In which there is a new NaNoWriMo chapter about a drummer

November 19th, 2010 Skookum Tribune issue number whatever, volume whatever
Meet: The Different Drummer
By Annabeth Spencer

Tall black letters written in Sharpie onto the up-ended plastic cat litter containers read K-E-N-N-E-T-H.

Kenneth is surrounded by the resonant plastic boxes, arranged in a semi-circle around the chair-box. Some are partially full of water. Others contain aluminum cans, empty plastic water bottles, and other items that Kenneth the Different Drummer has found along the side of the road: ping pong balls, plastic buttons, a bicycle chain. A pyramid of boxes behind him provides a backdrop and acoustic rear wall for this street musician who performs in the round at Salmon Run park near the heart of the town of Skookum. Sometimes he reaches into the pyramid and selects a new box of trash to add to the percussion instruments ranged in front of him, a new sound to add to the music he creates for the people walking by him.

His rhythm today is cheerful, skipping, and infectious. Even the people who studiously look away from the sight of a shaggy-bearded man in ragged camouflage clothing making music with garbage unconsciously alter their gait to move in time with the gallimufried beat he provides for the morning.

Kenneth is a regular here on the busker’s platform in this tiny green space surrounded by streets and shops. He has a regular audience, as well: business people and shoppers who steer towards him when they hear the music, who dig into their pockets and wallets and purses for money to drop into the plastic cat-litter container painstakingly labeled with a dollar sign.

More than anything else, this madcap percussion attracts children. They stream towards him, released from cars and strollers and the restraining hands of adults. They gather in a semi-circle outside of the boxes that spell K-E-N-N-E-T-H.

The children dance.

They spin, they skip, they hop. They clap. They shout nonsense words that become lyrics for music of the one-man symphony on the performance platform. One little girl, just learning to walk, plunks down on a fat diaper-padded bottom directly in front of the Different Drummer, and bangs together rocks that she has found on the ground there, harmonizing her sounds with the sound of the ultimate street musician.

Some children, usually boys, approach the plastic semicircle as if to bang on it themselves. This is strictly not allowed. The Different Drummer doesn’t break his rhythm, doesn’t lose his distant smile, but somehow incorporates a strong “bang!” of the box near an intruder into his song. His message is as clear as the warning stomp of a she-elephant: Stay back. This is mine. Go get your own garbage.

The children understand the message, and they return to their dance.

Some people greet him by name, which he acknowledges with a nod of his head, still not blinking the unfocussed gaze, still not breaking the rhythm. The music continues.

The rhythm gradually changes, and becomes slower. From outside the circle of dancers, a young woman approaches the busker’s stage, carrying a flute case. She catches Kenneth’s attention by lifting the case ever-so-slightly. He considers for a moment, and then gives a vigorous nod. Within seconds, the flute is out of the case, assembled and perched at the woman’s lips.

She does not begin to play immediately. She pauses, listening, and nodding her head in the way that little girls nod their heads in time to a jump rope being turned, readying the music within her as rope-skippers ready their bodies to enter the thwacking beat of a skipping rope.

With a deep in-breath and a strong up-nod, the flute music joins the cat-litter drums in a boisterous flurry of notes. The little girl with the rocks squeals in delight and throws her rocks above her head in a joyous salute. The dancing children raise their hands above their head, twirling now, around and around. The smaller twirlers get dizzy quickly and fall sideways to the ground, grinning broadly. The older kids form a circle of dervishes, jumping and spinning and jumping again, each time with a shout of triumph.

The music continues. With the flute to carry the song for a while, the percussionist takes an occasional break now, drinking water from a gallon jug placed within reach of his plastic box-chair. When the flute player takes a break, an older man with the demeanor of a priest lifts a guitar-case over his head and waggles it back and forth like an Olympic figure skater performing an axel-lift with a featherweight skating partner. Kenneth waves the guitarist onto the stage, and the music continues, thrumming, chirping, and thumping.

The children dance, the adults stand in amazement, and the music surrounds them all so strongly that the hearts of all the people are beating together, with exactly the same cadence.

The music builds into a mighty crescendo, an icy tsunami wave of irresistible sound, the flute twirling, the guitar pounding, the garbage banging louder and louder. The musicians are watching each other closely now, and Kenneth rolls his head in a long circle and then lifts and drops his head into a fierce and final stop. After a pause, he raises his hands aloft in triumph.

There is silence for one second. Two seconds. Three seconds. And then: applause.

Kenneth "the Different Drummer" Baker served twenty years with the United States Army before retiring in 1995. He spent time in some of the most beautiful parts of the world—and some of the most horrible. He spent nearly a year in the “sandbox” of Iraq following Gulf War I, and he refuses to talk national politics with anyone anymore.

“For me, for now, it’s all about local,” he says. “I spent a career thinking about the Big Picture, taking orders from on high, from people half a world away from where we were stationed, from people who had no idea what would really happen to their orders when the rubber hit the road. I was,” he sings, “hip deep in the Big Muddy, and the Big Fool says to push on, and I’m just not going to do that anymore. These days, I don’t work for anybody but myself. I do whatever work needs doin’, and I get paid because I do good work: building stuff, repairing stuff, trimming trees. I even milk cows once a week for a fella who needs to take his wife into town for chemo treatments. That job doesn’t pay much, but it needs to be done, and I’ve got the skills to do it, so I do. And when I’m not working, I’m thinking about music, and how to make some more of it.”

Kenneth was born and raised on a dairy farm outside of Skookum. On graduation day, 1975, he walked out of the high school gym and into the army. He likes to finish what he starts.

He was engaged once to a girl in Germany, but the girl decided that she didn’t want to leave her hometown to follow a soldier around the world, so they never did get married. “When I was sorrowing my broken heart about that,” he says, “a guy in my unit gave me a set of drumsticks. That guy played in a pick-up Dixieland band on the base, and they needed a percussionist. I hadn’t had drumsticks in my hands since middle school, but I didn’t have anything better to do except mope around the barracks. So I went with him to a gig, and they put me on the drum set, and for the first time in months, dang, I had some fun. We played a lot of old-timey music, you know, “Basin Street Blues,” and “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” a lot of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke tunes. Here we were in freakin’ Okinawa, playing Dixieland music, and the people loved it. I didn’t know much but the guys let me play along, and I learned what to do. The bandleader, Bob, he wrote some original stuff for the band, but since guys were coming and going in the group, he gave up writing down the tunes. He’d just sing us through them once or twice before the gig, and then we’d go out and play in front of an audience. We’d hang around after the gig, and he’d say, like, ‘Kenneth, next time we do “Riverboat Shuffle”, when we get to the break, I want you to do like this,’ and he’d use some pencils to tap out a rhythm on the table and the salt shakers and the beer glasses, to show me how he wanted it to sound. It was fun. It was more fun than I’d had since I joined the military. And I started thinkin’ that after I got out, maybe I should just keep up doing the music thing.”

Music gigs were hard to come by in the mid-nineties when Kenneth returned to civilian life. “Grunge was really big, but I didn’t want to do any grunge. And one day I remembered Bob using those salt shakers and beer glasses and whatever else was handy as drums to show me what he wanted, and I thought, “why not?

“I walked around with drumsticks in my hand for a week…maybe more than a week. And I drummed on everything I could find. I drummed my way through the Food4Less, and I drummed my way through the hardware store. Then I got to the feed store, and I found all those buckets, for livestock and stuff. And those buckets, they had such an amazing sound!

“The containers the kitty litter comes in were the best—not when they’re full of cat sand, but after they’re empty. I put up a sign asking people to give me their empty containers, and that first week I got about twenty containers. Then I started experimenting with stuff inside the containers, trying to find all the different sounds I could make. Then I started adding trash to the containers, and that made even more, even better sounds. And it suits me, too: I make music from stuff that somebody else threw out. I love that entire concept.

"I never stop trying new stuff, never stop experimenting with new sounds. The time that I spend on stage in the park is the best part of my day. Hell, it’s the best part of my whole life.

“At least, it’s the best part so far.”

Kenneth the Different Drummer can often be heard at the busker’s platform in Salmon Run Park on Monday and Thursday mornings. A CD recording of Kenneth’s music can be purchased at Original Piñatas, the Skookum Drug and Hardware store, the Red Robin Café, and from Kenneth himself. Proceeds from CD purchases are donated to CLEANUP, the non-profit river and wetlands restoration organization.

The Park’s performance platform was built in 1907 by the founders of the town after the unfortunate incident of the rats and the bagpiper. Parks Department rules for this stage state that performers may not be hired to play music in this location, but buskers may collect an unlimited amount of tips from passersby. The park and stage are open to during daylight hours and occasionally after dark by special permission.


  1. Love the drummer! Very exciting chapter to read :)


  2. Kenneth, check. (Adding to my list of all time favorite characters.)


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