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Pounding a Few

Rhythm bar serves drumsticks with its drinks.

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It's 8 PM on a Friday and people--mostly white, mostly in pairs--are trickling into Rhythm, a dark, elegant Randolph Street bar devoted to all things percussive. After paying the $5 cover, they order beer and martinis at the long, curved bar, which is dominated by a large brass gong and overlooks "the pit"--a sunken circle 14 feet across with three rings of cushioned bench seating around it.

Before they can get too comfortable, 26-year-old co-owner Doug McLennan invites them to choose a djembe from a large wall of drums and join the beginners' lesson now starting in the pit. About eight customers--everyone in the bar save one dark-haired couple in maroon shirts--oblige, setting their drinks on little built-in platforms between the cushions.

McLennan shows them how to hold the hourglass-shaped West African drum between their knees and asks them to take off their rings. A newly engaged woman starts to protest, but McLennan cuts her off. "I'm not asking you to call off the engagement," he wisecracks. But he doesn't want her to hurt herself--or the djembe. He explains how to elicit a couple of the instrument's basic sounds and demonstrates a few rhythms. "If you can say it, you can play it," he says.

In about half an hour the novices are playing together if not like pros then at least like people who've been together for more than just half an hour. Most are smiling and seem completely absorbed. Even the couple in maroon watch intently, neglecting their drinks.

Rhythm caters to all types of drummers, but the djembe is an easy way in for beginners, says Doug's brother, Rob, who handles the bar's finances. They were introduced to it in the summer of 1998, after accompanying their parents on a three-week trip through Kenya and Tanzania. Their folks went home to Glenview, but the brothers decided to extend their stay for another five weeks. "We climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and hitchhiked," says Doug, and eventually they made their way through Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia to South Africa. Doug had just earned his bachelor's degree in communications from Boston University, and Rob, who's now about to hit 30, had recently quit a two-year stint as an investment banking analyst, concluding that "the money wasn't worth the lifestyle trade-off." Toward the end of their adventure, they found themselves at a hostel in Cape Town, where they were invited to "go to this thing at a drum cafe," says Doug. "We loaded up in the hostel bus and went to an out-of-the-way industrial neighborhood, to a nondescript factory warehouse building. The place was carpeted, and there was a circle of plastic lawn chairs. There was a bar off to one side where you could buy a beer."

They paid the equivalent of a few bucks to get in and a couple more to rent drums. An instructor who didn't speak much English taught them a few basics, "sort of by example," says Doug. "After that we took a little break. Then someone started drumming and everyone joined in. It went on for hours. People kept showing up with their own instruments. At the beginning it was tourists and travelers, but at the end of the night it was locals. After a couple of hours there were about 150 people in the warehouse space, drumming like crazy. It was intense."

They stayed three or four hours. "We would have stayed all night if our hands didn't hurt so bad," says Doug.

"It could have been ten minutes or ten hours, we wouldn't have known the difference," Rob adds. "When a drum circle goes right, it's really hard to describe. It's really powerful. There's a principle called entrainment, where everyone starts intuitively playing together and feeling like they're part of what's going on. That definitely happened when we were there."

After returning to the States the brothers talked about opening a drum bar here one day. But then they went their separate ways--Rob to Chile, where he supported his skiing and backpacking habits by working for an English-language Internet business publication, and Doug to Aspen, where he got a job in a ski shop. Rob eventually joined him in Colorado, and they collaborated on a proposal to shoot a documentary about glacier skiing in Patagonia. That fell through, but in 2000 they made a short documentary called Local 82, about the Aspen ski and snowboard underground. "Everyone loved it but no one bought it," says Rob. "We were getting into a slightly ski-bum lifestyle while making the film. We had a good time, but we were looking to do something a bit more long-term."

They began talking about the drum bar again in earnest. Doug called his college friend Michelle Hirschfeld, who'd majored in hotel and restaurant management and was working at a Hyatt on Maui. "I was kind of ready to leave," says Hirschfeld, who's from Boston and wanted to return to the mainland. She had no background in drumming either, but it didn't take much to persuade her to jump in as third partner and operations manager.

The three moved to Chicago and started taking drum lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music, progressively getting to know the local drumming community. It took them two years to find a location--1108 W. Randolph, a former sausage factory--fix it up, and get a liquor license. Most of the financial backing came from their families (the McLennans' father, Robert, is a retired real estate developer and former Glenview village trustee). "Going into it we didn't have a sense of how much time and money it would take to get it open," says Rob, who won't disclose how much they ended up sinking into the project. "At this point there's a little more pressure to make it somewhat successful."

Doug and a couple of professional drummers lead Friday's circle, which follows the beginners' class. Some people come in with their own drums, slung over their shoulders in bags made of kente cloth; a workshop upstairs with New York-based drummer Michael Markus has just let out. (Markus's band FoteBa, a part-time group with friends from Chicago, plays later in the evening.) The crowd starts to look a little more diverse. Doug makes the rounds, handing out cowbells, washboards, and tambourines from a metal garbage can. As the beat gets louder and faster, even the guy in maroon grabs a djembe and heads into the pit. His companion settles for a tambourine.

"The core drummers, from the drum community, come later," Hirschfeld says. The trick is to get the beginners comfortable enough that they'll stick around and play with the more experienced patrons.

"Our goal is to get people into it the same way we were when we went," adds Rob. "We'd never played before and were looking for something different. This is for people who want to go out and not just sit around and drink."

Some customers have come back three or four times in the few weeks Rhythm's been open. "It's an easy sell for drumming, because there's nothing like this around," says Doug. "A lot of people like to drum but you can't do it in your apartment because your neighbors will hate you. In the summer you can play outside but when it's cold there's nowhere else to play."

Drummers from far and near have been coming out of the woodwork: Poi Dog Pondering's Leddie Garcia asked about a gig for his group Pleasure Trip; he even sat in on a drum circle. Verve Pipe drummer Donny Brown did too. On Saturday, December 28, Rusted Root drummer Jim Donovan will lead an afternoon workshop and is expected to show up at the drum circle the night before, after the band's House of Blues show. "There's a whole drumming community who suddenly feel like they have a home," says Rob.

Whether that home will turn into a profitable business remains to be seen. Doug says they'll eventually raise the weekend cover to something "more market rate," but Thursdays it's $3 and Tuesdays are free (for details visit Rhythm's Web site at www.drumallnight.com). The whole bar is nonsmoking (although the partners are about to install an outdoor heater for smokers), and it's not easy to drink and drum at the same time.

"That's why we take breaks," says Rob.

"Two drinks make you a better drummer, if you're a beginner," adds Doug. "It keeps you from thinking about it too much. You want to feel the rhythm, and not be analyzing it."

As the circle becomes more intense, people start checking each other out. A guy sets his beer on the head of his djembe and is politely chastised by a staffer. The woman in maroon finally gets off her stool and asks me if I want her tambourine. "I want to drum," she says, looking toward the pit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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