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Drums'n' music
The beat goes on even after suffering a debilitating back injury

Rob Bowe, from left, Rasheed English, Terrence Welch, Michael Tankersley and Diane Drenhan play during a recent Riddimfest "drum circle."

Below: Oti-Lisa Brown, left, and Yawnie Knox dance at a recent "drum circle" organized by Rob Bowe, standing in background.
Photos by JOE IVERSON / Tulsa World

It has something to do with hearing your mother's heartbeat in the womb.

At least, that's Rob Bowe's theory.

"It's very primal. The beat of a drum connects with the human soul at a very primitive level."

Bowe first connected back in the late '70s, when he was a student at Booker T. Washington High School, famous for its energetic drum corps.

Bowe didn't play back then. But before a big game, students used to do a "snake dance" around the halls and out to the field house for pep rallies.

"It got into me," Bowe said. "I couldn't resist the rhythms. That's where it started for me, my love of drums."

By the '90s, he was a professional drummer with his own band, the Rhythm Lizards, which gained a loyal following around Tulsa with an eclectic mix of African, Latin and reggae grooves.

"The band got bigger than I ever expected," he said. "We even put out a CD and I thought that was what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life, playing drums for this band."

Then Bowe suffered a back injury, underwent surgery and never fully recovered.

Playing became painfully difficult, so he quit the Rhythm Lizards in 1998 and the rest of the group quickly dissolved. Jobless and depressed, Bowe spent much of his time just lounging around his house.

"I was professionally and spiritually lost," Bowe said. "I never thought I would play again."

Until now.

`Whole new perspective'

A few weeks ago at a local library, Bowe ran into one of his old bandmates and struck up a conversation.

Turns out, she was trying to put together a "drum circle" and asked Bowe to help out.

A drum circle, as Bowe already knew, is a sort of potluck dinner where rhythms are served instead of food.

Everybody brings a drum. Everybody gets in a circle. Everybody starts playing at once. And the beats somehow mesh together, forming an unpredictable but surprisingly coherent rhythm.

"It's basically people coming together like a village," Bowe said. "People coming together like a community to celebrate life."

So he made a few calls. Enlisted more drummers to participate. Arranged to use a vacant storefront on Cherry Street. Then scheduled Tulsa's first Riddimfest drum circle last month.

About 40 people showed up, including a large contingent from the weekly African dance and drum classes offered at Lacy Park.

"It was a spiritual experience, everybody playing together like that," Bowe said. "And it gave me a whole new perspective on life. I might not be able to play in a band again, but I can do this. I can still play drums."

`Open to anybody'

Some are professionals. Some are well-trained amateurs. And some have never touched a drum before in their lives.

Doesn't matter.

Once the drumming begins, with more than three dozen people playing at once and none of them playing exactly the same beats, it's impossible to tell who's expert and who's novice.

"The individual fades into the group and the music just takes over," said Shirley Roper, who is helping Bowe plan the next Riddimfest for July 28.

"I don't even play drums, because I'm disabled and can't play. But I like just being there, listening to the drums and being a part of the group."

This fall, a new business will move into the group's vacant building on Cherry Street. So Bowe needs somewhere to go, preferably rent-free so the Riddimfest can continue to be open free to the public.

"To me, the drum circle should always be free and open to anybody who wants to come," Bowe said. "Charging for it would almost be like charging somebody for coming to church."

The next Riddimfest drum circle is scheduled for July 28 at the Greenwood Cultural Center, at 322 N. Greenwood Ave., starting at 7:30 p.m.

The event will feature several local bands, including a performance by the Rhythm Lizards. The show also will double as a fund-raiser for Babatunde Olatunji, an African drummer who helped teach Bowe how to play and who now needs a kidney dialysis machine.

A smaller group of drummers will meet each Sunday at 1548 E. 15th St. For information, call 425-5663.

Michael Overall, World staff writer, can be reached at 581-8383 or via e-mail at michael.overall@tulsaworld.com.

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