The sky is black, the desert formless, the moon full. Beneath it, a few hundred people squat with drums between their knees, eyes riveted to a makeshift stage at the centre of the camp. It is the last month for Dubai Drums' full-moon gathering before heat kills the ability to beat on animal skins in the dead of night. Understandably, enthusiasm is high. "Give me boom-tak-tak-boom," shouts the drum master Atsu Dagadu. Sweat beads his face as he leaps across the stage, goading the right side of the audience, then the left. It is well past midnight; he and a cohort of percussionists from the Drums of the World ensemble have been at this for well over six hours.
Swift hands rap on the djembe slung around his middle. The campsite echoes with the sound of 100 drums following suit. He pounds; they respond; he elaborates; they repeat. Then, it all unravels as the master fires off an impossible rhythm that well proves his title and has the audience laughing in disbelief. For Dagadu, the son of a village chief in Ghana, drumming is life, and Dubai Drums is the meeting ground of his kind. For one night each month, the small company that makes its money from corporate events and school workshops pulls out all the stops at the Gulf Ventures campsite off the E-44 highway. Tonight, they are accompanied by the students of the Deira International School, who add samba and reggae to the ensemble's dulcet blend of African and Arabic rhythms. "In Ghana, if you are a master drummer, you must drum with different drummers to learn. It's like that here. We are combining everything," says Dagadu of the event's "open-drum" policy.
From countries such as India, South Africa, Iraq and the Philippines, the Drums of the World ensemble is a microcosm of ethnicity operating with a common language of rhythm. No more evident is this than in the collaboration of Zayed, a Dubai-based Iraqi tabla player, and Olivier Leon, his French student, who, seated among the percussionists, match each other tak for tak. "I started with the djembe, but tabla is much richer," says the Al Ain-based Leon. "I love the beats, I love the sound."
It is his fourth time at the full-moon drumming event and, like many participants, Leon is a hearty enthusiast. Depending on the month, newcomers sometimes equal regulars, or are outnumbered by the families, couples and groups of friends who, once having discovered the oasis of sound in the desert, are hooked. "We come every month," says Hossam Musa, an Iraqi from Dubai. He, his wife, Leyla, and their teenage daughter Sara found the event through a magazine last March, and have been loyal attendees since.
"It's stress relieving," says Musa. "It's community - you really feel like family here. " Leyla adds: "Here, you are free. It's the environment and the air and being away from the city." The DJ begins to play a popular Arabic song and she begins to sway. "You see? You can't control yourself!" "It is awesome," adds Claire Read, a Dubai-based South African attending for the first time. "I'm definitely coming back."
Over three years ago, desert drumming on such a public scale was non-existent. The South African organisational and relationship systems coach Julie-Ann Odell - the founder and managing director of Dubai Drums - wondered why. "It's like - there's the full moon. There's the desert. And nobody's drumming," she says. Her ear is on the professional troupe, monitoring its performance as she bobs to the rhythm, a drum slung around her shoulder. "We had to do something."
The event, which costs Dh175 for an adult ticket, pulls in no profit for the company. It doesn't seem to matter much to Odell. "I want to do something where I can get people to unite," she says. "The great thing about drumming is, it doesn't matter if you are two or 200 - you have grandchildren sitting next to grandfathers and strangers and everyone is included. It builds communities and transcends boundaries."
For those interested in the therapeutic side of drumming, it's all in the vibration, says Odell. "Because people use the left and right side of their brains when they drum, they go into an alpha state," she explains, describing the slow brainwave pattern associated with relaxation. "People get creative. They forget about doing and concentrate on being." "Just being" is apparently such a big thing that it necessitates a waiting list. "If we don't put a clamp on it, we would end up with about 800 people," says Guy Odell, Julie-Ann's husband. "Every month we have a waiting list of about 200." As an oceanographic engineer with sidelines in music and sound production, Odell deals with the logistics of the operation. Caterers, music, lighting, parking, tickets - it is a tall order between Gulf Ventures and Dubai Drums to produce a seamless effort, because it is not all drumming, all the time. That event is the main stage in a circus of side acts, which include camel-riding, sand-boarding, face-painting, a shisha tent and a fully catered dinner.
Oh, and there's also the fire dancer. He materialises in the middle of the dance floor halfway through one of the music sets between the drumming sessions, wielding two arm-length staves soaked in lamp oil. Drawing on a three-month stint in Thailand and subsequent YouTube instruction, he sets pyrophilic hearts ablaze with his fluid manipulation of the medium. Patterns of light arc over his shoulders and through his legs, licking at his clothes and creating illusory ropes that vanish on the next movement. "The embarrassing part is if you get entangled," says Jimmy, the Dubai-based engineer from Alexandria who has found a performance niche here. "It makes you feel like you're on the edge. There's always an adrenalin rush," he adds wryly.
After the excitement of the fire dance, the drummers wander back to the 500 or so djembes scattered around the campsite, all of which Odell has collected on trips to West Africa. Community is perhaps no better evinced than in the way the organiser lets strangers and friends have free use of the instruments. "Oh, there's always some damage or other," she says lightly, before hiking one over her head and reaching for the microphone. But that's not the point, it seems.
"One of the things that Julie-Ann is good at doing is non-verbal communication," says her husband, watching his wife lead another round of drumming. "She allows people to succeed at their level and by their criteria, so they contribute individually as well as collectively. That is the magic you see here. "Look at this crowd," he continues. "These people come from all walks of life, all races and all cultures, sitting side by side. Here, there are no boundaries. Here, there are no lines. It's really quite humbling." He looks up from beneath his floppy sunhat and grins. "It even makes an old cynic like me tear up a bit inside."