Elephant Serenade

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Akaayla leads the group in a traditional African drum circle.

I love drumming. So, when I heard about the LivingSocial Drum Circle experience at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where I work, I had to get a ticket and see what it was all about. Not only would I get to play the drums, but I’d get to play them with members of our elephant herd as an audience! I wondered if the drumming would be bothersome to the herd or if it might actually bring out some sort of instinctual reaction to a sound that their species and family of origin were accustomed to. Only one way to find out! So I got my ticket to attend the May 19 drum circle event.

When I arrived for the event, I walked the path to the Safari Park’s Tembo Stadium and saw boxes and baskets full of instruments waiting to be played: drums, hammers (wooden sticks with round ends to beat the drums), shakers, and a variety of hand-made African instruments. I also saw and heard our own Dr. Zoolittle as he playfully chided people walking through or taking their seats. It was a great way to bring out the smile in everyone and prepare us for the experience we were about to have. Some of Dr. Zoolittle’s inquiries revealed that we were a very diverse audience, with guests visiting from places as far as Russia and Guyana to Los Angeles and Fresno and even Escondido, home of the Safari Park! But we were all there with a common interest: playing drums and appreciating the beauty of animals.

A variety of drums and shakers were available for use.

Dr. Zoolittle guided us as we collectively created the sound of African rain approaching, becoming heavier and then subsiding—all using just our hands. I closed my eyes and listened, and it was magic. I actually imagined myself being in South Africa with elephants and other animals listening in the distance. It was then that I knew this drum circle would prove to be even more than I expected.

Our leader for the more complicated portion of the drum circle was Akaayla, a professor at a San Diego university who teaches African drumming. What a privilege to be able to spend this time with her! She told stories of life in Africa, where women socialize by gathering together and clapping hands rhythmically, and how music and chanting were, in the truest sense of the word, instrumental in changing the political climate in South Africa during years of apartheid. She taught us, and we sang, a Soweto fight song that celebrated victory!

By the end of our time together making music and learning about Africa, the elephants that were previously at the farthest end of their yards had moved as close as they could get to where the drumming and singing was. And so, my initial question about how this event would be received by the elephants was answered.

I might never be able to visit Africa, though I hope to one day. This drum circle brought me close to it, and I have no doubt I’ll attend another. And I’m even more excited now about the arrival of the Summer Safari at the Safari Park that begins on June 30. Jambo!

Valerie Stoddard is a senior administrative assistant at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Gorilla Exam Takes a Village.