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Sabina Sandoval and the Free To Be Me Drum Circle celebrate their 10th Anniversary

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Sabina Sandoval, background center, leading a drum circle at the Hermosa Beach Community Center last year. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Sabina Sandoval, background center, leading a drum circle at the Hermosa Beach Community Center last year. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

“Drumming is healing; it’s very sacred,” says Sabina Sandoval. “We heard our mother’s heartbeat for nine months: I think we yearn to hear it again through the drum. It is powerful and soothing, rhythmic. Imagine hearing that almost for a year…

“Even children know when they hear rhythm. They can’t talk; they do this” – and she patters for a moment on her djembe drum, a tall, cylindrical percussive instrument of African origin, Mali in particular, that she’s placed between her knees and which is resting on the ground. “And they’re in the rhythm, in the pocket,” Sandoval continues. “When you’re drumming, when you’re in the music, when you bring people together, there’s no conflict, it’s just the music – and we all become one with that rhythm as we add on our own rhythms. Your rhythm may be different from mine but it’s going to complement mine.”

Does it sound therapeutic yet?

“I’m here just to remind people to celebrate life, be free, don’t think, help others.” Music unites us, Sandoval says: “When the CEO sits next to the janitor there’s no difference between them. Whatever jobs or titles they’re defined by elsewhere doesn’t matter here, for music is the great equalizer.

Hermosa Beach resident Sabina Sandoval is known locally as the founder and director – or instigator, facilitator and coach, as she sees it – of the Free to Be Me drum circle that takes place on the third Sunday of each month by the water’s edge near the Hermosa Beach Pier. This past Sunday the group marked its tenth anniversary.

“It’s been greatly appreciated by the Beach Cities and even the mayor,” she says of the monthly event. “Michael DiVirgilio even comes and drum with us.”


Rock and roll woman

A South Bay native, Torrance to be exact, Sandoval grew up in a family of six. Her late mother was a Mayan Indian, and her father was Mexican, from Corpus Christi. Perhaps they were well grounded, because their daughter certainly is.

Beginning when she was eight or nine years old, Sandoval began drumming and played a traditional drum set for three decades. When she was about 16 – she’s 51 now – she was in an all-female band called Juice. They played up in Hollywood – The Whisky, The Starwood – and on the Westside (Madame Wong’s West) and here in the South Bay (Sweetwater).

A steady beat keeps the rhythm. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

A steady beat keeps the rhythm. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

“We worked a lot with other female bands like The Runaways, The Go-Go’s, and The Bangles,” she says.

That was during the late 1970s, early ‘80s. Sandoval notes that what they played was closer to new rock than to new wave, and emphasizes that members of the group were capable performers, natural musicians who knew their instruments.

Juice was around for a long time, but that was many years ago, and the lead singer has since passed away.

Rock and roll, however passionate one is about it, rarely pays all the bills, so how did Sandoval support herself?

“I was a GM technician,” she replies when asked. “Worked for Peninsula Pontiac and Oldsmobile in Torrance near Palos Verdes, and we worked on all the cars off the line from General Motors – warranty work, recalls, anything off the line because nothing was perfect.”

She did this for 13 years and mastered her trade: “I could take your engine apart and put it back in your car.”

Sandoval played in other bands as well, male and female bands, but then picked up and moved to Utah, where she lived from roughly 1991 to 1995. In Liberty Park she created a drum circle, the prototype of what she’s created in the South Bay. She called it Free to Be Me, and says it’s now been there for 17 years. She then compares it to the drum circle in Venice Beach that she helped to create after her return to Southern California.

However, these things can go amiss…

“I try to stay away from the Venice Beach situation because the circle is becoming negative. The circle is very sacred, and as a Native American…” – she pauses; “Venice is losing that. I’m actually hoping they close it down for a while, and then bring it back.”

Ironically – because a Free To Be Me drum circle exists to encourage freedom of expression – things can become a little too free, and thus disrespectful. It needs to be policed, Sandoval says, because of the drugs and alcohol.

“Even in Liberty Park in Utah, where it’s all Mormon and very innocent there, they tend to smoke in the circle. Some of them are hiding alcohol, and I saw that.”

Now we’re up to around 1997.

“I became a Venice Beach entertainer with a drum set,” Sandoval says. “Fifteen piece. Just me. Not in a circle, just playing to people from all over the world.”

How long did you do that?

“Four years in Venice,” she replies. “It was phenomenal; it was a dream come true. Venice Beach is one of the biggest tourist attractions in California besides Disneyland, so I had all their attention. I was making like $300 a day in just tips, people throwing money in the bucket. It actually made me a better drummer. It taught me how to perform because [before] I was always behind a band.” Alone with her audience, it wasn’t enough to just drum fast, she had to have something to say, to express.

So all of this inspired you…

“To elevate,” Sandoval says. “Take it to another place. And this she did, regularly, but only on weekends. Why? Because she didn’t want to rely on drumming at Venice Beach as her sole means of supporting herself. “I saw how the entertainers would do anything to get that dollar, and I just wanted to do it to have fun.”

Then it all ended rather abruptly.


A different beat

Sabina Sandoval had been employed during the week as a social worker at 1733 Family Crisis Center. Declining to go into details, she says, “I was injured on the job and it literally disabled me. I realized I had to surrender and quit playing, and for two years I put the drum set in the shed.” That was in 2001, and she didn’t really recover until 2003.

During that excruciating period, Sandoval says, “I could feel the universe reinventing me.” Cut off from the drums that had sustained her for 30 years, “I started playing with my hands instead of sticks. That’s how it started again.”

The djembe represents me as a drummer now,” and she also plays the timbale, a percussion instrument from Cuba.

The Free To Be Me Drum Circle celebrated its tenth anniversary last Sunday beside the Hermosa Beach Pier. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

The Free To Be Me Drum Circle celebrated its tenth anniversary last Sunday beside the Hermosa Beach Pier. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

As we talk, she shows me the djembe she’s brought in and explains about the goatskin stretched across the top. Then she tilts it this way and that to bring out different sounds – harsh or hushed. “It’s all about finessing it, pulling the sound out.” She plays for a few moments, tilts up the mouth of her instrument, and creates a soft sound like brushwork. “I turned this into my drum set when I could no longer play.”

Sandoval says that even though her injury put her in bed for a while, out of her suffering emerged Free to Be Me, as we know it.

When she had recovered a little, she’d make her way to Project Touch at the Community Center in Hermosa Beach, which was very close to where she was living.

“I’d walk there and donate my time on Wednesday evenings to the teens at risk,” Sandoval explains. “While I was there one evening I said, Wow, it would be really great to get these kids drums. Then I talked to the coordinator of Project Touch and I said, Do you think we can write [to] Guitar Center and get a few drums down here for your kids, from your 501c3? And so we did.”

Guitar Center donated seven drums. “I also did it for 1736 Family Crisis Center,” Sandoval continues, “because they also have a center for children runaways.” This time, eight or ten drums were donated. “I left those drums there, at the shelter; they are there forever, and the kids can play ‘em. But the ones at Project Touch, I just started getting more and more drums.”

From here, her desire to reach out – to the needy, the handicapped, the incarcerated – only increased.


Doing time, keeping time

She decided to face a truly tough audience, and one that wasn’t likely to go easy on her.

“When I take it into prisons it’s pretty powerful,” Sandoval says. “I was really frightened to go in, but I was not frightened enough not to.” However, she found, “It’s actually the opposite; they protected me for what I was bringing in. I also learned about One Love in there. You always hear about One Love but you don’t quite see it. I see it in my circles, but sometimes I don’t see it out here.”

Five-year-old Maggie Phelon from Atlanta, Georgia, is in the pocket. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Five-year-old Maggie Phelon from Atlanta, Georgia, is in the pocket. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

These were second-level convicts, not murderers but “pedophiles, rapists, armed robbers,” Sandoval explains, “and we brought in a circle for them.” What she found was that some of the men not only got into the drumming, but could really play. She’d spotlight them, bring them up, and let them truly express themselves. For that short span of time they weren’t the men who’d committed felonies but rather men in touch with their inner selves, their inner rhythm as human beings.

“I was in there and I said, wow, why does this feel like a regular circle? I’m in a prison.”

Sandoval has subsequently taken her drum circle to other prisons and to rehabilitation shelters or transition homes. She mentions that Dusty Watson, a drummer for Dick Dale, brought her out to a shelter for prison inmates in Corona. Often it goes well, but occasionally one or two inmates may resist or challenge her, as happened not long ago at a women’s prison. Even though they’d signed up for the event, it was as if they had to put Sandoval to the test. It took patience on her part to win them over. She specifically mentions one male gang member in a prison who stubbornly kept his distance.

“He was out of pocket. Pocket is everything,” Sandoval says. “Pocket is this,” and she taps out a rhythm. Those who join in the circle have to find that rhythm. “There’s no almost; you’re either in or you’re out. That’s the pocket.

“Now, the opposite of the pocket is this,” Sandoval says as she taps out a disjointed beat. “Chaos,” she explains.

“You’ll never hear chaos in music; pocket is everything,” but “one of the gang members was in chaos. I stopped and said, wait a minute, you’re out of rhythm. He goes, Nah, I’m not out of rhythm, I’m playing my own rhythm.” No, Sandoval countered, “you can play your rhythm but you’re not in sync with us.” The young man stood his ground: No, no; you just want to control me. “No, I promise, I don’t want to control you,” Sandoval told him, “just trust me, please.”

Nah, man, he replied, at which point Sandoval demanded that he hand back the drum: That’s my drum. While he hesitated she persisted. “Just trust me, I’m a teacher, please brother; and then I got into the rhythm with him.” He had to relinquish his pride and his ego. “We connected; I took him to that place.

From very young to getting-up there, the Free to Be Me Drum Circle pulls in people of all ages. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

From very young to getting-up there, the Free to Be Me Drum Circle pulls in people of all ages. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

“So that’s it,” she concludes. “The resistance. Maybe a little pride… Most people don’t want to get it wrong, you know? We’re so self-conscious.”

They need to realize that they can be in the pocket with everybody else and still retain their individuality.

“Yes, their own fingerprint,” Sandoval replies, “which we all have.” The result is a circle that – when it’s working – takes all those fingerprints, all those rhythms, and makes them one.

“I guess it’s my way of ministering,” Sandoval says, “but not through religion. It’s through the drum.”


All together now

Until last year, the Free to Be Me Drum Circle performed on the lawn of the Hermosa Beach Community Center with the developmentally disabled clients of Easter Seals, but after eight years a new director came to town and was concerned that the adults were being treated like children because of the props – balls and balloons and such – that Sandoval utilized to make the event more fun. And even though she complied and eliminated these accessories, Easter Seals did not allow its clients to return to the circle. Subsequently they moved their offices from Hermosa to Gardena.

Juice, in its heyday. L-r, Stephanie, Dee, Sandy, Sabina, and Wendy. Photo courtesy of Sabina Sandoval

Juice, in its heyday. L-r, Stephanie, Dee, Sandy, Sabina, and Wendy. Photo courtesy of Sabina Sandoval

It has always been Sandoval’s intention to help, not hinder, and even before that particular setback she’d spoken of other handicapped groups she was hoping to assist:

“I would like to work with the blind, and also the deaf. The blind can hear and sense more than we can, because of the loss of their vision. The deaf can feel, because of the loss of their hearing.” The deaf can also, she adds, “feel the vibrations of the rhythm of the drums.”

When Sandoval goes into rehab centers she usually just takes a few of her Angels, these being the all-volunteer Tribe of Angels that come out with her, for her, and donate their time and energy. Many of her trips to institutions, schools, and other venues depends on them. “I want you to know,” she emphasizes, “it would not happen without the Tribe of Angels.”

These volunteers create the musical backbone of the drum circle. Djun-djuns (cowhide-covered drums) are like the bass guitar, Sandoval says. The congas are the lead singer and the timbales are the lead guitar. “These are the instruments that cut through all the rhythms like a horn doing a solo in jazz,” and it frees up Sandoval to engage with the participants, and (using a cowbell) to initiate a call-and-response with them.

Of the patients in the rehab centers she visits, she says, “Most of these souls are trapped in their bodies. They’re laying down, they’re stroke victims.” But Sandoval and her Angels go in and hand them Native American drums because they can be struck simply with one mallet, even if the person is paralyzed on one side and their motor skills have been curtailed. It’s the human touch, she says.

Her all-important Tribe of Angels comes from every walk of life – lawyers, doctors, artists… How does she find them? “I put ads in flyers: Volunteers needed. I don’t recruit anymore, because it’s a place where you need to come to in your life. When you call me and go, ‘Hey, I heard about your program,’ then I know you’re ready. But when I recruit people, they don’t last; it wasn’t their decision. It’s a place we come to in our hearts when we’re ready.”

One of these volunteers, Sean McGill, began participating in the local drum circle when he was about nine, and he’s soon to turn 22. Although recently moved to Humboldt County, McGill says he doesn’t want to use the word magical, but refers to the enduring good memories and inspiring moments (Sandoval, in his words, is awesome). Drumming is a kind of body language, he points out, making more obvious the natural rhythms we already possess. “It helps you get into that intuitive space,” he adds, and the impression is that being active in drum circles leads us to become better attuned to the people around us.


Shoestring budget philanthropist

Sabina Sandoval isn’t getting rich with her drumming circle. The occasional party – for birthdays, Christmas, weddings, and so on – covers her basic needs, which aren’t many: she’s lived in a trailer court for a dozen years. “The other people that donate,” she says, “I just put it right back in Free to Be Me. So if this drum needs to be repaired, I just pull at the heartstrings of others to help. I’ve never been one to get money from the government through 501c3 because I believe that we can do it through the community, and I have. For the last ten years I’ve been so blessed.”

She’s also participated in – or contributed to – several matching-funds afterschool programs. To extend this further, she says, “My goal is to create a performing arts school for children where they don’t have to pay to go.” This would be for underserved, non-privileged children. “I want to make more money to create that. So I’m building that now, it’s in my head; for the next ten years I want to develop the income to create that building for the kids.”

It’s hard to think of someone else who’s been striving this hard and this intently to elevate the order and rhythm in the lives of so many people, whether they’re convalescing or disabled or imprisoned. Pocket, she repeats, is everything.

“And that’s life, too. That’s the ball in the basket, that’s your heart beating, that’s the cylinder in your car, that’s the clock. And that’s what I do, I’m keeping people in the pocket. And you know what? People already know this. I’m just confirming them.”

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