St. Louis drummers hope for a welcoming home

Friday, October 21, 2011 | 4:28 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — They carried heavy drums and soft pillows, tools of the trade for these street musicians.

The group was running late. Walking from a MetroLink stop one recent night, they could see that their favored spot at Cardinals games — outside Busch Stadium, along Clark Street, by Gate 4 — was already taken. Bucket drummers from Chicago had beaten them to it.

"Early bird gets the worm, you know?" said one of the interlopers, almost as an apology.

"It's all good," Latroy Watley replied. Watley, leader of Drumline of St. Louis, knew this was the least of his group's worries.

Watley, 34, is a warehouse worker who teaches drumming to children and adults in his Fox Park neighborhood. He takes them to play in parades, on street corners and outside sporting events all over St. Louis, producing a percussive explosion that usually leaves onlookers stunned — and, depending on your view and time of day, either smiling or annoyed.

The drummers call Watley "director." Outside the stadium, he pointed to a spot 50 feet away. They could play there instead. At least, he hoped they could. At this point, they were close to being an outlaw band of drummers.

In recent months, police have shooed Watley's group from several street corners and parks. Noise complaints — and compliments — have been lodged, causing neighborhoods to divide over whether the drum line's performances are a welcome surprise or a sonic intrusion.

The city official responsible for regulating street performers is an old drummer himself, sympathetic to Watley's plight. Still, he felt he had to revoke Watley's permit to play.

"It's weird how we get messed with," said John Buhr, 22, one of Watley's drummers. "It's stressful to keep something positive going."

The drum line's future is in doubt. The question is why. The answers are as different as reactions to the drum line's sound.

Watley has always loved drumming, with its sharp beats and physical rhythms. He played in marching bands at Roosevelt and Normandy high schools. He taught drumming on the side. The idea of starting a drum line struck two years ago. "It came to me as a dream," he said.

He secured big bass drums and quint drum sets, castoffs from high schools. He took in donations of marching band uniforms with black hats and red feathers. He had a handful players to start. Now, he has a rotating cast of 31 people, including 13 children, some of whom joined after seeing the drum line parade by one day and asking if they, too, could play. The youngest is 5. The number of drummers playing at once ranges from five to a dozen, limited only by the number of instruments.

The drum line has played the People's Joy Parade down Cherokee Street and the Annie Malone May Day Parade. It has played events for restaurants and corner stores.

Yalonda Reed, 20, joined the drum line a month ago. She loves it. "I wish I had this when I was younger," she said.

Watley sees the drum line as a diversion, discouraging people from getting in trouble.

"We're doing a good deed out here," he said. "I thought people enjoyed it."

Last December, he secured a city street performance permit. It cost $25.

Last March, Mike Hulsey took over the job regulating street performers for the city. His official title is administrative assistant to the city streets department director, and he has other duties. But he seems perfectly suited to this one.

His office walls are covered with music memorabilia — signed CD covers and set lists, and a photo of him playing drums for Mama's Pride, a St. Louis band that hit the big time after Hulsey was drafted into military service. Opposite him, a drum solo DVD and drumming books dot a bookcase.

"I'm not a music-hater, as you can tell," Hulsey said, Spyro Gyra playing softly in the background.

The city has issued more than 100 of the annual permits for street performers, known as buskers — saxophonists, guitarists, drummers, mimes and magicians.

And the city wants to encourage them. Activity on the streets is a good thing, Hulsey said. But the city needs to control it, too. So Hulsey has started asking buskers to audition "because I ultimately have to answer the phones, and complaints end up on my desk."

So far, the only act he has nixed was a guy juggling flaming sticks.

Hulsey had his first run-in with Watley shortly after taking his new job. In March, police stopped the drum line for playing too loudly — defined as being heard over 75 feet away — at the corner of Delmar and Skinker boulevards in the Delmar Loop. Hulsey called Watley. He asked Watley to stay away from there. Next weekend, the drum line was back.

"I couldn't believe he did that to me," Hulsey recalled. "I told him I had to revoke his permit."

Hulsey also told Watley that each of the drummers had to have a permit.

Watley said he had trouble figuring out where the drum line could play and all the ins and outs of the regulations.

"I can follow the rules if I know what they are," he said.

St. Louis passed an ordinance regulating buskers in 1997. Before that, playing with a hat out for money was illegal. The new rules allowed it. But it also ruled out busking in five wards and at MetroLink stations. Nine areas — including Laclede's Landing, Central West End, Delmar Loop and South Grand — were placed off-limits. Even Busch Stadium was forbidden — except the ordinance has not been updated to reflect the stadium's new location. Few seem familiar with the ordinance.

"There's a lot of technicalities and legalities involved with being a street musician," said Bill Richardson, 60, who often plays the saxophone outside sporting events.

Some buskers don't have a permit. But getting one is essential to avoid trouble with city officials and police, Richardson said. "It's a trump card."

Despite Watley's permit revocation, the drum line continued to play. Some of his other drummers obtained permits.

Then last month, a community outreach police officer posted a notice to several neighborhood online message boards, asking residents to be on lookout for the drum line. The drum line had violated several laws, and officers needed to seize any street performance permits, wrote Officer Joseph Calabro.

In an interview, Calabro said police had been called many times to noise complaints in Tower Grove East and around Fox Park. He said police were not unfairly singling out the drum line, only reacting to the complaints.

The officer's message, however, led to a show of support for the drum line. Message boards buzzed. A "Save the St. Louis Drum line" Facebook page was born.

"I understand complaints about loud noise in neighborhoods, especially late at night," said Ben West, a Fox Park resident. "But I would absolutely like to see the drum line continue to perform."

West said that this summer about 9 p.m., he heard the drum line practicing in the park. Curiously, he went outside, just as police arrived. He said the drummers agreed to stop playing. "The police seemed happy," West said.

Lisa Cagle, who lives in Tower Grove East, said she had heard the drum line in her neighborhood.

"It sounds like a band playing. It's not annoying racket," she said. "It's exciting."

Juan Montana, owner of Cherokee Photobooth, was moved to support the drum line after seeing Calabro's message. He said he understood that playing at 11 p.m. in front of a house was wrong. But he thinks the drum line needs to be encouraged.

"It would be wonderful if we had more stuff like that in St. Louis," Montana said.

For now, questions about permits and the off-limit zones swirl, and the drum line plays on.

They have been outside every Cardinals home game this season.

Recently, the instant the last out in the ball game was recorded, Watley blew a whistle, signaling it was time to start playing. The drummers kneeled on their old couch pillows behind drums resting on the asphalt. The sound leapt from the drums, a fast and steady beat that could be felt in the chests of departing fans, reverberating in their feet, causing some to stop and stare and smile, heads bobbing. Some fans danced. Many tossed bills into two nearby boxes.

The drum line played and played, long after the bucket boys had stopped and fans no longer milled by and the money had ceased to flow, when stadium concession workers were headed home and the street had reopened to traffic.

They kept to the drums, playing for no audience except themselves.

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