Volume 79, Number 9 | August 5 - 11, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Talking drums

Drums are the world’s oldest and most basic musical instruments. Be they African, Latin, rock and roll or jazz, drums provide a beat and rhythm that connect with the very pulse of our own being — making us tap our feet, nod our head or get right up and dance.

More than for just making music, though, drums were employed for thousands of years by indigenous peoples to communicate over long distances, as well as to organize and rally troops during war — hence the expression “the drums of war.” In other words, drums can be extremely loud and their sound can carry.

That’s what some residents around Washington Square Park, as well as some park users, have been experiencing and complaining about recently, following the reopening of the park’s completed phase-one renovation in May. Since then, the park has seen a boom in usage, but also, for some reason, an influx of drummers. Perhaps it’s because the park’s plaza area has been leveled out, which not only allows safe access for wheelchairs, but a nice, flat area to set up elaborate drum kits.

On recent weekends, rock-style drummers have plopped down their drum sets right in the park and started wailing away like Keith Moon and John Bonham. Whatever one thinks of those immortal rock drummers, the fact remains that, for many people, having an impromptu, blaring rock concert in Washington Square Park on weekends, or any other days, is inappropriate — certainly without the players first obtaining a proper permit from the Parks Department. Again, even though these drums are not amplified, they can be quite loud, which, for many people, is bound to disturb their park experience, not to mention the quality of life of those living around the park.

Also adding to the noise phenomenon has been one drummer who everyone — from the Parks Department to other park drummers to even people who opposed the park’s renovation — agrees is way too loud. Because this individual is creating such a racket, it’s having the result of bringing all the park’s drummers under scrutiny. Now a band of cell-phone-camera-packing residents is collecting “evidence” against the drummers, and there is reportedly a petition to boot out all of the park’s percussionists. Police have been warning drummers that they have to tone it down, making the park’s regular musicians fear they’ll be ticketed or have their instruments confiscated.

The fact is that Washington Square Park is a world-renowned location for live music. But, the flip side is that the music can become a nuisance if it gets excessively loud. Thus, the musicians have to make an effort to keep their volume at a reasonable level.

In the 1950s and ’60s, beatniks played folk music in the park, mainly on acoustic guitars, with the occasional bongo. But drum kits with guys playing like KISS or Megadeath — it’s just not the right place for it.

In short, it’s a delicate balance. The “pots-and-pans guy” is too loud. The Mötley Crüe-style drummers are too loud. But an acoustical jazz group like the Park Foundation seems fine. Public music performance is an integral part of Washington Square Park — but, as the Parks Department says, the decibel level can’t be “unreasonable,” otherwise it impacts the experience of others who don’t necessarily want to hear the music.

We’re optimistic, however, that if the “pots-and-pans guy” stays away, things will work out, the sweet and “reasonable”-volume music will continue and everyone will be able to enjoy the park.

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