WASHINGTON – For, Rezz Yisrael, every Sunday at Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park is like a family reunion.
A raw vegan chef and microbrewer, Yisrael said he looks forward to Sundays when he can let loose and allow the beat of the drum to feed his soul.
From 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. every Sunday, every season, rain or shine, a performance group called Malcolm X Drummers and Dancers hosts a drum circle.
“This is family,” Yisrael said.
Drumming in the park has been going on since the late 1960s, but the formal group was founded in 1975 by Doc Powell, a music director, producer and lead drummer from Atlantic City, N.J. He said the group formed out of the drumming that had already been taking place.
“I received the benefit of informal playing with very talented drummers. I just hung out there in the park as a tradition,” Powell said. “The excellence was in such levels that people would gather around.”
Powell said the idea of starting a formal group was often talked about.
“I heard someone say we should start a group,” Powell said. “I guess I’m the only one who took it seriously.”
Powell said the drum circle’s history is deeply woven into the civil rights movement.
The drum circle was formed to honor ex-slaves and the ancestors of the original drummers.
The many protests and marches that took place in the park in the 1960s after desegregation all included drumming.
“The gatherings started out of the wonderful growth of the tremendous relations of the wonderful personalities in civil rights movement,” Powell said.
Yisrael, who has been a drummer in the circle since the early 1990s, said the original drum circle was more of a parade. After the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, the drummers started celebrating his Earth Day, or birth date, which is May 19.
That’s why Sunday was a special day, Yisrael said. It was the day after Malcolm X’s Earth day.
In 1969, a bill to change the name of the park to Malcolm X Park failed in Congress. But the name has stuck, and park signs read Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park. The beat of the drum reminds the surrounding neighborhoods of U Street, Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights that the African American community is still pertinent and proud of its past.
What started as a small group of African American drummers and dancers has evolved into a multicultural mix of tight-rope walkers, hula-hoopers, yogis and jugglers.
A dancer leads West-African choreography for anyone who wants to try.
Elizabeth Zwicker, 36, a stay-at-home D.C. mom, has been attending the drum circle for about four years. She now brings her kids, Olive, 3 months, and Tommy, 3, who plays a toy drum set on their picnic blanket.
“The vibe is especially chill, so that’s really nice,” Zwicker said. “People are always open to play a quick game of hacky sack or Frisbee with you. We’ve seen all kinds of games.”
“Today, we totally crashed a 3-year-old’s birthday party, and it didn’t matter. People are really nice and willing to play on Sunday. It’s kind of a rare D.C. event,” Zwicker said.
Makeda Berhane, 33, a finance and event coordinator for Intermedia, agreed.
“There’s no alcohol, there’s no violence. It’s a completely family-friendly and loving environment,” Berhane said as she watched her 4-year-old daughter, Sophia, eat a watermelon and dance to the beat.
Gabriel Sunday, 26, an independent filmmaker visiting from Petaluma, Calif., said he heard the drumming and walked over.
“I’ve been living in Los Angeles for a number of years, and I don’t usually find parks like this,” Sunday said. “I was drawn to it. It feels like home.”
Berhane said she would encourage anyone in the D.C. area who may be skeptical about the neighborhood to join the weekly celebration.
“It’s nurturing. It’s artistic. It’s musical,” Berhane said.