Drumroll, please: Group exiled until Council acts
When City Council cast a dragnet just last year to end amplified music on the Downtown Mall, they didn't expect to catch a cultural and crowd-pleasing Mall highlight, a group of African drummers, in their net as well. Mayor Dave Norris explains that the City's ban on over-75-decibel sounds, which was expanded in the summer of 2008 to prohibit noise 24 hours a day on the Mall, was meant to crack down on amplified music.
"What we really wanted to do with the noise ordinance," says Norris, "is apply it to the musicians on the Mall with speakers and loud amplification systems."
What Council is now learning is that it inadvertently halted African drumming, a local favorite that several Councilors say they want to stay on the Mall.
On a recent Friday night, after a several-week hiatus, the group of drummers picked up their instruments and headed back onto the Mall. An eclectic ensemble of various ages and races, and led by their tall and fearless leader William "Whit" Whitten, the group set up between Five Guys and Enoteca restaurants, amidst the bustle of Friday after Five gatherers.
At 7pm on July 3, they began drumming, and within minutes a crowd of nearly 40 had circled, some dancing to the rhythm while others were invited to join in on an empty drum. Ten minutes later, just as Whitten transitioned to a smaller drum, a police officer approached with a handheld device and could soon be heard telling Whitten that he'd exceeded the 75-decibel limit and needed to stop.
Sergeant Randy Higgins, who was supervising the other officer that night, says that a Mall resident had called the police. The drummers, motivated by booing and chants of "more drums," continued on at a softer level, but according to Whitten, "once you start playing you just can't cut it down."
Indeed, about ten minutes later, police informed the group that their drumming was about 85 decibels and demanded a halt. Ironically, Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo says that he had personally invited Whitten to perform that night "for the purpose of conducting some noise readings that would be reported back to the Council." Whitten says he didn't realize that getting stopped that night was a possible outcome.
The issue emerged in public about three weeks earlier when a citizen– calling drumming "one of the most uplifting events” for its ability to cross racial, socio-economic, and age borders–- urged City Council to bring back the drumming.
It appeared though that City Council needed little persuading after hearing that pleas from Linda McNeil during the June 15 Council meeting. All four members present said that they support the drumming and are ready to create a compromise or exception.
“What we need to do is figure out how to right our ordinance in such a way that it allows drumming," said Councilor David Brown at the meeting. “The drumming is a good thing for [Charlottesville]."
Not everyone is so sure.
"It's a big headache for both me and my guests," says exeption-opposing restaurant manager Joe Finazzo. "They tell everyone else to leave; why not make the drums?"
Finazzo says guests at his Sal's Caffe Italia can't hear each other when the drumming is happening, and some have gotten so mad they've left without paying.
"People are trying to have a conversation," says Finazzo, "and the conversation's not there."
For his part, drummer Whitten, who's been drumming on the Mall since 1989, says he's willing to constrain his playing to certain hours and certain locations.
"City Council is really working in our favor, and I think the council and everybody will come up with some sort of solution," says Whitten.
Council has yet to present an ordinance amendment to bring drumming back to the Mall.