Updated: January, 2017

Drums & Demonstrations



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Drum Rhythms

Group Dynamics

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Drums and Demonstrations 

Drumming at demonstrations is as simple as getting a couple of drummers to find a song with a nice beat and practicing the different parts. But, if you want to explore when to play drums, when not to play drums, how to deal with police, how to run a practice, how to orchestrate your sound, and cast your group, then read on...

Why drums? 

No one asks why people bring signs, and bullhorns to demonstrations, but drums have been a valuable tool in the struggle for social change, and they are resurging. They can bring rhythm and festive energy to otherwise staid vigils. Marches and demonstrations become livelier, more aggressive, more confrontational, and more fun. Drums say "No Business As Usual!" and "Let's Dance!" in a universal language. Drumming groups are more easily organized than melodic marching bands. Sonic disruption can raise the stakes of demonstrations, legally and nonviolently. Fellow demonstrators are encouraged by the beat, enlivened by the syncopation, and inspired to dance past mounted police into the streets. 

Drums can win our enemies over to our side by showing them that this modern world has not dehumanized us. Or, the noise alone may give them headaches; hypnotic rhythms can cause seizures, and bring our enemies frothing to their knees. Drums are the quintessential tool for disrupting bureaucratic meetings when you can't, or don't want, to go inside. Chanting only gets so loud, and there are tighter restrictions on amplified sound then acoustic music. 

Drum Etiquette 

Unfortunately, drums can also disrupt your own organization. If people aren't listening to each other, the music will be bad, and people won't be energized. Some crowds just don't like drums, period, even if they're really hot. Also, drumming for demonstrations generally means maximizing the volume in order to disrupt an event or reach a large crowd, but for the people right next to the drums, the noise can cause physical pain and permanent hearing damage. The social dynamics at demonstrations are different than drum circles. Know when NOT to play. 

Playing along with chants 

The message of drums is often ambiguous, so leave space for people who want to use words to clarify the issue. If you can organize it beforehand, find someone with a good sense of rhythm to lead chants that match your rhythm. Or have that person start a chant when you stop drumming. Make sure the chant leaders understands that they have to stay near the drums, and can't run ahead or fall behind. Try practicing a cycle of three measures of drumming, stop for a short chant of one measure (three or four syllables), then go back to drums.

Check out how the musicians and speakers take turns:

Unless people are used to chanting with you, they will tend to get out of sync with your beat. Avoid the temptation to keep following the rhythm of their chants. Either stop drumming and chant for awhile or keep playing your rhythm and hope the chanters catch on. You are drummers, they should be follow be following your rhythm.

Playing the exact rhythm as the chant keeps you in sync, but it makes it hard to understand the words, which defeats the purpose of the chant. A good strategy is to try starting by duplicating their rhythm, and then once the chanters are unified and you're solidly locked-up with their rhythm, try playing in the spaces where they are not chanting: "The people [ba-boom] united [ba-boom] will never be defeated [ba boom]." banging a pot

If you're really slick, you can lead chants yourself, while playing a simple drum part.

Playing along with other musicians 

Because drums tend to overwhelm most instruments, it is courteous to always ask before playing along with other musicians, unless of course, you intentionally want to disrupt them. Folk music and singing are easily drowned out by a few drums. The same applies to other drummers, who are playing a specific piece that they have practiced beforehand. Don't jam along with Native Americans, or chanting monks. If you see a group of drummers who all have the same clothes, you should probably assume that they have rehearsed something ahead of time. When you didn't rehearse it and don't know what they're playing, it is a good idea to ask them if you can play with them before starting to just jam along, or wait till they're done and ask them when the next rehearsal is.

Playing at other times 

Drums are most powerful when they are played sparingly and with discipline. It's annoying to hear drums during moments of silence, candlelight vigils, when people are speaking, or even when people are clapping (it's like saying, my expressions are more important than yours because my sound is louder). Drummers who aren't constantly evaluating their surroundings and the effect their drumming has on people, risk being totally obnoxious. It's a good habit to put your sticks away until you're ready to play as a group. We call this the "No noodling!" rule. Another way to put it is: "Don't play unless everyone else is also playing!". 

While Marching 

Keep the drum section together. Don't let drummers spread out. Playing in unison requires being able to hear the other members of your group, which becomes more difficult the farther away you get. The rows and columns of a marching band are difficult to maintain and give the group a militaristic look, but they serve to distinguish the drummers as a separate unit from the crowd, and keep them in physical proximity. A more organic way is to focus the drummers on a front or a center: a banner, a flag, a puppet, the biggest/loudest drum, etc. Try to set some boundaries: a ribbon that goes around the group, between two banners, dancers in costume, etc. The people in front need to glance back to make sure they're not going too fast. The people in back need to keep up at all costs, even if it means not playing for awhile. Avoid heavy drums, like congas or djembes, which take all your energy just to carry. Consider a lightweight Brazilian timbal instead. 

Drums move people forward and should be put towards the front of the march. But march organizers need to understand that drummers move more slowly than most,because they have to play and walk at the same time. Don't split up the group unless each sub-group will have enough drummers to function independently, and they can be far enough away not to hear each other. 

If you have to move through a dense crowd with a large drum, hold it over your head or try walking backwards so you don't smash people with the drum. 

Non-drummers attracted to the music tend to seep into the group and push the drummers away from each other. Sometimes it's necessary to politely define a space that is reserved for drummers. Don't hesitate to push drunken idiots out of the way. If they're drunk, don't waste your time reasoning with them. When you reach your destination or stop for a long time you can switch to drum circle mode. Try forming a semi-circle and encourage people to dance in the middle. But when you're marching, don't let dancers enter the drummers' space. Keep them in front or behind. It's nice to have a few non-essential drummers roam around interacting with the crowd, occasionally moving into the dancers' space to do a solo. Don't let mosh pits form too close to you. If things get too rowdy, try backing up ten feet. This lets everyone cool down and reorganize. 

Drummers who don't play are invaluable in helping to keep things together, dealing with the march coordinators, or the police, and passing out extra instruments to people who want to join in at the last minute.



Some people worry about the media images drums will create. Drums have not quite been defined by modern society, and the media will try to fit you into a category they've dealt with before: hippies, Africans, new-agers, Hare Krishnas, men's groupies, or something "tribal" or cult-like. The cacerolazo — banging pots and pans at protests — has recently become popular in Latin America, and is spreading faster than killer bees, making its way North and across the sea.

But whatever they call you, they probably will cover you, because the media loves loud energetic spectacles, and drumming makes a great sound bite. 


Be aware of the effect drums have on different people. Police often get agitated by things they don't understand, and they are intimidated by the sonic power that drums wield. Watch to see whether they are swaying to the beat or grimacing with tight sphincters. Don't provoke them unless you're ready for the consequences, but don't let them intimidate you either.

In the U.S., drumming is generally considered an extension of free speech, and is protected by the Bill of Rights. Though there are many laws and regulations against amplified sound, drumming is less defined legally. A carry over from the days of slavery, some public spaces specifically prohibit drums and other types of instruments. The drummers who played in front of the White House during the Gulf War were arrested when they played above a certain decibel level. Try to find out the local regulations before an event. Having a sympathetic lawyer to hang-out with you never hurts.

Drums can be considered weapons by the police. Never hold a stick or any other instrument when facing a police officer. It makes it too easy for them to nail you with an assaulting-an-officer charge. Watch your friends to see that they don't get carried away. When preparing your drums for a demonstration, leave anything club-like at home, especially things like metal pipes. If you have a broken stick, tape the end, or rub it on the ground to file it down, so that it can't stab anybody or look like a weapon.

In an unplanned demonstration, police often will single out the most prominent person and attempt to stop the drums so they can negotiate with him. Always ignore the police when you're playing, unless an officer specifically gets in your face and tells you to stop. If officers come close enough that you might hit them accidentally while playing, try to move out of their way while continuing to play. If you can't move out of the way, stop playing, move quickly to a safe spot, and start playing again right away. Always ignore security guards, people in business suits, or anyone else with false authority. If you do stop, deal with them quickly and go back to playing ASAP. The life-giving aspects of music are highly susceptible to police intimidation. 

If the police actually use violence on demonstrators, back off immediately. Decide as a group whether you're going to keep playing at a safe distance from the conflict, or get rid of your drums and join the fray. Having drums around in a chaotic situation is dangerous to you and the drums. If things get really hairy, and you can't get rid of your drums, you could try sitting down as a group. If your drum gets in the way of your personal safety, leave it. Don't bring anything to a demonstration that you don't mind losing. 

Civil Disobedience 

Committing civil disobedience (CD) with a drum is risky. Drums are fragile, they make you less mobile, and they can be considered weapons. But drummers make ideal supporters of CD because they instill courage through jail walls or police vans. Like most of the war drummers of the past, stay a little behind the vanguard, and concentrate on making good music. 

Everyone going into a volatile situation should try to have civil disobedience training; most large actions offer them. If you have action guidelines that limit the militancy of the group, but aren't just lowest-common-denominator rules (the "Don't alienate the Liberals!" whine), then people will know what to expect from each other, they can feel safe bringing their kids 
along, and the group will be less susceptible to damage done by FBI agents or crazies. Here is a common example of action guidelines which can be printed on quarter-sheets and handed out to everyone: 

1) We will act nonviolently, with respect for all people we encounter. We will seek to express our feelings without verbally or physically abusing anyone. 

2) We will participate (when possible) in a nonviolent action preparation to prepare and orient ourselves and to receive action-specific information. 

3) We agree that we will not destroy property at this action. 

4) We will not bring alcohol or other nonprescription drugs. 

5) We will not bring firearms, explosives, or other weapons to the actions. 

6) We will not run.

The above guidelines are relevant to most large CD actions and to most actions where you want drums. Different situations require different guidelines. If you're going to torch a police van then you can't really follow guidelines 3, 5, or 6, but then you're not going to want to have drums around to slow you down either. 

Health and Safety

Besides being beaten by batons, sprayed with mace, hit by rubber bullets, and trampled by horses, drummers at demonstrations face other inherent dangers.

Protect your ears! Wear ear plugs at all times, when practicing and playing. It feels weird at first, and you have to rely more on visual rhythms to keep the beat, but you'll get used to it after awhile. Disposable foam pellets are cheap and the porous ones can thrown in the washing machine and dryer and re-used. Cotton balls, even clean toilet paper, works in a pinch. If you wait until your ears are ringing (tinnitus), it's too late, you have done permanent damage to your hearing.

Like any other exercise, stretch-out your joints and muscles before and after playing. Always play loose. Drummers who play tense and tight usually sound stilted and are more susceptible to injury. A great stretch is to hold your hands up and shake your fingers, wrists, arms, and shoulders for a few seconds. Here are some more stretches.

On long hot marches, drummers need to drink more fluids (non-alcoholic) to avoid heat exhaustion. 

Wear your blisters with pride, and be reassured that eventually they will become calluses. 


Practice makes perfect 

If you want to sound good, you have to either start with good musicians or do a lot of practicing. Weekly practices are great, but even one practice before an event makes a big difference. Try to duplicate the scenario of the demonstration or parade.

Practicing outside helps people get used to playing in public. Practicing marching helps people get used to holding their drums and playing while walking. 

It takes time to prepare for a rehearsal. Drums should be checked and tuned and everyone should have a rough outline of what they want to accomplish. But, rehearsals need to be fun also, or people won't come back. Bring refreshments, have a BBQ or a party after. Hold rehearsals in parks where people can bring their kids.

Rehearsals are also convenient times to have meetings, go over logistics, delegate responsibilities, discuss the topics in this manual, have a training session for civil disobedience. Keep the meetings efficient and short — you're organizing musicians, and they have a lower tolerance for long-winded ideological declarations. Introduce new people to the group, and consider a closing circle of thanks and appreciation at the end of a meeting. Save the heavy political discussions for a time when people are eating and more receptive. Try setting aside periodic times, like retreats, to review the overall group, and develop long-term plans. Don't neglect giving praise, self-criticism, and constructive criticism.

There should be an equitable division of labor. Appoint one person to deal with the music, another to decide the march route, another to deal with police, another to coordinate the costumes and fit people, another to add theater elements, another to bring water and a first-aid kit, etc. When all these tasks fall on one person's shoulders, they usually don't get done very well. 

Orchestration and Casting 

Orchestration and casting are crucial elements to a drum group. Orchestration means having the right instruments for people to play. All the instruments should produce approximately the same volume. Don't bring fragile instruments that people have to destroy in order to match the volume of loud drums. Pottery dumbeks, wooden slit drums, and gourd shakers are some of the first casualties of a good jam. Encourage people to bring their own instruments and specialize in them. 

Casting means giving everyone the right drum and the right part. Give fragile and loud instruments to experienced drummers. Experienced players can usually handle solo parts. But drummers with more arrogance than ability often play too much. Instead of keeping to their part and blending with the rest of the group, they feel they have to go off and do their own thing. Most of the rhythms have plenty of space for people to do their own thing by making subtle variations to their assigned parts. People should at least know the standard variations for a part, before they start inventing something new. The trick is to create enough variation to keep the rhythm interesting, but to maintain the core of your part so everyone else doesn't get lost. 

Many parts are simple to play but are crucial to the structure of the rhythm: for example, the surdos in the samba, the bell in most West African rhythms, and the clave in most Latin American rhythms. These foundation parts should be reserved for experienced drummers, or beginners who are just natural drummers – people who were born with perfect rhythm and can keep a steady beat no matter what goes on around them. Everyone is capable of attaining states of perfect rhythm. What is important is the duration you can maintain a rhythm, and how quickly you recover when you make a mistake. People who tend to lose the rhythm, to get out of sync with the band and not realize it, have the potential of totally destroying a good jam. They should play something soft and fuzzy sounding (without a sharp attack), like a small shaker. This minimizes the damage to the rest of the group when they fuck up. Insist that they play something, or at least dance, and encourage them to pick up harder parts as soon as they feel ready. 

Resist the tendency to let women stay with shaker parts. Because of arbitrary social conditioning in many cultures, women tend to pick up shakers and tambourines and shy away from big drums. However, women who dance usually have great rhythm, and they often play loud instruments with more sensitivity than men who often get macho and domineering about their part. 

Men on the other hand, tend to have more inhibitions about dancing, and should be encouraged to put down their instruments and dance every once in awhile. Many African languages use the same word for drumming and dancing. 

Try to balance the dynamics of the group by encouraging loud people to play softer, and soft people to play louder. When everyone listens to each other, this happens naturally. 


Uniforms should stand out either by color or lack of color. It looks great when the group is unified in some way. Go simple, cheap, adjustable or one-size-fits-all. Make extras to pass out to late comers. Uniforms should not be so complicated that they get in the way of playing or dancing. Simple headdresses made from painted cardboard are great. Two sheets or swaths of broad cloth dyed the same color can be tied as togas, saris, sarongs, kangas, etc. Tunics or vests made of bright material work well if everyone shows up in all black, white, or a solid color. Try stencils or silkscreens of slogans or logos and have participants bring their own T-shirt.

Often when we play with broad coalitions, or when we expect to have random drummers join us, we intentionally don't wear a costume, to reinforce the unity of the entire coalition.


Make your own instruments 

Good instruments to bring to a demonstration: cheap, durable, loud, not aggressive looking.


Bad instruments to bring to a demonstration. Peasant revolts have been won with less.

Here are some guidelines for homemade musical instruments to be used for demonstrations. The instruments should be loud, cheap and easily made so you can give them to people without worrying about them getting lost or broken. The materials can be found in the home or hardware store. Ferrous metals (test with a magnet) make the loudest bells and shakers, but aluminum can be great too. Try visiting scrap yards, industrial liquidators, and thrift stores to get your juices flowing. 

Five Gallon Plastic Water Bottle 

If you're not marching, Hold it by the neck and hit it against the ground for a beautiful low note. Or, hold it upside down by the base and bounce the neck off the ground for a higher tone. If you have enough space try spinning it in the air like a top at chest level, and it will bounce a few times while spinning.

If you're marching, fasten it around your waist or hold it one hand, and hit it with a stick for a sharp attack, or a mallet for a mellower tone. 

Plastic Drums, Oil Barrels, Trash Cans 

Turn them over and hit the bottom with a mallet or your hand to see if they have a tone. 

Sticks and Mallets 

Many music stores will donate warped drum sticks to your cause. For stick substitutes, try thick wooden dowels, plastic knitting needles, tree branches, furniture legs, wooden spoons, broom handles, etc. If you know you're going to be near police, avoid metal and try to reduce the length and thickness of your sticks. You might also consider painting them soothing colors.

Mallets are important for bringing out the low tones in an instrument. A quick way to make a mallet is to wrap the end of a stick with duct tape until the tape is about a half inch thick, cover it with a sock, and tape the sock to the stick below the bulge. A better way is to attach a foam ball (or flat 1" upholstery foam, cut into a small circle, and wrapped around the top) to the end of a stick (or over a wooden or rubber ball attached to the end of the stick), cover it with cloth, stretch the cloth to compress the foam, and tape the cloth tightly to the shaft. 


Start with any hollow cylinder or prism: steel cans, narrow heating ducts, cardboard mailing tube, etc. Partially fill (or loosely covered with a net of) BB's, small nuts, washers, bottle caps, beads, peas, beans, rice, etc. 

Jingling Johnny 

Jinglestick rattle with bottlecaps loosely nailed on. Variations include attaching bells, shells, beads, rattles, frog clickers, pie pans, buttons, tin cans, spoons, the metal parts of 3.5" diskettes, or anything else noisy. If the rattle pieces are all in a row, and you hold it horizontally, you can articulate fast rhythms (as with the Brazilian rocar).
Use a very light piece of wood to avoid making a spiked club, which could be considered a weapon. 

Cymbals and Gongs 

Flat, thin, pieces of metal abound: trash can lids, serving trays, large bowls,etc.. They can be either suspended or mounted. If you can get two convex pieces roughly the same size, then the classic way is to play them like marching cymbals. Drill holes in the center of each piece and attach a strap. For small finger cymbals, all you really need is a knot on the inside. For heavier pairs, you should learn the cymbal knot. If you have single or deep gong-like pieces of metal, like metal bowls or large serving trays, you are probably going to want to hold the cymbal or gong with one hand and hit it with a stick (cymbal) or mallet (gong) in your other hand. The classic way to suspend the single gong/cymbal is to drill two holes close together towards the edge, then thread a cord through the holes, tie-it together to make a loop, and hold the loop in your hand. If you are going to mount your cymbals to something, the best is to use commercial cymbal stands, or homemade versions of them. Another option is to make a Pot Lid Gamelan: An assortment of metal pot lids are mounted on threaded rods with nuts. The rods are inserted in a hollow wooden box or bowl and fastened firmly with nuts on both sides. Slots are cut in the top or sides for sound holes. The potlids are struck with sticks or mallets to produce gong-like tones. The box acts as resonator, but it increases weight and fragility. 

Go Mobile 

Major Tom

A baby carriage, shopping cart or other wagon can be adapted to carry large instruments such as the potlid gamelan, and mounted with bicycle horns and cowbells. It can be played by many and be decorated as a float or incorporated into theater.

Why Stop at Drums?

There are plenty of loud wind instruments as well. There is growing movement of activist street bands. Tap in to all those good musicians who graduate from high school and put their horn in the closet. Don't neglect traditional loud marching instruments like bagpipes, flutes, saxes, horns, etc.

Here are some that don't need much training:

Bike Horns 

The bulb of a bike horn or a longer bulb horn can be unscrewed to expose the metal reed. The lower lip covers the lower teeth and the reed rests on it. The upper front teeth apply pressure to the upper part of the reed assemble. Varying the breath and pressure on the reed produces a variety of trumpeting, vocal or moaning sounds, from the former bulb horn. Hoses, pipes, funnels, and other tubes can be attached to the end to give different sounds. Be careful not to bite your lower lip.

Balloon Bassoons, Balloon Oboes, Rubber Bagpipes

These take a bit more technique than drums but they can get loud.


Black Plastic Funnel Trumpets 

These are found at auto-parts stores, and gas stations for a couple dollars, and they sound just like the horns at sporting events. Brass players can get nice tones out them. Trim off any sharp plastic pieces around the mouth piece. Purse your lips, use a lot of breath, and try to make a tight farting or spitting sound with your lips, like a duck call. 

Pipe bugle

Long PVC produces bugle-like tones, or digeridoo sounds depending on the length and thickness. Metal pipes are not recommended for events where police may be present, as they could easily be used to cave in some pig's skull. 

Other Instruments 

Children's toys, pots and pans, penny whistles, slide whistles, kazoos, ocarinas, jingle bells, cowbells, wind chimes, tambourines, maracas, castanets, finger cymbals, corrugated plastic tubes that you twirl over your head, megaphones — use your imagination.

Found Instruments 

Potential instruments are often built into your surroundings. As you march, keep an eye out for street signs, fences, parking meters, bike racks, trash cans, police vans, or anything else that will make a loud sound when you hit it.

Natural amplifiers exist in partially enclosed spaces like overhangs, hallways, parking structures, etc.

(some ideas from Tom MacDonald, "The Art of Demonstration")

Checklist for thrift stores, garage sales, swap meets, and dumpster diving


  • wooden spoons: drumsticks
  • pots, pans, metal bowls, serving trays, ash trays: bells, cymbals, gongs. Test the sound with a wooden spoon.
  • pie tins: resonators for reco-recos
  • funnels: bugles
  • broom sticks, mop handles: cut for mallets
  • ribbed bottles (Orange Crush, etc.): rasps
  • ribbed thermos bottles: rasps
  • small metal tins: shakers
  • large metal tins: drums


  • buckets, pails, barrels, Jerry cans: drums
  • garden tool handles: cut for mallets
  • screw drivers: use as sticks for metal instruments
  • PVC pipe: bugles
  • plastic hose: bugles
  • funnels: bugles
  • corrugated drain pipe: rasps
  • corrugated heating duct: rasps
  • rain gutter: reco-reco resonators


  • toy instruments: drums, bells, zylophones, anything loud works
  • plastic honk sound makers: attach to a tube for more sound
  • bike horns: take off the bulb and blow, attach a tube for more sound


  • straps: for carrying drums


  • legs: for mallets
  • springs: for reco-recos
  • foam: for mallets, or shoulder pads


  • material for costumes

How to Make Bucket Drums


How to Make Frame Drums

Rhythms of Resistance on Building Your Own Instruments


Cannibalize Your Drum Set for a Samba School

Have you ever thought about the origins of the drumset? The drumset is the percussive symbol of capitalist domination. Where once the percussion section united cadres of dedicated individuals to work together for a common rhythm, to communicate, to learn each other's strengths and weakness, and to come to consensus on the beat and the swing. With a drumset, the boss fires everybody except the most dexterous low-baller and eliminates all of that beautiful social interaction. Sure, it's a novelty to see a one-man band, or count the number of plates someone can keep spinning at the same time. But is the music any better having one person play everything? No. It is all about maximizing profit. The manager reasons, "Why pay five drummers, when I can get away with just paying one!"

Liberate your drum set! Dismantle capitalism as you dismantle your kit! Take it apart and pass out all the pieces to your friends. Kick drums and larger toms can be slung over one shoulder. Small toms and snares can be strapped around your waist. Caution: the lugs are convenient places to attach the shoulder strap or belt, but they are not designed to take the weight of the drum. To distribute the weight more evenly, try weaving another strap around the drum under all the lugs, and attach your shoulder strap or belt to this. High hats, and pairs of similar sized cymbals make great crash cymbals. Extra cymbals can be played with a stick. Learn the cymbal knot.


Nothing in the world rivals the size and sophistication of the spectacle that is Samba. This makes the study of Samba invaluable to anyone organizing smaller spectacles, such as demonstrations. Samba is an expression of Brazilian popular culture, especially African, where rhythm, dance, and song culminate in yearly Carnaval parades. Samba schools in Rio de Janeiro incorporate thousands of performers of all ages, at various levels of artistic ability, and combine multiple creative art forms including dancing, singing, costume, set design, permitting, and bookkeeping. Other Brazilian forms from the Northeast such as Bloco Afro and Maracatú are just as impressive.

The drummers are called the bateria, and they are the driving force that invites everybody to participate, to sing and dance during those 3 days, in which everything is forgotten and permitted, in which one opens the soul and the heart to joy, the queen of Carnaval 

The bateria uses some of the same drums as a marching band, but its swing is antithetical to military discipline. Samba makes people want to dance, not march. Samba instruments are becoming easier to find every year, either ordered directly from Brazil through the internet, or from US and European drum companies that make replicas. But, you don't need authentic instruments to make good music. Here are a few samba instruments and suggestions of what to use if you don't have them. 

Surdo: The heart of the samba, and the hand of the metronome, this instrument keeps the bateria together. It plays the foundation where all the other instruments rest. The surdo is a big metallic cylinder with drum heads made of tight skin on both ends. It hangs from the shoulder by a strap, and players often wear knee and shin pads for protection. With a mallet in one hand, they bounce their other hand directly off the head, or they press their palm into the head to cut off the sound of the mallets last beat, and/or muffle the next one. There are three surdo parts. The first two alternate beats, their tones ring on the downbeat while the hand muffles the upbeat. The third surdo, the "surdo centrador", solos in between the beats of the first two surdos. Pseudo-surdos can be improvised from marching bass drums, or the kick drum or low tom from a drum set.

Ganzá: Also called chocalho or rocar, it originally was a long metallic cylinder, filled with BB's or tacks. A louder version is made of a wooden or aluminum bar with rows of little tambourine jingles. Shakers seem easy to play, and beginners don't feel intimidated picking one up, but a steady ganzá will define the Samba feel, so it's worth training a good ganzá player. Any kind of shaker (tambourine, maracas, jingle stick, etc.) can play the ganzá part, the louder the better. 

Tamborim: (not a tambourine) The sharpest instrument of the bateria, its high-pitch and attack cuts above the other instruments. Rhythmically, it closes and rounds out the samba's cycle. The tamborim is a very small and shallow cylinder with a super-tight head. The player hits it with a thin stick, and uses the fingers of the hand that holds it to mark the beat. It has different parts, like bridges, to change the melody and to let the players rest their arms, for it's a very demanding and precise instrument. Tamborines are relatively cheap, and worth buying. A very tight bongo, or a timbale hit with a stick can double the tamborim part. In a pinch, anything with a sharp attack like a wood block, or sticks on the side of a drum will work. Tamborim parts can also be played on the frigideira, a frying pan and thin metal stick

Agogó: A bell; it consists of two or more metal cones, held together by a metallic stem, which serves as a handle. It is played with a wooden stick and it gives color to the bateria: Its participation is also very visual, as the players often choreograph their movements. The agogó part must be played precisely, or it will conflict with the tamborim part. Any bell, pot, pan, or light piece of scrap metal that can make at least two tones works for the agogó part. 

Tarol/ Caixa: This instrument is a kind of snare drum, a shallow metal cylinder with heads on either side. On one side, a few loops of bass guitar string or bicycle brake cable are stretched against the head to make a snare. You play it with 2 sticks and either hang from the shoulders by a strap, attach it to your waist with a belt, hold it under your arm, or balance it on top of your shoulder right next to your ear (ouch!). Its rhythm is repetitious, with no interruptions, and it calls and incites the other instruments. People with high-school marching band experience need to take great care not to destroy the Samba feel, which is very delicate. One guy playing loud rudiments on a snare drum is all it takes to destroy the whole groove. A shallow snare drum (a piccolo snare) from a cheap drum set works great. 

Repique: This instrument was introduced in the bateria in the '50s and is a complement to the tamborim. It is a "calling" instrument that signals the players when to start, stop, play a break, or make any kind of musical change. The repique is a cylinder with two heads like the tarol, but it is sometimes deeper and it lacks a snare. It is played with a stick in one hand and the palm and fingers of the other. It hangs from the player's shoulder. Along with calling, it plays different patterns, takes solos, and marks the attack for the bateria. A timbale, a snare drum with the snares off, or a drum set tom tuned way-up all work well. For your left hand, you have to use a different technique than most hand drums or the rim will chew up your palm. Try moving it more to the center of the drum than you would a hand drum, or cupping your hand, so you don't hit the rim.

Reco-reco: This instrument is a rasp made from one or more rows of springs stretched over a resonator and rubbed with a thin metal stick. They are not as loud as the instruments above, but something about the tone of the reco-reco just whispers rebellion. If you are going to make your own, metal resonators are the loudest. Try a pie-tin or piece of rain gutter. The springs don't need to be that tight, they just need to be laying flat against the resonator, and at same level so the stick will rub them all simultaneously. Any rasp can cover the part: güiro, Orange Crush bottle (Molotov Cocktail optional), rub board, etc. They can play either the ganzá or the caixa parts.

Apito: The whistle is used by the bateria's director. It is the battle call, or the sign of attention. Every time it sounds the players know that something is about to happen. The whistle of a bateria directors is like the baton of an orchestra conductor, it gives the entrances, the calls, the dynamics to the players. The meanings of different whistles, hand signals, and calls on the repique should be agreed upon during the rehearsals. Tri-tone whistles are great if you can get one, but anything works. 

Many other instruments are used in Samba (cavaco, cuica, pandeiro, tan-tan, rebolo, atabaque, prato e faca, etc.) but they are difficult to play, hard to obtain, potential weapons and/or not very loud, and so not optimal for a demonstration. 

Excellent models for protest ensembles can be found throughout the world, from Korea to Kinshasa, but Samba is the biggest and the loudest, so it is worth learning.

(text adapted from an interview with Mestre Marçal by Regina Werneck, Rio, November, 1987)

Group Dynamics

One thing is to get a bunch of angry drummers in the same place at the same time with the means of production in their hands, but it is another thing altogether to figure out what to do next.

Which demonstrations are we going play for? Who gets to decide what rhythm we do? How do we handle the drama? Can everyone be a Rock Star Prima Donna at the same time? Why is that oppressive behavior being tolerated? Why is our process breaking down? Why does the music suck so bad? Why aren't we having fun anymore? Why should I waste my time with these losers? Where did all the good drummers go? What happened?

Drumming is easy, this is the really hard stuff.

More Resources

Here is a power point presentation we use for Drums & Demonstrations workshops with basically the same info as above.

Please contact us if you would like a real person to come and help get your group started.

Here is a low quality .pdf scan of an print version from 2002

Random sample of other groups

Rhythms of Resistance good DIY resources, a list of Action Samba groups around the world

In our experience, particularly in demo situations, the bateria can become huge, unwieldly and spread out, complicated by non-band members merging into the bateria space, banners etc... This can make it impossible for those furthest from the mestre (usually the long-suffering surdu backline) to see the signals.
On these occasions there are often at least two mestres, sometimes more (and aided from other band members), one leading, and one reflecting the signals (a sub-mestre). The sub-mestre will be somewhere towards the back mirroring the signals coming from the mestre at the front.
Within these situations we've found that the mestres themselves develop a relationship where one knows when the other is going to act, usually through eye contact.

Bloco Southgate drummers who play for annual puppet show at School of the America's Watch demonstrations in Columbus, GA & Nogales, SON

The Three Rules
I. Do not Play Unless Everyone Else is Also Playing!
II. Listen to Everyone Else Around You!
III. Have Fun!

Rule #1 means we all start and stop as a group, which makes us sounds really powerful. Also, if you haven't noticed yet, these drums can get very loud and obnoxious, and other people in the puppet show need quiet to be able to talk to each other. So please be polite, and don't play until everybody is ready to start together, and don't play after we stop.
Rule #2 means react to everyone else around you. When you're playing try to be able to hear at least all the people right around you, and check yourself to make sure that what you're playing fits. If you need help or have questions ask the people around you. If there are people without instruments, share yours for awhile. If someone forgets Rule #1, it's your job to gently remind them about it.
Rule #3 means if it's too loud or you get sore, pass your instrument to someone else and take a break. Try to stay relaxed when you play.

Rhythm Workers Union protest drummers from DC. Check out the Mother Drum Ship!

Cakalak Thunder drum corps from Greensboro nc.

Wise Fool Puppet Intervention

Stilwalkers can be of great use in communicating to and directing a crowd. Give them drums and people will follow them anywhere.

Infernal Noise Brigade a former drum-heavy protest band from Seattle, nice recordings available.

Super Sonic Samba School a music and dance group that performs at demonstrations in San Diego, California

Rhythms of Dissent Toronto Coalition against the War 2003 great advice on how to play with chants:

4) The "prime directive," (if you will) is about supporting, (responding to) the spontaneous expressions in the streets, as much as possible. A protest "groove" is invariably an organic unfolding. Amongst many players, this requires a sensitivity to listen. To this end, planning, preparation, practice-beforehand can give us a flexibility to respond more-effectively to such developments; hence, the reason for this list and dialogue.

Radical Fucking Drummers [Are we allowed to say "fuck"? Isn't that going to offend the people we're trying to reach? Did it offend you?] protest drummers from San Diego.

StreetBands Mailist for Brass, percussion, woodwinds in the street

Bad Links for the Archives:

nwdc No War Drum Corps, Portland, OR

makingsomenoise cheering and drumming

NYC Rhythms of Resistance protest drumming at nyc protests. pictures

batukacao Grupo de percussao e ativismo.


This manual has gone through several print editions, the first in 1991, a revision in 1996, and the online version beginning in 2004. It was previously published by the Super Sonic Samba School from 1991-2004. It is currently published and edited by Arnie Schoenberg. All material is copyrighted, except for: The graphics on pages 6 and 8 which are from Cultural Correspondence, The Art of Demonstration, 505 W. End Ave. N.Y.C., NY 10024. The text and graphics on page 10 and 11 is copyrighted in 1991 by K. Ruby and Wise Fool, 1075 Treat\ San Francisco, CA 94110. The graphics and picture on page 18 and 9 are copyrighted by Wise Fool, the photo is by Alain McLaughlin/ Reaction Images. The photo on page 9 is by Barry Fitzsimmons of the San Diego Union. The photo on page 4 is by Joe Holly of the San Diego Union. Thanks for original art by Peter Kuper and Roberta Gregory. Some of the other graphics are probably copyrighted by someone else.
Permission is granted to reproduce this manual (except the above mentioned graphics) for any non-profit, non-governmental uses. Take the staples out and copy it at work.
Labor was donated. Funding for this manual comes from the check you're gonna send us before the pawn shop sells our drums, and generous grants from RESIST, and the San Diego Foundation for Change, so send them some money too.
Thanks to: George, Paul, John, Cynthia, Peter, Diane, Bruce, Roy, Geoffery, P, Valerie, Richard, Mark, Francis, Janet, Sharon, Daniel, Darby, Frances, Dave, Bob, Alex, David, Dee Dee, Sean, Dwain, Ed, Edword, Greg, Dayan, Tommy, Scott, Ted, Max, Andy, Trevor, Grey, Jim, Sylvie, Craddock, Carm,...


The following is the introduction to the first version of this manual from 1991:

A “New World Order”, where thick ranks of dark suited morons herald the highest form of civilization known to mankind. This little piggy goes to free market, espousing positivism while the banks wash out from under him, as mindless bureaucrats push paper, stamp forms, do a power lunch, and run all the way home to be terrified buy the high-pitched whine and electric-blue images of their TV screens: Bhopal and Baghdad compete with Elvis, Zsa Zsa, and Baby Jessica, O.J. vs. Homer, for the cataclysm of the month.
A group of drummers had been playing in the park on Sundays when the State Department produced its feature length production, The Persian Gulf Crisis. The peace community also found itself at the park demonstrating against the war. Militant drummers recruited demonstrators into the Super Sonic Samba School together with these demonstrators, they brought rhythm and festive energy to the otherwise staid vigils.
People were encouraged by the beat, enlivened by the syncopation, and ultimately inspired to dance past mounted police into the streets. The drummers played at the most energetic, best attended, and most media covered demonstrations in San Diego County since the Vietnam War.
Though we 'won' the war, and the liberals licked their wounds, the Super Sonic Samba School came out of the anti-war movement with empowering experiences in tactics and organizing, a whole crew of drummers and dancers, a mailing list, and best of all, an organization of people who didn’t know each other existed. After a steady rotation of drummers and activists, after struggles and raging pagodes, we're as loud as ever.
The Super Sonic Samba School acts as a progressive activist auxiliary unit for grassroots events. Marches and demonstrations become more lively, more aggressive, more confrontational, and more fun. Drums say “No Business As Usual!” and “Let’s Dance!” in a universal language. Sonic disruption can raise the stakes of demonstrations, legally and nonviolently.
Along with the most technologically advanced acoustic processional music ever created, are songs that radiate with the cunning grace of people who have nothing left to lose and everything to gain.
We march in support of a variety of social and political causes: homeless people, the Third World, hemp legalization, organized labor, migrant workers, queers, animal rights, and other struggles. We fight against The System, the War Machine, the racists, the sexists, the pigs, and all the oppressors. Internally, we strive for a process of working together that eliminates sexism, bureaucracy, and boredom.

Bang a gong! 

Samba centers! 

If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution! 

Get it on! 

Boredom is counterrevolutionary! 

End all forms of oppression! 

Bang a gong!