A Peek into the Heartland (Kandiyohi County, Minnesota, 2018)

July 11, 2018 at 12:55 pm Leave a comment


“Can you pick up some drums on your way out here?” my cousin emailed me. “I was planning to do a quick run in and out to get them, but since you’re coming this way anyway…”

Since a “quick run in and out” for my cousin means at least a five-hour round trip on the road from her home in west central Minnesota to the Twin Cities, my answer (of course!) was yes.

The task she gave me was to pick up two conga drums, two djembe drums, and one “talking drum,” from a Goodwill in the western suburbs of Minneapolis.

And why? Because my cousin has become very involved in a drum circle in Willmar, Minnesota.

Willmar has changed quite a lot since I was a 10-year-old girl riding my bike around town with my cousin Darlene back in the 1960s. Back then freight trains still ran through the town on a frequent basis–every day? probably–hauling grain and cattle, and who knows what else from west to east, and other things, like cars, from east to west. In 1960 the population of Willmar was around 10,000, and it was almost exclusively white: in those days, the overwhelming ethnic makeup and flavor of the place was Scandinavian-American, mostly Norwegian and Swedish-Americans.

By 2010 the population had nearly doubled, to nearly 20,000, and although it is still largely white, in recent years Willmar has seen a large influx of immigrants, first from Latin America and later from Somalia. There have been many positive outcomes of this demographic change, not the least of which is that the downtown area, which was lagging in recent years as in so many small towns across the U.S., losing commercial ground to strip malls on the edges of town, has been revitalized by the new immigrants. (For example, I had a delicious dinner in a downtown Somali restaurant, apparently one of several in town, with my cousin.)

I have “liked” the Facebook page for the Willmar Community Center, which my cousin has become very involved with since her recent retirement. (It turns out, not at all to my surprise, that my cousin is not really the retiring type.) And so I am frequently invited to the community center for evenings of square dance, or Somali dance, or mariachi music. Usually I can’t do this because usually I am in France. But I have to say, seeing a bunch of aging US heartland Swedes and Norwegians dancing with young Hispanic and Somali immigrants on the videos they post has, on some days, done a lot to cheer me up. (Willmar has in fact been featured in articles in recent years, as a “success story” of a small, largely white rural community that has successfully integrated, or at least subsumed, a significant nonwhite immigrant population. On the other hand, Kandiyohi County, of which Willmar is the county seat, along with most rural Minnesota counties, voted emphatically for Donald Trump in 2016. And so. It is probably not all harmony and acceptance there…)

But back to the drum circle, which I attended last week.

Wikipedia tells us that a drum circle is “any group of people playing (usually) hand-drums” and other percussion instruments. It adds that drum circles are distinct from a drumming group or troupe “in that the drum circle is an end in itself rather than preparation for a performance.”

I was tired after my drive from St. Paul to my cousin’s house, about 10 miles north of Willmar, so as she set up things for the drum circle, I found a comfortable reclining chair in a dark, quiet corner of the community center, where I fell into a deep either sleep or meditative state. (Not sure which it was.) When I woke up, I heard the sound of drumming coming from the other end of the building.

In between the drummers and me in my quiet corner, a few Somalis were setting up the tables for a wedding that was to take place in the center the next day. I followed the sounds of the drumming and came upon a group of people sitting in a circle, tapping their hands on drums of various shapes and sizes. The thing that struck me the most, and I noticed it instantly, was not the diversity of the group–which that night was largely (but not completely) white, yet wonderfully diverse in terms of ages and personal styles. It was the uniformity of their demeanor that I noticed: which was peacefully joyful, almost beatific.

They all looked so peaceful, so happy! And they were all sitting there, making this very pleasing, very calming rhythm of harmonious sounds together.

Since I had never been to a drum circle before I wasn’t sure what to do, so I pulled up a chair on the outside of the circle, prepared to watch them and enjoy. But I was soon signaled to join the circle, a chair was pulled out for me, and I was handed a drum.

And so I joined in.

A variety of other small percussive instruments were out, in open plastic bins in the center of the circle, and a couple of times during the 45 minutes that followed, members of the group passed some of these instruments around, and introduced little games to vary the activity. But mostly it was just people drumming together in a beautifully unplanned way that seemed nonetheless to have a natural coherence, cohesiveness, and order to it. A couple of times a new “song” would start out with an uneven quality, and one could feel an undercurrent of conflicting rhythms pulling and tugging at each other: but each time eventually, and quite naturally, the rhythm would work its way again toward cohesion.

As we sat there drumming I wondered what might happen if some local Trump supporters and Trump haters were put together in a room with a bunch of drums and told not to talk to each other at all, to just drum. Could even they drum their way into some kind of harmony, at least temporarily? Wouldn’t it be worth a try?

Has anyone tried doing that anywhere in our desperately unhappy, and oh-so-divided nation?

I don’t know. I do know that the man who was sitting next to me in the circle is an Iranian immigrant who has been in the US for more than 20 years. It was his first time visiting the drum circle, and he liked it. After the hour ended, and we were helping put the drums away, he told me he thought Americans are more open to foreigners, to immigrants, than Europeans are. This surprised me and I’m not sure he was right about that: I have not been thinking of the US as being so tolerant toward immigrants of late. But it was somewhat comforting to hear it anyway.

Earlier that day as I was driving west I had heard a discussion on public radio. The discussion was about the current social/political situation in our country, how bad it is, and the interviewer had asked one of her guests if he thought we would be able to survive this terribly worrisome, destructive period with our democracy intact. This person said he has hope that we will. And the reason he feels hopeful, he said, is that all across this nation there are groups of people engaged in a wide variety of positive activities that build community.

And that where there is community building there is hope.

Resist, USA. Resist. Engage. Don’t Give Up!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the City University of New York each summer except this one, during which she has returned for a visit to her home and family in Minnesota. 






Entry filed under: About the Midwest, Neither Here nor There.... Tags: , , , .

Vive la France! Allez les Bleus! Wending My Way Through Wisconsin…

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