It's like family, only weirder…

Bonnaroo 2009: Wrap-Up

Build-a-Drum
Image by Olaf via Flickr

It has been a year since I went to Bonnaroo and I’ve just realized that I never wrote anything about the experience. At least nothing of any real length. Since it has been so long, I’m just going to hit on two things that really stand out in my memory.

For those of you that don’t know, I was asked to attend Bonnaroo to help out at a drum building workshop, Build-a-Drum by Stan Secrest. I attended one of his workshops in the previous fall and we stayed in touch afterward. It didn’t take long for him to come knocking on my door to lend a hand at the up and coming multi-day music festival.

The job began the moment I arrived and found our plot of land on which I would be spending the greatest portion of my time on. I immediately was put to work on painting a sign for the site. I also took stock of our situation, got some groundwork for what was to come, and freshened up my knowledge of the knots and sequence to build the drums. There were the pleasantries as well – getting to know the rest of the staff. That first day was the easiest I would know. We setup the site, readied the displays, organized materials, and then got back to our campsite and were fed by one of the helpers.

That night, it was a remarkable site to behold; the patrons arrived by the thousand. Car after car well into the night, continuing through the next day. Tent city had exploded over night – as far as the eye could see, there were tents. We had our marching orders and filed into the site seemingly a mile away from the vendor camping area (a very nice benefit, actually). The first day, everyone got involved in sales. We had to get people started in building their drums to give them the most time during the week to complete them. We also started taking on some drums to prepare as examples for others to see. It didn’t take long for people to start rolling in. It was as though some were there with the specific intention to find this booth! And why not, Stan has been doing Bonnaroo for nearly a decade. Once we had a good number of people working on drums, it was clear to see how much work was about to come down on us. Preparing a shell is largely on the customer, but preparing and tightening a head took all of our efforts to teach and assist with the process.

What started on that first day did not end until I packed up early and left the crew for my return trip home on Sunday. I hated to leave them as they were, but I really had to go and get back to my family! We spent up to 18 hours a day cranking out shells to everyone that came in. I forget the numbers, but I want to say that Stan sold 1,000 drums that week. There was an epic amount of work to be performed for all those customers. Most of them spent 6-8 hours with us throughout the event, so there were even friendships made in that time. I’ll break down the procedure, though it cannot do it justice:

  1. Wrap the rings in cloth
  2. Knot the rings for the pulls
  3. stretch the skin
  4. lace the pulls
  5. tighten the pulls
  6. tighten the pulls
  7. tighten the pulls

Between tying the knots and tightening the pulls, the hands get quite a workout. I remember that it took a week for my hands to begin to feel like normal again.

The labor was intense, but it felt so good to just put everything you had into this process. To help so many people and really feel their appreciation of your effort. You bust your ass all day in the heat, then drag yourself out of the festival to crash back at the campsite by 3:00am every morning. The best was that part of our crew was dedicated to meals, and there were showers available in the vendor camping area. When I got back to the campground at the end of every day, I’d go take a good shower in the wee-hours to prepare for the next day. That was a treat!

Well into these hard-working days, I got my first real break. Stan had told us all that we’d get a chance to go see some of the festival while we were here, and my turn had come around. I was off to see Amadou and Mariam perform at a nearby stage. I had enjoyed their music having learned about it about a year prior, and this seemed like the only opportunity I would have to see the musical duo out of Mali, Africa. What I saw took my breath away. I found a modest crowd milling around the stage as the band started up. I knew what to expect from the music, so headed right for the front knowing I would have no wish to leave early. As I stood there and head-bopped, I began to notice a shift in the audience. I don’t think they knew anything about this band, but as they listened, and realized too that this was a blind duo, their attitude changed and there was a spreading joy throughout. People started receding to the edges of the venue where they shouted at passerby’s to come in and listen. This meager crowd was calling for everyone within earshot to come and hear Amadou and Mariam perform. The venue filled, and the energy was butane in the air to be ignited by a truly rockin’ performance! There were African dancers on the stage, a phenomenal djembe player, the expected assortment of rock musicians, and Amadou on the electric – singing along with Mariam on vocals. The performance was so intense, it brought tears to my eyes in the moment.

I have some certainty that my overwhelming emotional response was, in part, due to the stress of the trip. However, the performance was one of my personal favorites despite this. I’d see them again in a heartbeat.

So there are my two key memories of this experience in Bonnaroo. I’d love to do it again should the opportunity arise. Though next time, I’ll want my wife to join me and be a part of it. Perhaps on a second tour we could have more time for the concerts – the Bonnaroo experience – while still getting enjoyment out of the raw effort delivered in building drums for the hundreds!

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