Every Thursday evening this summer, people passing by the pedestrian bridge might have stumbled into an unexpected sight. The sounds of drums, gongs and communal howling, a group of people walking on stilts, blowing human-sized bubbles or juggling fire — maybe even a parade of 30 remote-controlled trucks or life-sized alien puppets.
In other words, they stumbled into one of Providence Drum Troupe’s weekly pop-up performances.
Since its founding in January 2021, PDT has provided resources otherwise scarce during the pandemic: community, harmony and joy.
David Lee Black, a photographer, musician and sculpture artist, founded the troupe in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When the pandemic hit, all the arts changed,” Black said. “I called a couple of musician and circus friends together to play, not unlike a childhood playdate.”
By April 2021, what began as three drummers gathering at Black’s house had become a 20-person drum troupe.
It just had this gravitational pull,” Black said. “The group became an ever-growing group of friends who needed to come out of hiding and to create.”
From April through most of the summer, the performance group could be found at the pedestrian bridge Thursday nights.
“Families started showing up with their kids and they started dancing,” Black said. “There would be hundreds of people at the bridge waiting for us.”
The drum troupe puts an emphasis on their single rule — “don’t be annoying” — to ensure that everyone gets along, Black added.
"We have some of the best drummers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts,” Black said. “We also have some people who have never played before. We teach them some beats and it literally changes their life.”
One of the troupe members is Jamie Lyn, a performer, yoga instructor and sound artist, who enjoys playing the hand drum.
“The hand drum is a special tool for me,” Lyn said. “It represents the heartbeat and brings me into the present moment.”
One day when Lyn was playing her hand drum by the river, Black came up to her.
“He heard the little hand drum,” Lyn explained. Ever since Black approached her in May, Lyn has been an essential part of the performance’s spiritual and healing aspect: the group howl.
“You get a hundred people howling at the moon and it’s just f***ng amazing,” Black said.
Lyn said the howl’s “ah” resonates with the heart, according to yogis and gong masters, and its “ooh” is sacral, relating to the water inside and outside the body. To Lyn, that’s what PDT is about — engaging voices and creativity.
For Lyn, the bridge is essential to the performances’ magical tone.
“The bridge connects heaven and the mundane,” Lyn said. “It bridges who you think you’re supposed to be and your highest version of yourself.”
Anthony Parente, musician and psychotherapist, also found community in the troupe.
After working at the Providence Community Center for 11 years, Parente began pursuing private practice and teaching classes about empathetic, trauma-informed care at Warren Alpert Medical School.
“Private practice can be very satisfying but also isolating,” said Parente. “I was always looking for a group of musicians to play with.”
A friend connected Parente with the troupe.
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” Parente said. “I haven’t played alongside other drummers since high school marching band.”
According to Parente, the eclectic nature of the group makes it special.
“We have all different ages, backgrounds and experiences,” Parente said. “For example, I’m 54 and our youngest member is 19.”
This diversity is also reflected in the troupe’s audience.
“On the pedestrian bridge, all different kinds of people show up and dance and contribute,” Parente said. “It’s a communal experience I want to return to next summer.”
After this summer, the troupe now performs at events across Providence and Rhode Island, including a Wickford Halloween Parade on Oct. 30 during which they performed in the company of 300 people dressed as witches, Black said.
Ken Burke, the Wakefield Village Association event coordinator, recently hosted the troupe at Wakefield's Oktoberfest celebration.
“It was wonderful,” Burke said. “They have an infectious rhythm. You can’t help but want to dance, wander over and see what they’re up to.”
“We come to gigs and events, and we activate the event,” Parente said. “We wake people up and then move on.”
The troupe is proud of its diverse set of members all performing and living in harmony.
“Our group is (made up of) all walks of life, all genders, all colors, all political leanings,” Black said. “We demonstrate that living in harmony is not an antiquated notion. All you have to do is look at us … and you’ll see that we’re just having a good time.”