The beat started slowly. A handful of people faced one another in a ring as they beat on African hand drums called djembes with their palms. A hollow tap sounded through the rumble as a woman clapped together a small pair of wooden sticks.
The floor beneath their feet reverberated with the sound.
David Allhusen grinned occasionally as he beat the goat skin surface of his djembe during a session last Saturday with the drum circle he started. The Casper Community Drum Circle gathers every other Saturday at Kings Corner church downtown, though this past weekend they met at First United Methodist Church.
David Allhusen started the drum circle seven years ago with his wife. Anyone is welcome and no musical experience or instruments are required. Even those hesitant at first find the drumming comes naturally as they fall into the rhythm, he said. The purpose? Simply to have fun, he said.
“I enjoy people coming in and we socialize, we talk and we connect with others and we teach people how to play, how to enjoy music,” Allhusen said. “There’s a process where people begin to get in sync. It’s called entrainment, where they actually connect with each other emotionally because of the rhythms that they’re playing. And it’s kind of a nice experience, it floods the frontal lobes with serotonin. As time goes on, they get in sync and play off each other, and everybody leaves feeling very happy.”
Root of rhythm
Alhusen explained to the group that he starts with a basic rhythm called a root.
“The root grows by changing the beat, changing perhaps some of the accents and changing perhaps some of the innovative rolls or riffs that people might get into,” he told them. “And then you fall back to the root. And it just plays back and forth like that throughout the course of a session.”
He demonstrated by hitting the drum to a steady slow rhythm, then added a few extra beats in between.
“You can change out instruments if you want to, you can experiment with different types of sounds if you want to,” he said. “It’s all open and free, and really, the only reason I’m in charge is because I’m just kind of introducing some rhythms. It’s certainly alright for anyone else to be in charge. We’re just here to play to share to learn.”
Allhusen starts the drum circle sessions by leading the beat while participants practice and experiment. After a break with snacks and coffee — “drumming juice,” as he calls it — the group begins a jam session. During the open jam, the participants play off one another. Allhusen invited participants to try any of the shakers, claves, bells, mallets or extra drums at any time.
“That’s what a drum circle is, where everybody just starts playing and fall into the rhythms” he said. “Somebody might introduce another rhythm and everybody moves with that. We play off of each other.”
Sometimes it’s a little rough, but it all comes together in the end, he said. Often, they’ll synchronize in a process called entrainment.
“You can get 10 people together who’ve never played together before and they start playing in a rhythm,” he said. “As time goes on, they get into sync and they start to being able to play off of each other.”
The drum circle mainly uses African and Latin American rhythms. The group last Saturday started with a rhythm played during crop harvest for hours at a time, he said.
Anywhere from a handful of participants to 20 have showed up for the drum circle, Allhusen said. Warmer weather often brings people from around the state. Sometimes the group plays outside in the summer. Some have performed in parks and for a hot yoga class, he said.
Allhusen works as mental health counselor, and enjoys drumming in his free time. He started playing drums in garage and jam bands as a teen, as well as a drum and bugle corps. He’s played guitar, banjo and other instruments, but always comes back to percussion.
He’s also played for mediation classes and taught shamanic drumming with other mental health professionals in the in the community, he said. He and a Casper College instructor gave a seminar a couple of years ago about the science behind rhythm training, he said.
“Your body is geared toward rhythm at a microcellular level,” he said. “There is pulsing that occurs. Your brain waves are very cyclical and patternistic. Your heartbeat and breathing are all rhythmic-based and so it’s very, very natural to create rhythms that people can adhere to. One of the first things that children do is they express rhythmic patterns. Think of a rattle, what is that? That’s a rhythm pattern.”
Drumming activates pleasure centers of the brain and increases dopamine, he said.
“We’ve had people come in and tell us that six weeks of drumming with us is better than six weeks of therapy — it’s better than taking medication,” he said. “They just really enjoyed it and embraced it.”
The drum circle grew as more people arrived. Participants greeted them with smiles as they took an open seat. One woman began playing a didgeridoo and another played Native American flutes.
The rhythms sped up and grew more intense through the session.
Cyndia Yonck grinned as she swayed to the beat and played egg shakers in each hand. Antonio Hamilton alternated between hitting his jdembe with open and closed hands as he improvised rhythms.
The two moved to town from Las Vegas a few months ago and joined the circle.
“I’ve been doing this my entire life,” Hamilton said. “Drumming is a cultural thing, it’s been since day one when man has been around. Man has always played drums and danced. It’s a primal thing that I just really, really enjoy.”
He plays different instruments, but enjoys the freedom of a drumming circle, he added.
“There’s no tonality. There’s no key that you have to be in, it’s just a freeform expression,” he said.
Yonck isn’t a musician at all, but the drum circle is a way for her to relax and have fun, she said.
“It’s been a wonderful way to find my natural rhythm within the rhythm of music to be able to really experience and express myself,” Yonck said.
Brenda Evans has been coming to the drum circle since the beginning, and started collecting drums and other instruments. She enjoys the friends she’s made and the creative outlet.
“For me, it’s relaxing and it’s also kind of a change from classical, because there are no notes and you don’t have to read music,” she said. “There’s a freedom in just being able to make it up. You just get inspired by listening to all of the various instruments. And it’s good for the brain, because when you close your eyes, you can hear all the different intricate rhythms.”