Drum me Better, Drum me Sweet

It’s hot and humid, sticky like glue. Around the world, hundreds of millions are tuned to TV and radio for the glorious final of the beautiful game. Live from South Africa new kings are waiting to be crowned.

Noah and I are on a just the boys mission to Montreal. First stop is the playground installed last year in Parc Mont-Royal. It’s right there next to Lac des Castors – such a patriotic name, Beaver Lake. There’s nice, new equipment unlike the standard fare seen in most playgrounds across North America. Noah takes in some swinging, climbing and splashing before we make our way to the base of the mountain on the Avenue du Parc side. On the way down, we pit stop at the panoramic look off. It’s a great view of the city stretching east beyond the Olympic Stadium – quelle vue urbaine merveilleuse.

We find a parking spot at the corner of Rachel Ouest and Esplanade just a short walk to the monument that honours Sir George-Étienne Cartier. This eastern slope of the mountain is the djembe jam beat of the city. Since the late ’70s, tam-tam lovers have congregated here on Sunday afternoons to listen, play and dance.

I’ve been percussioned here a handful of times over the last couple of decades. Drums are a compelling force for me since spending 5 months in Sénégal in ’78-’79. There, they are a fixture of daily life, the soundtrack of major rites of passage – births, baptisms, weddings and death.

I love the staccato shots of the Oulof drums, hands cracking sound that set limbs moving involuntarily. Further south, the Diola drummers of Casamance dance their hands across the three skins of the bougareb-bou. One night the Suelle griot motions me to come forward from the starlit sidelines. He gently straps his belled leather bracelets on my forearms. The dancers continue their gyrations and the deaf mute starts to step out to my pitiful, whimpering rhythms.

Even though I cannot find the beat, the moments are magic. Smiling, the griot returns to his three drum orchestra and lets loose a rich rumble of rolling thunder. Arms and legs like speeding pistons trace an intense choreography between earth and sky. Ululations pierce the night and the ground shakes deep down into the silk cotton tree’s roots. Heart pounding furiously, my first public concert is a wrap. I am still amazed at the generosity and graciousness of the villagers allowing me to lead the dance.

I have wanted to bring Noah-David here for the last few summers but the timing has never been right. Now we’re walking across Parc Jeanne-Mance and we can hear the drums over the drone of traffic on Avenue du Parc. We cross the four lanes and approach the monument. In the southwest corner there are about 15 drummers fanned out in a crescent with dancers drifting in and out of the open circle.

Noah and I walk around the periphery looking at the vendors’ merchandise. We need a small drum for him to play. This afternoon the event is not very crowded. Usually drummers are chock-a-block on the western steps of the monument. Today no one is seated there. It’s the pull of the World Cup. We purchase a small drum from a young Senegalese woman. “Jërëjëf,” I say (thank you) as we make our way to drummer central.

We stake a place just off to the side of the main action and Noah does his thing. The beat is coursing through him. At home we have an assortment of drums that we break out occasionally for jam sessions. This is his first time playing in public. After all these years I have not really improved much. Maybe it’s a retirement project. I have a beautiful djembe that I received as a gift from Mélanie and buddy Moussa for my 50th. With Noah’s early start perhaps he’ll be our drummer boy.

Out of the blue, Noah looks up at me and says, “Papa, I want to go now.” He’s looking pale. I gather our stuff and start heading to the car. We stop at the lights. On the other side in Parc Jeanne Mance he needs a rest. We lay down in the grass and I shade him with my body.

After a few minutes I take him to the water fountain for a drink. He doesn’t take much even with continued coaxing. He’s tired and overheated. We lie down again. He vomits a little. It’s back to the water fountain. I can lead him there but I can’t force him to drink. We’re in the last stretch to get to the car – about 200 metres, maybe a little more. He’s too tired to walk. I scoop him up in my arms and cover the distance as quickly as I can.

Next to our parked car on Rachel Ouest, I lay him down softly on the grass. We watch an unleashed dog cross the street its owner in close pursuit. Though not his usual litany he is asking some questions. His face is pale. I start the car and flash the air conditioning to high. He wants to get back to Sorel and see maman. We have to wait a few minutes because the car is an inferno.

When it’s cool enough to move out, I buckle him in and give him kisses on his forehead and cheeks. I tell him we’ll be in Sorel soon and he’ll see his maman. Almost immediately, he falls asleep. I’m a little worried. I shake him every couple of minutes or so as we make our way out of the city. I shout his name loudly to see if he stirs. When he does I ask him where we are and what we are doing. He gives the right answers. I’m still a little nervous because of the precipitous turn of events at the drumming, the vomiting and the pallor.

I have to gas up at the station on rue Papineau next to the Jacques Cartier bridge before starting out on the 40 minute drive. Noah’s breathing is steady. I decide that he’s okay and just needs to sleep after a busy outing and a little too much sun. I keep looking in the rear view mirror as we cross the bridge. I wish I was hearing the excited, chattery questions he was firing off as we crossed the same span just a few hours earlier.

I hit the 30 and I’m speeding. I just want my boy to wake up and be fine, to be brimming over with that ebullient wonder, the unstoppable force of why and how. I turn on the radio as a distraction. English commentators serve up a torpid play by play of the Dutch and Spanish World Cup final still tied with 20 minutes left to play. I look in the rear view and my boy is back – eyes smiling. He’s alert, awake and okay. “Allo papa,” he says. My world gets back to the one son beat.


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