Williams, whose Pacific Division patrols the area, counters that the issue is not simply whether the noise created by the drums violates city noise ordinances. "In a vacuum, that may be," he says. "But this is Venice Beach, one of the world's largest tourist attractions, with numerous entertainers, musicians, traffic and noise from up to 150,000 visitors a day. So, the question becomes, is drum circle noise so significant that it rises above everything else?"
To support the drummers, Tatum has set up a table on weekends at which she has collected more than 5,000 signatures from local residents and visitors from all over the world. She has also launched a Web site at http://www.venicebeachdrumcircle.com to broaden her support base.
"It's a spiritual release, communicating without words," says Joseph Tiu, 38, of the drum circle. Tiu once gave away his boyhood drums "to go to college and become a responsible adult." Now an architect, Tiu realized that responsible adulthood could never compete with the "rush" of drumming. So, he moved to Venice and now drums for up to eight hours a day. "It's primal," he says.
Maybe too primal. Noise, neighbors say, is not the only issue. Add to it the drugs and violence that sometimes occur at the circle's periphery and things may get out of control. Williams has tried to mediate the dispute, on a recent weekend assigning up to three vehicles to park near the drummers to keep the peace. He has also negotiated a compromise in which the drummers move away from the boardwalk, toward the ocean during most of the afternoon.
What's at stake amid all this, says filmmaker Marc Madow, who recently spent six months filming "Venice Beach," a documentary that focuses primarily on the drummers, is the survival of "something unique in the world." Most drum circles, he says, are facilitated by a lead person, who signals the drummers when to start and stop, and when to speed the rhythm. Drawing from L.A.'s multiethnic background, however, the leaderless Venice circle is totally free-spirited, with three basic rhythms: Middle Eastern, African and Latin.
The circle also breaks down social barriers, Madow says. He has filmed a 70-plus woman dancing and playing a tambourine, as well as an obese woman, who elsewhere might have been intimidated, "holding hands with another girl and dancing unself-consciously. At the circle, people forget their class, their status, their limitations," he says.
Judith Penchansky, a 54-year-old Santa Monica College administrator who has owned her home half a block from where the drummers meet since 1972, admits the issue is not black and white. A former neighbor and friend is part of the drum circle. "I can see how one group appreciates this as music, while the other thinks of it as noise," she says. Still, "neither group is going away. So we have to somehow learn to live together. We have to learn to compromise. That's the lesson here."