By Tony Tohono
There were forecasts of heavy rain, and, indeed, several interludes of fire’s dreaded adversary showered the event, but in the end the third annual FireDrums went on, more intimate for the threat of a deluge.
Perhaps the rain kept the spectators away. Last year, there seemed to be a lot of people who were there more for the party. This time, it was all about fire and the drumming.
FireDrums was first held at Pismo Beach in Oceanside in 2004. The year following it was moved to Red, White and Blue Beach just outside of Santa Cruz where it was also held this year, from April 14 to 16. About 250 people attended, camping in tents over the weekend. The event’s promoter, Sky, has talked of moving it again next year and also of the possibility of making it biannual as interest grows.
Sky is quick to point out that FireDrums is its own unique event, not one of the regional Burns that recreate, in a smaller way, Burning Man. “The vision of FireDrums was—and is—to bring together both fire artists and drummers to share knowledge in a place dedicated to that and only that,” he said. Black Rock City “has been a very inspirational place for so many, but there is so much going on there that it’s difficult to gather a solid core of fire artists and drummers for any length of time. Also there are many who haven’t yet made it to Burning Man.”
We arrived Friday afternoon during the second day of the event. After helping build a dome with the rest of my campmates from Sacramento’s fire troupe, SaDa Fuego, I put up my tent and then took a walk down to the beach.
For those of you who have not been to Red, White and Blue beach, the site of the local monthly beach Burn for San Francisco Bay Area Burners, the place is a paradise. The small valley foots a freshwater creek that ebbs out onto a large crescent-shaped beach snuggled between flora- and fauna-fringed cliffs with breakers rising up between them.
I walked past the staging area where most of the fire performances would occur and watched as a few volunteers filled a wheelbarrow with sand to fill in the puddles that marred most of one side. Within moments I was recruited, and even though it was hard work I found it fulfilling and fun. When the last puddle was filled I turned my attention to the beach.
Small knots of people were scattered to each end, some with a more playful aura, while others seemed nearly as formal as a specialized training course at a trade convention, albeit with a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean rolling up behind them and somewhat more colorful attire beneath the occasional beaded dreadlocks and oft-pierced visages. The fire dancers worked out intricate moves with the passion and determination of any serious athlete. These sessions filled the daylight hours throughout the weekend.
The sense of community was just as warm as at any other Burn-like gathering and there were plenty of hugs to go around. It’s always amazing when you realize you recognize someone from some completely obscure moment in time lost at the edges of your memory and then they remind you it was laughing together at some band of traveling zombies out on the playa last August. “Oh yeah . . . That was it!”
Things kicked up a notch when night fell. Everywhere you looked people carried their gear toward the sound of the drums and the glow of center camp. At the performance area, groups of fire dancers gathered around the burn barrels to discuss moves and techniques while awaiting their turns. Groups of drummers talked shop while peeking up at the sky from beneath temporary shade structures. Every few minutes someone would light up out on the beach and glowing reflections would illuminate the estuary.
Sometime after midnight the clouds opened up and the rain fell hard. Fortunately, it lasted only a few minutes and once it was over, although the crowd had thinned, the drumming and the fire dancing resumed. It was during these late hours that some of the more intimate and breathtaking performances took place. Around 4:30 on Saturday morning I happened to be sitting to the side of the circle with a group of my campmates.
Our mostly whispered conversation was a conflict of beauty and silence. Someone pointed up the fierce light of a full moon as it peeked through ominous clouds. “No, it was full last night,” a barely audible voice insisted. Tired or burnt and sleep were often alluded to and then shushed away. I glanced over at the fuel dump and wondered if anyone else was going to light up.
Over on a makeshift bench a group crowded around a burn barrel. I was about to call it a night when someone dipped wicks over the edge of the barrel and pulled out two lanterns of fire swinging from the ends of two lengths of distinctively complacent chain. The individual who looked up from behind these swaying vials of light looked part alien and part magician. There was a sense that something special was about to happen.
got up, walked over and stood behind those seated on the bench as this creature started doing his thing. I have a feeling everyone watching would have been mesmerized into oblivion had Vatra, leader of the San Francisco-area fire troupe the Pyronauts, not been present to banter throughout the spin. “No one is going to believe that Arashi actually spun,” he claimed.
At times Arashi looked entirely in control and at other times he looked entirely under the control of his poi. Part juggler circus freak, part martial artist, part break dancer, part Texas bull whipping rope swinging desert dreaming shaman, he moved in the most poetic herky jerky momentous on the verge of inert fashion I had ever seen—incorporated into fire dancing. He continually stepped into his performance only to stand back and watch it unfold before him as if he were just another spectator who just happened to be attached to the ends of his arms.
His wicks burned for a long time and when it was finally over there was a collective “Wow.” And then we were left in a stunned silence. With no cameras or video cameras present it was as if, as someone would later say, it didn’t happen. I headed back to camp to call it a night.
When I look back on FireDrums I think Arashi’s performance exemplifies the significance of the event. The best parts of it are what were shared on an intimate level, between individual components of the community. There are of course the larger parts going on the entire time that everyone shares together, but it’s those unique little secrets found out on the periphery or when everyone else has gone in that made it a special experience.
“In comparison to last year,” Sky said, “though the numbers were a little less, due to Mother Nature, the vibe was still very positive and we had some amazing fire artists and the drummers added a really awesome vibe.”
And that is what FireDrums is all about.