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Eastern Mass Rhythm Festival: How it all began.

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You can’t fully understand the origin of the Eastern Mass Rhythm Festival without an understanding of the “Drums Around the World” event. The founder of DAW did an incredible thing. He staged a drumming event in the Southwest which coincided with the birth of a white buffalo, something that had been foretold in Lakota lore as signally the return of harmony, balance, and spirituality to the world. The event was attended by Babatunde Olatunji, Arthur Hull, Jim Grenier… lots of the big names in drum circles and hand drumming.

The founder then went one better. He encouraged other states… and even other countries to participate the following year when he moved the main festival site to Amherst, MA. The two-day festival climaxed with a two-hour period when every drummer at every DAW festival around the world would drum simultaneously. How cool is that? One year they even got into the Guinness Book of World Records by having people drum via internet from their homes creating the world’s largest drum circle!

John Chiros drummed with my drum circle in New Bedford in those days. He told us about Drums Around the World. Many of our drummers became regular participants. There was a stage with live entertainment at one end of Amherst Common and a Native American drumming group would initiate a “perpetual drum circle” at the far end of the common. The free festival went for two days at the end of August each year. The first year I attended, during the 90’s, 37 states and 34 countries participated!

I so loved the DAW festival! It was there I got turned onto Inanna, Tony Vacca, and many other performers. Even the vendors at DAW were exceptional. One especially cool memory for me was drumming a duet with a woman who was selling drums. We had a bigger crowd watching us improvise than there were people watching the act on stage! The next day, I discovered that she was the lead drummer for the group Gaia Roots! Yet another awesome percussion group!

Then things began to go wrong. Good percussion groups stopped returning to Drums Around the World. They were replaced with folky entertainers… solo acts with acoustic guitar, an Irish band without percussion, children’s entertainers. They began filling the Saturday stage with less-interesting acts and saved the few real percussion groups for Sunday.

One Saturday morning, the Native American group who normally began the perpetual drum circle didn’t show up. At least 500 people were already gathered at the Amherst Common, less than a dozen of whom were listening to the acoustic folk guitar act on the stage. People were there to drum and dance! So, we of the New Bedford Drum Circle (now ‘Drumfish Drum Circle’) went to the far end of the park and started freestyle drumming. Soon, the majority of the festival participants were there drumming and dancing. It became our yearly ritual. We started the drum circle at DAW.

Meanwhile, the Saturday stage acts got worse. Rumors suggested that performers were having troubles with the founder of DAW. Every year, after hundreds of us had drummed for hours, the DAW founder would come over and ask us to move across the street. John Chiros, Ed Rooney and I would complain about how the founder didn’t quite have a handle on the needs/desires of the crowd. We also discovered how inflexible he was when offered a suggestion. Many of us talked with him in person and made suggestions via email. It was his way or no way.

Even the two-hour simultaneous drumming at the end of the festival, which should have generated incredible energy, was lacking. They would have facilitator after facilitator directing the drumming. One person would have everyone do really difficult and complex African drumming which would exclude more than half the crowd based on skill and then the next person would have everyone play a simple 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4 which would just put the crowd straight to sleep. There was no trust of the participants. Only during the last 2 or 3 minutes was the group given permission to improvise.

Then one year, weeks before DAW, there was a rumor that DAW was being discontinued. A bunch of us showed up for the festival, but there was none in sight. There are still states that hold DAW festivals but the founder pulled out, removed the central hub, and shut down the DAW website.

That day, during lunch at a local Chinese restaurant, John Chiros suggested that maybe we should start our own version of Drums Around the World. We talked about how the focus could be the two best and most neglected elements of DAW: Drumming and dancing. We discussed tossing out the stage performances altogether. John knew Dave Curry and Susan West and approached them with the idea also. I literally met Dave and Susan via the internet while we made plans for the first EMRF! (We chose not be a branch of DAW) Meanwhile, I moved to Maine and Ed Rooney took over hosting the New Bedford circle so we invited Ed to be one of the original Eastern Mass Rhythm Festival coordinators.

We devised the main drum circle concept, the workshops (We coordinators were among the first workshop presenters!), the welcome station, the entire festival via the internet! We made the decision to not have vendors or performances. We decided that workshop presenters would be volunteers. We decided to fund the insurance costs via voluntary donations. We made our share of mistakes… None of us thought of supplying trash receptacles that first year. 🙂

We literally all met face-to-face for the first time on the day of the first festival! Dave did all the local running around, (without which there would be no festival!). Even the festival’s location was the result of Dave’s efforts. Ed gets the credit for the artistic look of the festival. He surprised us all with the colorful flags and portals. (“Big Drummer” and “Krupa” would come later.) My biggest contribution was the all-day freestyle circle. It was an element of Drums Around the World worth preserving, and it gave folks the option to DRUM anytime during the festival. We all shared ideas and opinions, we discussed, we voted, we took on various roles and responsibilities and it all came together at River Bend Farm (and so did 100+ drummers and dancers) and the Eastern Mass Rhythm Festival was born.

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