Were the drummer boys of yesteryear to come back today, they would most likely be surprised to see how and by whom their instrument is being employed, as what was once a fixture of the military and of high ceremony has become a beloved tool of the radical. The prominence of the drum circles at Occupy Wall Street was illustrative, and never more so than in OWS’s testimony to New York City’s Community Board 1, where it appeared that the main goal of OWS’s representative was to ensure that a way be found to, in his words, balance “the concerns of the community with the desires of the drummers to have their voices heard through their drums, drumming down Wall Street.” The plea of the “drummers’ working group,” he reported, was that its members be restricted to no less than “four hours per day” in which to perform their art. And this trumped all other concerns.
Drums were ubiquitous in OWS. In Zuccotti Park last year, one older woman who was camping out showed me her snare drum, which she described as a “longtime protester.” It was her totem — she has “struck it for justice since the Sixties” — and it was covered with bumper stickers covering a variety of issues, including one for George McGovern’s ’72 presidential campaign and a bunch from the anti-Iraq protests of 2003. “This will be its last outing,” she told me gravely, pointing first to the drum and then to the assembled rebels. “And then I’m retiring it.”
Drum circles fit in neatly with both the language and the worldview of the Left. They are inherently communal and require their participants to work together, focusing their various attentions on a single goal (generating noise, in this case). Drums are egalitarian, too. It takes time and resources to learn, say, the cello, and, well, one has to have a cello; but you can hand anyone a drum and he can play. And pretty much anything can be used as one, be it an overturned plastic bin or a tin can or just a piece of wood. Classical music, in contrast, is elitist, hierarchical, frequented by the oppressors, and led by a conductor — not very 99 percent — but a drum circle is about as close as you can get to a flat structure.
This goes some way toward explaining why leftists on college campuses are drawn to drum circles. Village Music Circles, an organization that goes from college to college “facilitat[ing] human potential through rhythm,” considers its goal to be to “bring together large groups of people with diverse backgrounds to experience the unity and community created by interactive group dynamics.” Similar are the thousands-strong Montreal TamTams, a leaderless drum circle that meets every Sunday in Montreal’s Mount Royal Park. While, at these college and community levels, the activity might not be explicitly political, Peter Feld, an editor in New York City and veteran of the protest movement, notes that the members “tend to be sympathetic to progressive causes.” And when they graduate from drum circles to protest groups, they bring their drums with them.
Rebels’ love affair with the drum has a long history, going back to the Founding. No reenactment of the Corps of the Minutemen is complete without its Fife and Drum section, and American soldiers carried drums in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. These days, though, drums are more likely to be borne by someone sporting a peace symbol and seeking to dismantle the original tenets of our Republic than by someone in uniform. That doesn’t stop the Left from appropriating military tactics, however. Drums are useful to armies for a variety of reasons — not just because they help to keep marching time and to aid chanting or rhythmic song, but also because the bass frequencies they generate trick our prehistoric brains into thinking that something bad is happening — an earthquake, an avalanche, the stampede of a herd of woolly mammoths — so that they release endorphins and adrenaline into the body.
By their very nature, drums command attention. (Notice that drumrolls act as overtures to drama in our culture — think, for example, of the 20th Century Fox title screen.) Since the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, the Left has fetishized marching and, despite its hypocrisy on the issue, employs martial language at every available opportunity. So it is unsurprising that the Left would have borrowed the march’s timekeeping equipment. It got hold of it directly, too: During the Vietnam War, some demobilized soldiers wore their uniforms and played military drums when protesting against the war from which they had returned, and the practice stuck.
Further, one should never underestimate the degree to which left-wingers fetishize so-called “World Music.” Drums feature prominently in the music of the “Global South,” music that is primarily performed by those whom progressive types regard as being disfranchised and oppressed by capitalism and the world order. Playing the music of those with whom they identify is a way of expressing solidarity. Here we see a romantic affinity with the bon sauvage and with the rudimentary customs of less-developed societies — one that tallies neatly with progressive distaste for the modern West and opposition to global corporations, to nuclear power, to capitalism, and to technological progress in general.
As left-wing movements worldwide seek to continue “occupations” rather than indulge in more transitory expressions of dissent, drum circles are likely to retain their favored status. “Occupations” lend themselves perfectly to drumming; first, because stationary drums are more easily played than those on the move; and, second, because drums somehow have escaped the noise prohibitions that applied to megaphones, powered speakers, and other forms of voice amplification in “occupied” spaces such as Zuccotti Park in New York and McPherson Square in Washington, D.C. The Left might well be seeing its visions crumble on contact with the real world, and “Occupy” is seeing its approval ratings plummet, but the noisy minority is unlikely to give up its favorite tool. For now at least, where progressives seek to make an impression, they will do so by banging on anything they can get their hands on.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.