It was as though I could hear the thunder before I saw the lightning.
My high stool could have rocked – if my ear drums hadn’t trembled and knocked me off onto the pavement. The beer vibrated within its glass, which pulsed atop rhythmic shockwaves drawing near.
Then, everything stopped: the quake on the ground, the air-shattering thuds – the band of drummers, garmented in flaming rainbows, rested their sticks and noise-makers beside the road and parade route.
But we knew these participants of the Battle of the Drums, held on the evening preceding Rotterdam Unlimited, the city’s summer carnival, were just getting started. Like raindrops falling into a reservoir, they were biding their time – until the dam opened and they cascaded with full might as a roaring river.
And with prize money at stake, not one trickle was holding back.
Three explosive beats: all suspense was ruptured.
Leading the charging soundwaves, the pair of dancers swaggered before the procession and heralded its visual arrival; waltzing to the percussion’s heartbeats, their festooned feathers fluttering and jewelry glistening, they pulsed and flickered like unextinguished flames riding ahead of the stream.
Behind their mascots, the drummers jolted to every thump they punctured into the silence; in this tide, instead of a directional ebb of people inching in fluid motion, the droplets travelled by bouncing and oscillating in their forward march.
As the flow continued and carved its path, filling the air with saltiness of sweat, I found myself confounded by where even I was; the carnivalistic syncopation had me believe I’d been transported to South America, or specifically Suriname – a former colony of The Netherlands – but its backdrop was unmistakably European, Dutch even: the tram tracks beneath our feet, the street signs, the valleys between buildings.
We followed the troupe for a couple of blocks before leaving them on their course. Meandering through Rotterdam’s shopping district, a different band engulfed us in its drowning volume and flamboyance; around the corner, another was erupting. By that time, sunlight slanting and dwindling, crowds were swallowed by the parading currents and carried along like sediments in water.
This became a game of chasing rivers.
It seemed inevitable: with the various branches springing from the many pockets of the city, they would eventually meet – and clash.
Racing ahead of the discharges, we reached the final stretch before the main stage; it was devoid of any audacity other than the hubbub of revellers, awaiting the finalé event of Battle of the Drums.
Rather than pursuing it, we brought beers and lingered on the banks of the pavement: let this meandering cadence come to us.
And they didn’t just come: at this point of convergence, each throbbing in its own tempo, the bands collided in a rhythmic dissonance drowning one another with sheer loudness, as though they fought with sounds than fists. Yet, rather than blending and diluting, whole troupes cohered and asserted its unity – once again in sheer volume, its harmonising beats and melodies.
One by one, the ensembles of performers spilled onto the main stage; as though exhaling their last breath, one punched their percussions and let sound their final exclamation – they were the band we witnessed at the beginning.
Amidst the cascade of music notes, this stream was reaching its destination in Rotterdam Unlimited: from the dauntless delirium of adrenaline and tonal maelstrom, onto the sea of roaring crowds below.