Abishek came to my desk a few weeks ago with an idea: "You play drums, right? Will you play in the IJM band at the Jam for Justice?"
I made a little grimace and grabbed the armrests as I rocked back in my chair. My first instinct was to deflect. Sure, I played drums when I was growing up but I haven’t played with any consistency since I moved to San Francisco, five years ago. I did a little tinkering on a Djembe in the conference room but he hasn't really even seen me play. I figured that if he's making this request blind, surely it can't be too demanding of a gig. In fact, I thought, this could be a good chance to ease my way back into drumming while soaking up a little glory around the office. And to me, “Jam for Justice” sounded like a youth group event in a church auditorium or something, a little dainty rhythm-keeping, nothing too big.
I gave a few half-hearted excuses about “Where will we practice? I’ll have to check my schedule. Not sure if I’ll be in town,” but I pretty much caved.
There were a handful of practice sessions in the weeks leading up to the concert—Saturday mornings and weeknights after work. The band had chosen four songs, then three, then four, then eventually settled on an altogether different set of three: one was a sort of reggae-groove 90’s worship chorus, another one was a big nu-folk anthem in the vein of Mumford & Sons, and the show-stopper was a ripping gospel-funk number written by a band from a mega-church in Houston, Texas.
About a week before the concert, I saw a banner on the back of a Chennai city bus: “Jam 4 Justice. Saturday, November 23rd. FREE ENTRY.” A few days later, around the corner from the office, I saw a billboard with the same ad: “Jam 4 Justice. FREE ENTRY.” I began to gradually, quietly, freak out.
On the 23rd, I discovered what Jam 4 Justice really was: a.) an all-day, outdoor event and b.) way bigger than anyone ever gave me the slightest reason to expect.
There was a crowd of nearly 400, massive stage, laser lights, fog machine, ten-foot PA stacks, professional sound engineers, camera crew, videographer—the works. We watched the Battle of the Bands competition (judged by Chennai music celebrities) from 1 PM to 6 PM before finally taking the stage for the main concert in 90-degree heat with close to 100% humidity.
I’ve always wondered how it's possible to have 100% humidity without being underwater but... India is a remarkable place, full of surprises.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my sweaty paw lost grip of one of the drumsticks during the gospel-funk jam. I watched in a frozen horror while the stick did several slow-motion revolutions through the air and landed below the drum platform in a thin crevasse by the soundboard. I tried to play with one hand for a little while and attempted, in a panic, to flail and squawk at the bevy of photographers and sound engineers that I ONLY HAVE ONE DRUMSTICK but they just gave me smiles and thumbs-up’s and went back to snapping photos and twisting knobs. Without another option, I jumped off the kit and dropped down from the drum-platform. The sudden absence of drums felt like the loudest crushing silence in all eternity. The other band members glanced back at me with wide-eyed confusion. Huddled down by the soundboard, I snatched the stray stick and hopped back onto the drum kit with a crazy flourish of cymbals and snare, trying to make it seem like "just part of the show folks!" Luckily, I caught a downbeat and the band played right on through. The strange thing was... it seemed like the crowd kind of loved it. Runaway drummer! Hey... I'll take it.
That was song two.
Throughout the end of that song and the next, the kit began to gradually sliiiiiiiiiide forward and away from me, especially the kick and hi-hat. I tried to either shimmy forward on the seat, stretching out to reach the pedals, or during any kind of break in the rhythm, I might yank them back toward me. (And there weren't really any breaks in the rhythm.) It felt like a dream where you're trying to complete some life-and-death task but you're slowly shrinking and you can't... quite... reach... the thing.
In the weeks leading up to the concert, I’d spent so much time and energy moaning and fretting over “my performance” that even this worst case scenario really, truly, wasn't all that embarrassing after all (especially imagining Josh in the back of the crowd, doubled-over in laughter). I played with a big goofy grin and thought, "Well at least someone is enjoying this.”
The whole thing had the air of divine comedy, custom-made for my personal development—to quiet all my agonizing and strategizing over what essentially boiled down to a matter of my own pride/ego and how to enlarge it. From that angle, the whole experience was a smashing success.
Thankfully, the event itself was also a win for the Chennai office. It was all-hands-on-deck, all day, and when the heat started to mellow, the night took on the feeling of a long summer evening. Kids ran around under the floodlights, parents held hands and swayed to the music, and the performers basked in giddy relief, their anxious butterflies finally gone, satisfied and proud.
Of course, everyone was wonderfully generous and exclamatory about my playing. Though some of these compliments were just a tad dubious, as friends claimed not to have noticed when I stopped playing in the middle of a song and climbed down from the drum set... I’m trying not to think too hard about what that implies.
For now, I’m taking solace in the possibility that there might be a few priceless shots of my crazy panicked mug, flailing at the photographer—shrouded in a cloud of green smoke and soaked in sweat: a drummer with one drumstick.