“Give me the beat boys and free my soul; I wanna get lost in your rock n’ roll – and drift away”. Drift Away – Written by Mentor Williams – popularized by Dobie Gray.
Big Pauli and me skip-tracing a venue he’d told about somewhere in the bowls of downtown Oakland late that evening; clicking our Italian heels across the concrete sidewalk on a warm, damp, narcotic American inner-city night, glided under a bruised autumn sky crackling with atmosphere; the energy sending lighting bolts scurrying above our heads and sparks beneath our feet. We rambled serpentine passed rundown warehouses in Oaktown Cripps territory; Asian kids; hip-hop rappers with one foot in their graves and beefing mightily with the premiere Black gang, the 11 Five Mob; kept our heads on a swivel.
The music seeping from the storefront styled rat trap building cascaded; enveloping us in the rapture of a celestial choir; a sense impression causing me to imagine what it sounded like in heaven. The ecstasy to my ear lifted me nearly off my feet. I’d never felt an auditory sensation so all-encompassing, so movingly beautiful. We ducked inside to find a beatnik/hippie style flop, a homeless squat overrun with piles of personal effects from beings either dead or dying. It smelled like your grandmothers closet.
There was a stage of sorts at the end upon which rested a full size standing Harp behind which stood a beautiful angelic looking black girl dressed in an elaborate costume that made me conclude, from the quality of her play, she had just left a gig and was here to jam. Beside her rested her protegé; probably her boyfriend. I couldn’t tell. He had a fine-looking axe which confirmed for me they were probably professional musicians.
His guitar sang a twang perfectly accompanying her Harp. There was a microphone, an amp, speakers, a drum set and the like and sitting in front of it all a magnificent conga drum that’s hide stood just a bit above crotch high on me. I’d always wanted one long as I could remember since for reasons unbeknownst to me I was a born percussionist. Whatever it took to be that I was. I could always play. Somehow my inner workings had a mainline that tapped right into the beat; that first sound man communicated with; the drum; that primal reggae beat.
Pauli, Oakland’s answer to Harry Connick Jr., harbored fantastical visions of being the next Bobbie Darin modern jazz singer and truth be told wasnt half bad, grabbed the mic. I settled behind the Conga drum. The angel played, the guitar blended in and once I got a taste of what they were up to let my drum sing. Paulie launch into some Billy Holliday standard. Man, we waggled and dangled for what seemed an hour or more and once we grokked each other the angel Harpist asked me to open up and for the rest of the band to follow.
A few minutes in I guess it was I vanished into some space, some sanctum santorum. I was gone. The drum played itself or so it seemed. I couldnt hear a thing but I could feel it; the beat, the rhythm, the pulsing of some invisible cyclical that emanated from the earths center; a secret rhythm of the saints, the sacred beat of the universe flowed through me.
To this day I can’t tell you how long that Jam lasted but when we stopped like on cue I was saturated, soaked in sweat and the pain in my swollen fingers threatening to burst into a bloody mess consumed. I stripped off my shirt and undershirt and slopped them down on a chair. Our impresario, the angelic harpist, began to introduce the band, beginning with herself, the guitar player, a drummer who’d stepped in while I was trance-simpled out and then Big Pauli. All received what I thought to be above average applause.
I was getting a bit nervous while also completely exhausted and calmed out which took off the edge when she asked my name and I gave it. I didn’t know what I’d played so I kinda hung my head a bit a shuffled about like I’d dropped something when I heard “And Nick on Conga”. Just as quick the beast sprung as one, the assembled multitudes, numbering maybe 25 souls, erupted in applause. I can’t tell you what their faces looked like at that moment since being so flabbergasted I couldn’t manage the courage to look at them. The appreciative noise went on for a while. I’m pretty sure they were standing. It’s maybe the only time I’ve ever felt embarrassed. Anyway; that was my musical moment.
I said all that to say this. Yesterday the UPS man delivered to my door the spitting image of that Conga drum; a gift from my brother Big Pauli. Wow! I set it up carefully and ever since I’ve walked by it, positioned center most in my den, and with each pass I caress her buffalo skin top; treating her like a wild animal – letting her know she is safe and soon will be set free; to sing, to play, to release.
A drum is a woman.