The room with the drum circle in it was not hard to find. Boom- bada- boom- bada- boom- boom- boom throbbed through the walls of the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre, rattling the placards naming each room's corporate sponsor. I followed the din to the Voltas Room. Only six of the 20 djembes arranged in a ring had drummers behind them, but already they were making enough of a racket to render my phone's ringtone inaudible. This was music made for wide open spaces, and the walls of this theatre tucked inside the Mall of the Emirates seemed to strain to contain it.
Normally, Dubai Drums does most of its banging outdoors. The five-year-old company, run by a British-born and New Zealand-raised woman named Julie-Ann Odell, is best known for drawing hundreds of revellers to its monthly Full Moon Desert Drumming events. But as the summer's heat forces even the most resolutely anti-capitalist nature lovers into the malls, the open-air affairs are traded for weekly community drum circles, which drummers of any skill level can join for 50 dirhams, drum rental included.
Last week's session drew a 40-year-old American man in sandals, a young Australian in a hippie skirt and a studiously fashionable Lebanese girl with an intense expression. A Slovenian woman brought her daughters, who rolled in on Heelys. They all played along to a swaggering beat set by Atsu and Abdullah Dagadu, brothers from Ghana who work for Odell. "We are waiting for some people!" Atsu called out between downbeats."They are stuck in traffic!" Boom-bada-boom-bada-boom-boom-boom. The pounding swelled in response, as if to affirm the plight of all those gridlocked on Sheikh Zayed Road.
Nearly a dozen people had gathered by the time Odell herself arrived, breathless and flashing a wide smile. Odell has a knack for discussing the health benefits of drumming with the dreamy conviction of a yogi and the enthusiasm of a public relations rep. "It relaxes and energises you at the same time," she said, amid frequent references to endorphins and the alpha state. If such New Age talk does not convince, Odell's vivacity might. With her tousled blonde hair, mischievous eyes and California vocabulary - not to mention the ferocity with which she attacks her instrument - she seems decades younger than her 52 years.
It was, in fact, a middle-aged sense of mortality that led Odell to drumming. She had been living in the Middle East for a quarter century when she decided she'd had enough of her career in PR. "I got to the age of 46, and I got sick of working for other people. I thought, midlife crisis? Hmm-mmm. I'm going to have a midlife change." So she began planning the region's first holistic festival, and in doing research for it discovered the phenomenon of community drum circles. The festival fell through, but Odell's interest in drumming remained. When her daughter made a trip to South Africa, Odell tagged along and took drumming lessons. She returned to Dubai, drums in arms, and forced her family to play along.
"I literally had nobody to drum with," she said. "Nobody had heard about djembes five years ago. There were no djembes in town. So rather than drum with teddy bears and soft toys, I taught Guy and Dima everything I knew." Much the same way as Dubai has managed to reconcile a drum circle with a shopping mall, Odell's midlife decision to tune in and drop out eventually led her back to the jacket-and-tie set. Today she keeps a packed schedule of corporate team building sessions, school visits, parties and performances with her 14-member ensemble, Drums of the World.
For much of the last year, Odell also ran monthly drum circles at a friend's house in Abu Dhabi, but those became a victim of their own success. As the crowd of drummers grew over several months, the neighbours grew more upset. "It was OK when it was 10 or 15, but one night, we had 50 people," Odell said, biting her bottom lip guiltily. "That's quite a lot of drums."