Emerging from the pitch dark desert, we approach the top of a dune. Flaming torches blaze atop a bamboo fence that screens off the sights below, and the sound of drumming vibrates through the air. I wonder if I’ve stumbled upon filming for an Indiana Jones sacrifice scene.
The sense of surrealism is not lessened by a booming voice crying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we are honoured to welcome the gong master and gong mistress into our midst!’ With considerable trepidation, my flatmate and I step through the ceremonial gateway and are astounded by the amount of people at the bottom of the steps. Luckily, their bodies are not slain, but animatedly banging drums and, in some cases, dancing.
The additional sights and smells of a sizzling barbecue, a few small bonfires, henna stalls and a bar remove any remaining doubts from our minds, and we happily skip across the sand and join the group. A good couple of hundred people are sitting in rows on cushions with djembe – tall African drums – between their knees, and at the front is a huge rug where a slightly mad-looking blonde woman is shouting out instructions, leaping around with gay abandon.
Behind her sits a row of professional drummers from Colombia, Ghana and, by the looks of things, everywhere in between, and a stray toddler weaves his way cheekily in between their microphones and flailing arms. We find a couple of the few remaining empty spaces, wedge our drums into position and get stuck in.
In the audience, Arabic families sit beside expats from every corner of the globe, all of us trying to get our heads around this slightly foreign concept – and I don’t just mean the musical technique, though that in itself takes a bit of getting used to. No, it turns out drumming in the desert is one of those rare times when grown-ups have to truly let go and improvise in front of a bunch of strangers. Granted, no one can hear what you’re doing because everyone else is making such a racket, but freestyling is still something which the British contingent, in particular, is unused to.
But that’s just the adults – the kids are absolutely loving it. They keep stealing glances at their peers, grinning widely, each one trying to outdo their mates with originality and creativity, some going further than others. At the end of every few minutes’ jamming, the blonde woman (who turns out to be Julie-Ann Odell, the founder of the three-year-old operation) brings the music to an end, the goal being for an absolute, breathtaking silence to fall – but one little tyke takes great pleasure in repeatedly adding a ‘cha cha cha’ after the last drum has been beaten, causing her chums to squeal with laughter, and her mum and dad to shush her embarrassedly.
After each section, Julie-Ann gets one of the pros to take the stage and teach the audience a new rhythm or singing pattern, the complexity building up through the evening without ever becoming too complicated for everyone to join in. My pal and I sneak off to grab some dinner, which is a scrumptious Arabic barbecue, and before we know it a hush has descended upon the camp. It’s the gong master.
With flowing grey locks and purple velvet shirt, he certainly looks the part. He takes to the stage and stations himself next to his gong, which hangs from a stand – then the gong mistress joins him. I’d spotted her in the audience as soon as we’d arrived: her red hair is so wavy that it actually rivals the gong master’s, she’s wearing a hippy-style kaftan and her earlier enthusiastic shoulder shimmying easily set her apart from the crowd. She grabs a gong that’s attached to a rope. ‘Intrigued’ doesn’t even come close to describing the kids’ expressions, not to mention ours.
Slowly, the gong master starts stroking his gong in circular motions. The mistress, meanwhile, throws her instrument outwards, holding it by the strings, and begins to spin around on the spot. A peculiar shimmering noise washes over the silent audience. The atmosphere is electric. Soon, she’s dancing between the upright bystanders, still flinging the gong all over the place, a mystical look on her face. It’s truly bizarre, but undeniably magical. After a while, she shimmies back to her gong-loving companion, the music rises to a crescendo, then there’s silence once more.
We think it’s finished, when a quavering voice speaks up. It’s coming from the gong master. ‘I bring you love,’ he breathes. ‘I bring you peace,’ By now, it’s all over for me and my friend – we’re bent over double, killing ourselves laughing. Evidently, we’re much less mature than the children here, who are still enraptured, spellbound. I sneak a look at the professional drummers, and am relieved to see that they look as bemused as us.
Heading back up the stairs towards the entrance in preparation for the jaunt back to Dubai, I grab an Arabic coffee and throw it back in the hope that it’ll jolt me back to reality. It sure does – it has a kick stronger than a donkey’s. Driving back through the desert and, eventually, along Sheikh Zayed Road, I start to wonder whether I made the whole thing up – then my flatmate, who’s fallen asleep, starts murmuring, ‘I bring you peace…’ Making a mental note to remind him of that next time we row about the loo seat being left up, I shake my head and continue home.
Full moon desert drumming happens once a month; next event on April 10. Adults Dhs175; children five-14 Dhs65; under-fives free. Price includes drum rental, barbecue and soft drinks. Meet at the edge of the desert from 6.30pm (map available at www.dubaidrums.com); transport from desert edge to drumming camp provided. 050 659 2874; email@example.com