It was about three o'clock in the morning. Unusually warm for February in Ohio, there was a slight breeze blowing from the west the direction that smelled like midwest plains, not cow shit. That was south.
Case, Kyle and I were all freshmen, and we all lived in the shitty freshmen dorm. There were 250 of us in that ugly, cheap khaki brick building, but we split into friendly groups pretty early on.
Kyle is Irish, and from upstate New York. He learned Spanish from the kitchen of an Italian restaurant, so he knew anything and everything they wouldn't teach you in any classroom. Kyle had hung a Bob Marley flag in his dorm room the first day we arrived on campus, and the first thing his new roommate did when he walked in the room was hang up another Bob Marley flag. Jon and Kyle got along great Kyle played the guitar mostly (he actually played everything), and liked classic rock, and Jon played piano and drums, and loved folk and blues. They both dug jazz.
Case is from a hippie family somewhere in Vermont. He had relatively short hair for Oberlin, which meant it was at his ears, but by February it had straightened out and grown a bit more and was almost at his chin. He had been in a hippie circus for a few years, and could juggle anything, walk on his hands, walk on those big circus balls, climb any tree (any tree) and cheer anyone up. If he hadn't seen you in two or more days, he'd give you a hug when he did see you. A kiss too, sometimes.
Kyle had a beautiful American made djembe, but the only way you'd know it wasn't made by an aborigine from some far-away country was if you asked. It had a dark wooden body and a goatskin head, lashed to the body with crisscrosses of sinew. It was strung pretty tight, so a sharp rim shot with your fingertips produced a high, short note.
Case had an uglier djembe, but it was made in South America by some guy who didn't sell them to tourists for a living. It was also made out of some pretty, strong wood, with a goatskin top and sinew hardware. It was a bit bigger than Kyle's, and much heavier, and gave a thick, resonating thump when you hit it. Sort of like what you'd imagine it would sound like if you threw a tennis ball as hard as you could against the side of a shiloh. We called it Pebecca, because when he was talking to the South American guy about the djembe the guy starting going on about some girl named Rebecca. He got so excited that he asked Case if he had a pen, and when Case did, he proceeded to write "Rebecca" on the head of the drum. Except, the guy was only semi-literate, so he forgot the leg of the R. Pebecca we laughed every time he told the story.
Case's roommate Zack also had a djembe. This one was definitely American made, and was tied together with rope and decorated with cheap plastic beads. It had a rope handle of sorts, which Case would often wrap around his arm so he could beat out a fun little rhythym while walking through the halls of our ugly khaki building. This djembe had a pitch somewhere in between the other two, but had a much longer sustain than Pebecca.
Where was I? Oh yeah, three o'clock in the morning. It was three o'clock in the morning on this freakishly warm night in February usually it was so cold your extremities were blue in minutes. But this warm night, the three of us decided it was perfect to enjoy the unseasonal warmth by disturbing the night with the percussive melodies from our West African drums. Kyle got his djembe from his third-floor room and I followed Case to his second-floor room to help carry Zack's djembe and Pebecca.
Out the back of our ugly khaki building was Wilder Bowl, a grassy quad protected from the west by a scary-looking library, the south by our ugly khaki building, the east by some stone structure that I think contained a gymnasium, and the north by Wilder itself. I'm not sure how big the area was, but it took a minute or two to walk to the middle of it, where we sat down in a triangle. Case straddled Pebecca, I put Zach's drum between my knees and Kyle balanced his drum on his feet. Case finished the joint he'd been sucking on and the triangle became a Circle.
pumm pumm pumm pumm pumm padumm pumm pumm pumm
Kyle and I picked a beat out of the air and jumped in.
pumm pumm pumm pumm pumm padumm pumm pumm pumm
dn dn dn dn dn dn dn dn dn dn
tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tak tatatak
We all have good senses of rhythm and once we settled on a beat, we were free to roam. One of us would hold a basic pattern alluding to the beat, while another would mess with some syncopated triplet on an upbeat, while the other would do whatever sounded right.
pumm pumm pidida pumm pumm padidididumm pumm pididida
dn dn dn dndn dn dn dndn dn dn dndn dn dn dndndn dn dndn dak
teetateeta tak teetateeta tak tak tateeteetateeta tak tak
Before long, I heard some drumming from over by the scary library, and when I looked I saw another kid walking toward us, holding a cheap-looking djembe over his head with one hand and beating it with the other. He sat down and gave the Circle a plasticky fourth voice.
Before we had even adjusted to a fourth point in the Circle, a kid with long dark hair had appeared opposite me and began throat singing a slow, ghostly pattern. A minute later he pulled a PVC didgeridoo out of his large backpack, and said what he had to say through it instead. And there were two or three people watching and listening from across the quad, and two more people just a few feet away from the Circle, listening and talking quietly.
Jon showed up a few minutes later, with the guitar he was getting used to playing. By now we had switched voices a little; I was playing Pebecca and the other drummer was playing Kyle's djembe, and the didj player had left. Jon sat down and starting tapping at the case of his acoustic guitar, with a sort of padding, dull thump. A little while later, this white-haired guy named Terry from a county over showed up, and quietly picked chords out of our drumming and played them on his harmonica. Jon pulled out the guitar and backed him up a bit.
And like that, we were done. We said a few words about nothing in particular, and Case pulled out another joint. That one drummer we didn't know walked back north, where he came from, and Terry disappeared to whence he had come, and we walked back to our ugly khaki building. The Circle was over.