Laguna Woods music clubs march to a different drummer
“Ham and cheese!” “Peanut butter sandwich!” “Mac, mac ’n’ cheese!”
These words ringing through the Elm Room in the Laguna Woods Community Center on Tuesday evenings don’t mean that food is on the table.
Rather, they’re rhythms that help members of the Drum Circle keep the beat as their lively sounds meld together.
The Drum Circle is one of several groups in the Laguna Woods that make their own kind of music. The Ukulele Club does it with the ever popular stringed instrument, while the new Yankee Doodlettes will soon be setting the tone with their buzzing kazoos.
Gayle Slaten, who leads the Drum Circle with partner Don Celestino, said she finds it easier to remember rhythms when words are attached to them.
Celestino prefers to let his hands do the talking as he beats out intricate patterns and rhythms for the group, which numbers from 15 to 20 members at any given gathering.
Celestino views drumming as a great stress reducer and a good health inducer.
“You don’t need to bring anything but your hands, and you can’t play the wrong note,” he said with a laugh. “You can relax and get rid of excess energy.”
Slaten emphasizes the communal aspect of the group.
“The drum was the very first instrument,” she said. “It echoes our heartbeat.”
The couple usually set up their Native American “Mother Drum” in the middle of the circle and bring a variety of other drums, shakers and noisemakers for members to use.
Participants join in enthusiastically as Slaten intones her food-related rhythmic words or Celestino demonstrates catchy beats for members to replicate. Often, these take the form of “call and response,” where he plays first and members drum the beat back to him.
Participant Rich Levy has wanted to play drums since childhood, he said.
“I find the drumming meditative, both stimulating and relaxing,” Levy said after beating the Mother Drum through a five-minute number.
“Drumming connects me to the earth,” said Olivia Batchelder, who also enjoys seeing everyone joined in a common endeavor.
New group member Chuck Marlatte said he enjoys participating in the rhythm.
“I like seeing other people enjoying themselves,” he said, adding that he hopes to drum a lot more with the group.
Slaten and Celestino settled in the Village last June after spending the previous summer here. While visiting, they drummed with a group led by Jerry Self, but that circle had disbanded during the pandemic by the time they moved in permanently.
Celestino had been drumming for around 15 years, starting with his participation in drum circles at Glen Ivy Hot Springs in Riverside County.
“A close friend who was a master drummer died and left all his stuff to me,” he said.
The friend asked him to carry on the tradition, which was easy for Celestino, who had fallen in love with the sound of the djembe, or African drum. Celestino perfected his skills through the many circles he joined and the accomplished drummers who led them, he said.
Slaten came to the drum after playing Native American flute for a while.
“With flutes, usually only one person at a time can play, but with drumming, everyone plays together and there is more community building,” she said.
Slaten led a women’s drum circle in Tucson, Arizona, before meeting Celestino there about five years ago.
“People would gather in a Tucson park, where there was a lot going on, like drumming, dancing and even stilt walking,” she said.
“All the eclectic people that enjoyed music and art showed up,” Celestino added. “Everybody loved it.”
Slaten closes each drum session in the Elm Room with a beat to the catchy tune of “Funga Alafia,” an African greeting song that means “peace” in the Yoruba language of Nigeria.
Drum Circle members leave humming the tune as they head out into the night.
Full-out singing can be heard at Clubhouse 6 on Friday afternoons as members of the Ukulele Club gather to play.
One of the oldest continuous music clubs in the Village, the ukulele group has gone through many incarnations since being founded in 1968 as the Hikers’ Ukulele Band. Original players were members of the Hiking Club, but those who were not hikers broke away to form the Ukulele Club, with the purpose of teaching and entertaining residents and community organizations.
Through the years, members have performed in many venues and have focused on different types of music, including an emphasis on Hawaiian melodies.
Current club President Jay Miller joined in 2015 and participated via Zoom during the COVID shutdown. This year, he and his wife, Marquita, reestablished the in-person group.
“We now have a nice little group,” he said of the dozen or so people who show up each week.
Miller hopes the membership will grow to at least 17 regulars so that a minimal membership fee, not being charged at present, can cover rental and registration costs.
No performances are planned at this time, but Miller hopes to reinstate those as the group grows in size and proficiency.
“We used to play in the Clubhouse 3 lobby before performances, and it was very successful,” he said,
No experience on the uke is necessary to join the group, Miller said, and there’s no pressure.
“It’s fun to sing songs,” he said, pointing to the extensive offerings in the music books members use.
The club’s own songbook has been updated twice since Miller joined and features many tried and true folk songs and popular melodies that members know and love from their younger days.
Peggy Edwards, the club’s publicity director, has been with the group for 17 years. She has played guitar but finds the ukulele more portable.
“It is relatively easy to learn and sounds beautiful,” Edwards said.
Tom and Lynn Finkelor can attest to that. They came to the Ukulele Club six or seven years ago knowing nothing about the uke, but they quickly learned to play.
“We learned from being in the club and from DVDs and YouTube videos,” Tom said.
“It’s a forgiving group,” Lynn said with a laugh.
Tokyo-born Mike Amemiya learned ukulele from a Hawaiian student in Japan and loves to strum and sing out with his strong melodic voice.
Also singing out, especially on the Hawaiian numbers, is “Uncle” Harry Akioka, a Hawaii native who has played the ukelele since age 7. Music is integral to his life, as he also plays guitar, bass, drums and keyboard.
“Everybody at home used to play the uke, but not anymore,” Akioka lamented. “Now everyone’s got a phone in their hand instead.”
Besides Hawaiian songs, Akioka plays church music, jazz and standard American uke music, depending on which group he is playing with.
“Music is music,” he said, adding that he enjoys singing as well. “It’ll take a while for our group to get back to performing,” he said.
But when they’re ready, he plans to take them to as many local venues as possible.
One of the newest Village groups to make music is the Yankee Doodlettes. The kazoo band formed last July to enter the Village’s Fourth of July Golf Cart Parade.
“We played a lot of patriotic songs and had a lot of fun,” said founder Karen Hunt. “It was nothing serious, but we got a lot of notice.”
The group numbered about a dozen women last year, and Hunt said she hopes to accrue more members as the kazoos begin tootling together again in late March.
“I would love to have members with marching band experience and some cymbals and snare drum players as well,” she said.
“It would be great to have hundreds of people and maybe be recognized as the kazoo band with the oldest members in the country,” she added with a laugh.
For more information
The Drum Circle meets Tuesdays from 5:15 to 6:45 p.m. in the Elm Room at the Community Center. Bring your own drum if you can. No club dues at this time, but donations for snacks and room rental are welcome. For information, call Gayle Slaten at 818-564-9457.
The Ukulele Group meets Fridays from 2 to 3:30 p.m. in Clubhouse 6. No club dues at this time. Bring a music stand if you have one. For information, call Peggy Edwards at 949-707-5156.
The Yankee Doodlettes will begin meeting this month in the Los Olivos Room at Clubhouse 2. Open tryouts are Friday, March 31, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Practice kazoos will be provided. Snacks provided, but BYOB. For information, contact Karen Hunt at 970-744-8523 or Karensbiz@msn.com.