On the weekend the drum circle follows a sort of pattern - first thing in the morning, and through the afternoon, a bunch of old guys hang out right by the boardwalk and jam. They seem like old jazz-men, Latino guys with big congas and hand drums that clearly have known each for years. Sometimes youngsters show up with steel drums or snare drums - but mostly it's this gaggle of old Latin jazz-men who hand off rythyms to each other while they chat. Part of my weekend morning ritual is putting on some coffee, grabbing a book and sitting on the balcony listening to these guys jam.
Later in the afternoon, more drummers start to show up, and the action moves out onto the beach proper - but just past the running path that stretches from Santa Monica to Manhattan Beach. To a certain extent, particularly in the summer, this crowd merges with the street kids who litter Venice Beach. I don't know whether it's that they're in school during the year, or there's some sort of migratory pattern - but there's a certain tribe of homeless, squalid, generally drunken kids that live on the beach in the summerish months. They sort of blend in an out of the drum circle crowd on the weekends in the afternoon.
By the late afternoon and early evening, the circle is fully out on the beach. On a typical day there will be something like a hundred-odd people out there, and it's not at all uncommon for there to be many, many more. The evening crowd is a mix between drummers of every sort, hippie kids, and general purpose revelers who want to get out and dance. There's no fires allowed on the beach in Venice, so as it gets dark they'll usually make a little circle of votive candles in the middle of the crowd, which can cast an eerie light since only a little flicker and glow can be seen through the dancers and drummers.
Technically the beach is a state park that closes at sunset. Usually the cops, especially in the summer, give a lot of leeway for what counts as "sunset" - with drummers out there long past full dark. They'll break it up around nine or ten, but I've seen them go as late as eleven. Lately though, the cops have been more strict - they'll pull a bunch of police cruisers out onto the sand in a semi-circle between the dancers and the ocean well before sunset. At the very moment that the last bit of the sun disappears behind the horizon, they'll all simultaneously turn their headlights and searchlights on. It's disappointingly hostile - and since it's clear that every cop in Venice is out on the beach for quite a while, I can't imagine that it's a very good idea in terms of policing the community. Sure they're making a macho show of force for the drummer and dancers who aren't harming anyone - but in the mean time, what's happening in the rest of the city? I don't doubt that to some extent, the drum circle is used as a cover for public shenanigans, like someone buying a few spliffs off of a two-bit dealer. But is that really worthy of every cop in Venice? They'll also prowl around the circle throughout the day, which doesn't have the air of friendly neighborhood constables being available. In fact, with such a big quantity of people, any kind of crime that involved a victim, like robbery, rape, assault - would be impossible. Why make such an obvious presence of themselves? Maybe I'm just naive and it really would be dangerous without the police around - but frankly, I don't think so. Even the gangbangers, cholos and spooky drifters just seem to chill out and enjoy the vibe at the drum circle.
But, obnoxious cops aside, I love having the drum circle so close to hand. It's part of the fabric of my weekends, and if I couldn't hear the drums in the morning, I'd wonder what was going on. This morning they're particularly vigorous, it sounds like there's a full-on marching band out there, with snares, cymbals and tympany drums. Sometimes the Hare Krishnas come out and compete with the drum circle for sound - chanting and dancing and sometimes throwing in an electric-guitar. The drummers will sometimes try and work their chant into the rythym they're handing back and forth - or sometimes just try and drown them out. There's never anything like a confrontation though - at worst benevolent negligence, and sometimes casual cooperation.
Even as I write this, some particularly ambitious drummers are marching up and down Breeze Ave and Speedway, banging out a serious beat, and a couple of people are cheering as they pass. In Venice, every weekend is Carnavale and every day there's a parade.