photo credit: Michael G. Stewart

Drums No Guns

percussion ensemble Richmond, Virginia
Photo Credit: Michael G. Stewart
photo credit: Michael G. Stewart

For over 20 years, Drums No Guns has brought together people of all ages and backgrounds through the percussive arts. The nonprofit performing arts organization’s interactive performances promote youth nonviolence and community healing through diverse percussion traditions, most notably unlocking the rhythmic possibilities of buckets and other recycled materials from the junkyard.

From the New York City subway to street corners in Washington, D.C., and other cities throughout the nation, bucket drumming provides an increasingly persistent beat in the urban soundscape. A street performance tradition that uses recycled materials, bucket drumming belongs to the long line of folk art forms that create meaningful artistic expressions by combining limited resources and personal or community ingenuity.

Drums No Guns was cofounded by Dr. Ram Bhagat in the early 1990s; he continues to lead the ensemble today. A native of New Haven, Connecticut, Bhagat is deeply invested in using mindfulness as a tool for peace activism. When his brother Lester died in an unsolved shooting, Bhagat dedicated his life to exploring ways of ending the cycle of violence. He began his career in Richmond (Virginia) Public Schools, where he worked as a science teacher before becoming the school district’s manager of school climate and culture strategy. The philosophy behind Drums No Guns is that “rhythm is universal, it’s an energy that resonates across perceived differences, it’s the beat that pulsates within all of us, regardless of age, race, or any other kind of category,” explains Bhagat. “In terms of nonviolence, rhythm helps unite us around a common message, spirit, and connection.”

Drums No Guns performs full-length concerts; its members are also experienced street performers. At the National Folk Festival, Drums No Guns will offer two hands-on, bucket-drumming workshops as well as two street performances. A trademark of Drums No Guns is the “junkyard jam.” Frequently led by Bhagat’s son, Shyam, a popular street performer and bucket drummer in Denver who is known as Shyamuu the Drum Addict, this is the moment when percussive materials that would otherwise be discarded are turned into a memorable musical experience. “We make musical instruments out of five-gallon plastic buckets, recycled metal cans, pots, pans, water jugs, and trash can tops,” says Bhagat. Those are combined with traditional percussion instruments like congas, the surdo from Brazil, the dumbek from the Middle East, and the djembe from West Africa, as well as movement and dance, like Brazilian capoeira and hip hop, all layered with call and response vocals.

These art forms, says Bhagat, “tap into the common feeling of community, and it helps to deal with trauma awareness and resilience and restoring our heartbeat—it’s about bringing together our hearts and minds,” says Bhagat. “It’s about how the vibe of a small group of people coming to drum together can put some smiles on some young people’s faces and rejuvenate older folks, too.” Harnessing the power of rhythm, Drums No Guns is able to strengthen individuals and communities and to inspire youth to develop self-confidence and explore the possibilities of creative expression.

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