Drumroll, please: Group exiled until Council acts

whitten-horizontalWilliam "Whit" Whitten hopes a "common ground" can be reached between drumming fans and foes.

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.


Wasn't it obvious as hell that's where the re-bricking was headed? It was the biggest step towards turning the downtown mall into blandsville. The noise from the amphitheater can be heard in Belmont and well into the Woolen Mills, but then that's another story considering who's involved.

Many people can afford and enjoy dropping $50 for a meal outside. Others opt for a slice of pizza and some street entertainment. I do not understand why the diners have more rights and value in the eyes of some. I remember when few restaurantd on the mall had outside seating. The pedestrian traffic was a lot less crowded and music was enjoyed without complaints.

BTW, I was there when the police stopped the drumming. They were playing a block and a half away from Sal's. On a crowded Fridays After Five, you can barely hear drumming from that far away.

I wouldn't be surprised if anyone left Sal's without paying. Especially if they ordered the house wine.

Why not locate the drums down by the transit center away from restaurants ?

Great story, well written and informative. I know I miss the drums, and I am glad to see media attention on the issue.

I agree- if they're only going to play at certain times and in certain locations, store and restaurant owners should give them a break. I personally think it would attract more business - I love their music!(Great picture by the way)

There is NO sense to how city council is making these decisions. The Pavilion music exceeds that decible limit, and yet they choose to persecute these small local musicians instead.

That being said, the drumming is only "good" for the drummers and the spectators, not necessarily for the city and obviously not for the Downtown Mall residents. Moving the drumming elsewhere will simply serve to bother other residents who will then have to listen to the drumming. Don't get me wrong, we love drumming, but it's a big difference when one CHOOSES to listen to it VS. having it FORCED upon you while you are trying to enjoy the privacy of your own home.

How would all of the mall walkers feel if that same drumming group where transported to their front yard every day after 5pm when they were getting home after a long day at work?

This noise issue is a REAL on for our city and having one's home invaded by noise should not be accepted. We too in Belmont have been suffering ever since the Pavilion went in and continue to do so with the Belmont businesses who (with the exception of Mas) care little for the negative effects that their noise, traffic, and drunken patrons have on our neighborhood. The city and these businesses are making money ON OUR BACKS. And the strain is too much.

It will be interesting to see how the city responds to all of these issues, besides making ineffectual promises to residents that they will fix these issues while continuing to allow the situation to be out of control.

Again, the music and the events are great, but the enjoyment of some should not come at the expense of quality of life of others.

I's always amused me how people move downtown to live in a vibrant neighborhood, then complain about the vibrancy of the neighborhood. This is not a new phenomenon - the noise has always existed, and so have the complaints. Anybody remember the short-lived Jewish Mother?

It's irrational and unfair to blame the drummers if your restaurant patrons leave without paying, just as it's irrational to take your drumming anger out by leaving a restaurant without paying. Seems to be a restaurant management issue, not a drumming one. Maybe Mr. Finazzo should try marketing to the drum fans who are already there a few feet from his restaurant rather than seek to run them off.

I guess the City needs to decide whether they want a downtown area that is interesting, exciting, entertaining, and lively, or if they want small town peaceful street where people can sit in the taxpayer-funded sidewalk cafes and whisper to one another. You can't have both.

And seriously, you can't enforce a 75 db limit on the mall and exempt the very loud Pavilion 200 feet away.

Music Lover-- the terms "vibrant" and "lively" are a matter of semantics. To some people, it means dining al fresco with a jazz trio playing. To others, it might mean African drumming.

I love drumming. I also love punk music. However, neither of those art forms is very conducive to most people's idea of a pleasurable dining experience. People go to the Downtown Mall for many reasons-- among them to hear music, see art shows, and have a relaxing dinner. Like most people, my dining companions and I like to actually carry on conversations while we eat. This means that when walking the Mall to select a restaurant, we will bypass the one with jackhammers/construction, punk music, or drumming immediately adjacent. The owner of Sal's is well within his rights to ask that people not drum outside his restaurant.

The only thing we agree on is that the Pavilion, and its owner Coran Capshaw, are extended privileges that few in Charlottesville receive.

Why can't the village apply the noise regulations to all the screaming babies on the mall? Make noise, pay the price.

Unfortunately, the decibel level allowed in the amphitheater was included in the lease with the City from the very beginning. Since then, it has become clear to everyone without hearing problems that the music was being too loud all over the Mall to the point of being obnoxious, including the drumming. Loud does equal good. Apply the ordinance across the board. As I alwasys, in Charlottesville, the rules depend upon who's asking.
I can hear the unamplified music just fine.