“Drums!” she said in broken two-year-old English. “Drums on the hill!”
She looked way up the hill, past the fountain and multiple of sets of stairs, to the pavilion far at the top. From the heights, the warm sound of conga drums wafted down to us and lightly made itself known.
Curious. Why would there be drums on a Sunday night, here in the middle of Forest Park?
Beyond the ever-changing lights of the fountain, two friends walked and took pictures in the dark. The summer air was now cool and breezy. There was a gentle busyness in the park—a subdued nightlife that you felt more than saw. Couples strolled. A family finished their walk. The park was alive with private moments shared quietly and happily—truly, the living room of the city.
Peering up the hill to the beige walls and red-tiled roof of the beautifully lit pavilion, I wondered about it myself. Seemed like an odd place for drums.
“Do you want to go see them?” I asked her.
“See drums!” she replied happily. Not so much a command as an emphatic observation, she tended to state her worldview in exclamation points. Regardless of what we were doing, it was exciting. No matter what she wanted to do, it seemed important and urgent. Apparently thinking the laws of nature negotiable, she seemed still under the illusion that you could command the universe—making dictums of her environment and fully expecting them instantly complied with.
In a way, she did make everything seem a bit more malleable. Observations got mixed up with commands until finally you just go with the flow, forcefully labeling the universe: Yes, that is a car. Yes, those are men. And that’s a BIG fountain. Yes, we ARE walking. And that IS a big fountain! The line blurs between existence and creation.
“Ok, let’s go up there. We have to walk up all those steps though,” I told her.
With a skip-hop, she gallumped herself in the right direction as though getting oriented. For her, it would be a journey. She still took stairs like a toddler—same foot leading each time, each stair an achievement. It was a big hill and there were probably 150 steps for her to tackle.
With persistence she began taking the steps one at a time, powering up the hill. It’s amazing how much longer things take when you have little legs. I walked slowly, encouraging her but not demanding. We were just out to take a walk after dinner and it didn’t have to be a trek. Yet, with her, everything seemed to be an expedition.
The ducks by the restaurant had been an adventure. So had the turtle. Oh, and also the wooden steps by our table. I never realized how exciting it could be to jump that foot and a half onto a patio. Over and over. “By MYSELF.”
A perfectly well-mannered little lady, she had selected her own meal from the menu (“sandwich with jelly”) and made small talk about the crayons, the menu and the French fries. Kind of interesting to make small talk when you can barely talk, but she managed. With no other adults to carry the conversation, we fell into a comfortable dialogue.
Now on our journey to find the source of the drumming, I wondered if she’d get distracted and give up. Not a chance. Step after step, she marched on until finally she reached the top. Now very clear, I could hear hand drums—congas to be precise. They were playing guaguanco—a folk rhythm from Cuba. We could see nothing through the blackness inside the pavilion, but followed the sound to where the drums should be.
Her flouncing toddle was oddly fitting with the loping call and response of the drum parts interplaying against each other. As we got closer, we saw three congueros—conga drum players…and they were jamming! A percussionist myself, I’d played quite a bit of Afro-Cuban in previous years. These guys knew what they were doing—they were the real deal.
It isn’t often that you find authentic Afro-Cuban out here in the Middle West of the United States—more likely to hear our particular river-town amalgamation of American Blues, inner-city hip-hop and country. Yet, here they were.
The syncopated bombo note gently bounced against the melody of the drum pattern, giving the guaguanco it’s characteristic “low-high, high, low” groove. For a moment I was transported to a different world and began to envision the traditional cowbell parts that go with the rhythm.
One of the congueros saw the little girl watching them and smiled. Probably a grandfather himself, he handed her a metal shaker so she could play along. She held it shyly, cautiously giving it a gentle shake as the sensuous music echoed against the walls of the stucco pavilion, sounding almost like a concert hall built for the occasion.
When they finished the song I complimented them and struck up a conversation. I found out they were a percussion group and were rehearsing. Apparently they felt the acoustics of the pavilion went well with tableau stretching out below us: the multi-colored fountain far down the hill, the lake just beyond, the towering trees that are Forest Park.
I could see their point. Cool place to practice.
They went back to playing and, under the darkness of the pavilion, we went back to exploring. The low concrete walls were of particular interest. Who would’ve thought walking along the top would be so exciting.
A beautiful backdrop to the night, the Afro-Cuban jam session was like a soundtrack as we discussed leaves, the bushes, a statue. Her soft, high-pitched two-year-old-girl voice contrasted with excited mandates as she asked to be lifted up onto this or helped down off of that.
We talked to the drummers on off, she and I did. Three older percussionists, a young father and one ebullient toddler—what a conversation. From rhythms of the French West Indies to jazz and funk, we fell into that unexpectedly natural harmony of kindred souls. Who would’ve thought our walk would lead here? Of all the places in St. Louis, our father-daughter night serendipitously wound up at this beautiful scene, in the middle of the probably the only Afro-Cuban jam session going on for hundreds of miles.
We said our good-byes as they packed up their gear, chuckling in response to her vigorous waves and excited farewells spoken in that soft little voice.
I reflected on how different life looked when you were interested in it: Magical. Exciting. Lucky. But I didn’t reflect for long—we were already turning our attention to our next adventure: running down the hill.
Happy shrieks lighting up the night, I could see her ecstatic face—blown away by such an exciting opportunity to run down such a big hill.
Definitively: Yes, she was running! And it WAS a big hill! And, yes, she WAS running!
People are amazing. I like life.