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#205: The Spirit We Have Here

The man with the dusty Obama/Biden cap, the “Born to be Wild” leather vest, and the white-dappled mustache and soul patch has been coming to the 63rd Street Beach since 1966.

“Every day,” he said as his fingers flitted along a recorder’s surface.

That’s recorder as in plastic flute from a grade school music room. A drumbeat slowed in the background.

On nights when the weather’s good and the beach is full of swimmers, laughing kids and young lovers, families barbecuing and teens sneaking off to flirt with each other and practice their flow, the man with the dusty cap has come to the shadow of the old beach house. He’s come to place that recorder between the mustache and soul patch and twirl, whirl, twitter on a bird-flow song to accompany congas, bongos, djembes—all the slapped, shaken, shimmied instruments of the 63rd Street Beach Drum Circle.

Since 1966, they’ve come to Jackson Park.

The men just accumulate, mostly old, with a few young acolytes drawn by the sound. One by one, they show up.

A man all in white, from his Kangol cap to the shoes on his feet, was part of the early group. He yelled bits to the other musicians, gave a brief speech to the small crowd of gawkers. The drums never stopped as he talked.

An old man with a dashiki and a stately white afro walked up to a round of handshakes and hugs when he arrived.

A Hispanic man with an American flag button-up shirt danced in the middle. The other Hispanic man in the circle was a young guy with a military-grade buzz cut and wicking performance athletic gear.

A wizened man draped in kente cloth with a hat half between coolie and kufi wandered around, looking for a spot to join. He had small drums and a large polished stick that came to a circle at the top.

Some wore slacks and long shirts. Some wore African clothes of pride. Some wore leather biker vests and dusty Obama/Biden baseball caps.

“We came from the Point,” the man with the dusty cap said during a break.

He waved the hand that wasn’t holding the recorder toward the north.

“On 55th,” he said.

He flicked those same fingers south.

“Then we moved to Rainbow Beach,” he said. “But that didn’t have the spirit we have here, so we came back.”

I wanted to ask questions. I wanted to know why, how these old men kept a song going for nearly fifty years. I wanted to know that spirit, the one that created a half-century circle on a beach in Jackson Park.

I wanted to ask, but the drums started again, ending our conversation.

Originally published as part of 1,001 Chicago Afternoons, daily Chicago stories in the spirit of Ben Hecht’s 1920’s column.

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