Esther Kang

Touching hearts, one drumbeat at a time

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Sabina Sandoval with part of her drum collection, which she carries around in her Volkswagen van. Photo by Esther Kang

One day back in 2008, Sabina Sandoval was leading a drum circle with at-risk youth at the Hermosa Beach pier when someone familiar approached her. It was Pete Carroll, then the esteemed USC football coach.

“He saw me on the pier rocking, and he said, ‘Could you guys come drum where the guys run out of the tunnel at the Coliseum?’” Sabina, 51, recalled.

Carroll, who is also known for his philanthropy, actually wanted Sandoval and her young group of drummers to perform at the Coliseum for A March for Kids, a rally staged by Unity One and his charity organization, A Better LA. He sent out a bus for Sabina and the kids — 82 people onboard in total.

“It was phenomenal,” she said. “The kids will never forget that. One of the kids came up to me and said, ‘Sabina, I think this is a time when I have to remember this moment. This is the time of my life.’”

Sandoval, a Hermosa Beach resident for 13 years, has been a drummer all her life. In addition to being a regular Venice Beach performer, she and her previous all-girl bands have opened up for the likes of Van Halen and Ozzy Osbourne, she said.

But a serious injury more than 10 years ago left her unable to play her drum set—“I had to put it in the shed, and just… heal,” she recalled.

She began taking walks to the pier and stopping by the community center nearby, quickly becoming familiar with Project Touch, which serves at-risk South Bay teens and families, and Easter Seals, which serves developmentally disabled adults.

“I just wanted to volunteer and get my mind off of the pain,” Sandoval said. “And then I started thinking, ‘Man, it’d be cool to get these kids to drum. Before that, I never played with my hands. It was funny how the earth was reinventing me because since I couldn’t play with my sticks on my drum set, I turned [the hand drum] into my drum set. And that’s how it started.”

Established in 2003, Free To Be Me Drum Circle serves as an afterschool enrichment program. For the community, it meets once a month at the Hermosa Beach pier, bringing together individuals in all walks of life through the drum, she said.

When people began noticing the drum circle, the donations of drums started trickling in. “I can’t even remember how I got every drum, it’s amazing,” she said.

She holds about 18 circles a month all over the South Bay, and, starting recently, in Los Angeles, where she began visiting veterans’ hospitals, convalescent homes and prisons. The reception so far has been dramatically positive, she said.

“Because music is so primitive and native, it’s healing,” Sandoval said. “We heard our mother’s heartbeat for nine months, and I know we yearn to hear it again.”

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