We could see that we were uncharacteristically late as we joggled slowly in our car along the Otro Lado dirt road. The sun was saying its last goodbyes as it prepared to drown in the sea. A vivid glow from wounded clouds that had sprung up in the late afternoon now ebbed toward shades of cooling blood. As we dropped off the spine of the ridge, we saw and heard our destination: a circle of people gathered around a flickering bonfire on the beach, and the attenuated bass notes of drumming.
Full Moon drumming is a secret Todos Santos tradition. It’s not that it is deliberately kept secret. Indeed it has now reached the elevated state of being noted in the Baja Western Onion, the biweekly newsletter that Todos Santaneans regard as the Oracle for all that’s happening in the area. No, it’s that, even in this liberated town, drumming is looked upon by some as akin to a demonic act, probably performed by wart-encrusted spinsters and fallen monks dressed in black, and possibly involving the sacrifice of small furry animals. Mention that you participate in Full Moon Drumming circles in other places in Southern Baja and you are even less likely to be taken seriously. “You do what?!” followed by guffaws of laughter, and a quick change of subject. Occasionally, you will get the wistful apology “I wish I could do that”, as if it were some deliciously dirty sin that they cannot participate in through a lack of bravery or strict moral or civil laws.
Despite these reactions, every full moon, a fluid group that ranges in size from a dozen to maybe 30 or so gathers at sunset on the beach at the bocana to drum in the full moon around a bonfire. There are a variety of drums; mostly African djembes, but also conga and even steel drums, accompanied by an eclectic set of other percussion instruments such as shakers, tambourines and even water garafons. Few are expert drummers; some just come to hear and maybe keep a beat when the mood strikes. And there is no leader. The rythyms start spontaneously and evolve, ending when the group senses it has lived its life. It may be a secret tradition, but it is one of the most magical ones in our little “Pueblo Magico”.
We unpack the car in the deepening gloom, and walk across the sand to the group, the sounds growing and becoming more distinct with each step. As we take our seats in the circle, the clouds thin, and the moon emerges. We take in the dull afterglow of the sun’s demise persisting over the water, the full moon now resplendent over the Sierra Lagunas, and the heat of the fire replacing the searing of the day. The threatened strong winds hold in abeyance at the sun’s funeral, and the world seems at peace.
As the moon burns away the final wisps of shrouding cloud, it is as if the landscape is illuminated by a faint, chromatically challenged street light. All is visible dully, painted in shades of grey; the world of colour contracted to a small sphere around the alternate sun of ravenous fire.
A rhythm starts and, at first, I panic, unable to recall how to drum, how to make my tuneless hands and fingers coax patterns from the inert goatskin. And then I relax out of my critical mind into awareness of the other drums, and I am in the groove, laying a base line and then soaring in ad hoc syncopated beats before I subside back to the core. Playing, and hearing something greater than the sum of the individual drum patterns.
Ghosts slide along the shoreline, then break into a march to the beat of our drums. Drawn by the hypnotic beat and the warmth of the fire, the ghosts draw closer, evolve into women and girls, and start to dance spontaneously to our sound. Exhausted and giggling, they draw back into the greyness and disappear into the distance.
As the improvisation dies, friends chatter amongst themselves. An ember is pulled from the fire, drawing laser red lines in the air, followed by the familiar sweet aroma drifting across the group.
Later, the wind appears, rolling off the land toward the sea. The group disperses, little by little, in the wind, leaving nothing but ashes that the tide will erase, and memories of magic that will last for ever.