Angelojohn “Ange” Chianese has always been musically inclined. He took piano lessons for eight years as a child and taught himself guitar, ukulele and drums. So when Lawrence Library reference librarian Ann Kerr wanted to add a drum circle to the library’s programming four years ago, she knew Chianese would be perfect for the job.
Kerr knew Chianese because both were members of Music for People, a national not-for-profit improvisational music organization with local groups throughout the continent. Chianese, a Trenton native, used to host (and still attends) Music For People gatherings at his Trenton home.
On every first and third Friday of the month at 4:30 p.m., members of the drum circle spend an hour at the library practicing their drumming. Between 12 and 20 participants gather at each free session. “It’s a way for community to come together without the interference of words,” says Chianese, 73, a Trenton native. “Verbalization is minimal in a drum circle. A lot more happens experientially.”
When Kerr asked Chianese to start the library’s drum circle he said, “Why me? There are a lot of people with a lot more talent.” Kerr told him that she was looking to create a group that’s open to all levels of people and experience — not unlike Music For People — so it might work as an advantage to have someone at Chianese’s skill level. “I thought about it for a very short time,” Chianese recalled, “and I said, ‘You’re absolutely right, let’s go ahead and do this, this could be a wonderful thing.’”
In 1980, he founded the Zippity Do-Dah Singing Telegrams Company. “My favorite delivery was a singing telegram with ukulele and an original poetry verse based on whatever folks told me about the message they wanted communicated,” he reminisced.
But joining Music for People, which was founded by professional musicians and based on the premise that “creativity thrives with encouragement and withers with criticism,” changed the way he approached music.
“It opened me up to playing music with people without necessarily having to perfect a piece before playing it,” he said. “Anyone of any experience was welcome and willing to be supported by the others in making their own specific sound, whether they knew the instrument they were playing or exploring it for the first time.”
To prepare for the start of the drum circle, Chianese did some research by reading about and discussing drumming with various musicians. He found that it all came down to a few basic principles. “You have to give folks the confidence to play at whatever their level is at the time they enter,” he said. “And there is nothing to teach, but a lot can be learned.”
Under Chianese’s leadership, the drum circle adopted an open and encouraging atmosphere. Chianese says the circle does follow certain rhythmic structures that have “been around forever.” Sometimes, he’ll start the circle by having everyone say their name and come up with a drum beat, then, everyone else repeats their name and drum beat back to them. However, the group is mostly about following the beat of your own drum.
Steve Beste and his two teenagers, Ivan, 19, and Ana, 17, have been playing in the drum circle for almost six years. Beste has played the drums since high school and hand percussion since college. “Its a great space to explore rhythm and creativity,” Beste said. “One thing we like is that it’s a judgment-free zone, where drummers from 2 to 92 come and explore.” He’s watched his kids grow as musicians through their participation in the circle.
Not everyone in the circle is practicing to become a master. Chianese believes it’s more important that everyone enjoys themselves. “Sometimes, I’ll see them frowning and concentrating on a certain beat, and I encourage them to smile as much as possible, because it makes you feel good, it makes your partners feel good, and it always does a good thing,” he said.
He wants the circle to be free of restraint. “There is no homework. There are no wrong drumbeats,” he said. “Even if you are out of sync with the majority of the drummers, you’re adding a very interesting wrinkle to the group, which everyone can appreciate.”
And the drum circle isn’t limited to just drums. Chianese said he likes to introduce instruments that have a tone to them rather than just a beat. There are any number of semi-percussion instruments that come into play: bells, shakers, anything percussive. “We’ve had flutes, we’ve had steel drums, xylophones, something called a gamelan, sort of like a xylophone,” he said.
The library provides some of the instruments, but members are also encouraged to bring their own. Chianese said the most creative instrument brought to the group was a homemade gong drum. “It had an amazing sound,” he said. “It was made from a propane tank that had slits cut into it, maybe 2 feet high and 1 foot wide, and [its owner] colored it a wonderful orange red.” Chianese was impressed.
But people don’t need homemade instruments, or any instruments at all, to take part. Chianese says there is always room in the circle and an instrument you can try. “You know,” he said, “if you take a wastepaper basket and cover the top of it with packing tape, you’ve got a drum. If you run out of drums or someone shows up after all the drums are spoken for, you’ve got your hands, you’ve got your legs, and you’ve got your chest, always.”
The drum circle is scheduled to meet twice this month: on Friday, Sept. 2 and Friday, Sept. 16 at 4:30 p.m. Call (609) 989-6920 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to register.