Drum club takes the lid off what teens have inside

Drummers With Attitude founder Kevin Travers (left), a Bristol Township teacher, pounds a garbage can while leading a rehearsal at the Benjamin Franklin Freshman Academy. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)

A few years back, fights would break out in the cafeteria of Benjamin Franklin Middle School - drum fights, full of young nervous energy.

"I used to drum on the table in the cafeteria, and we'd have battles with other tables," recalled Jonathan Candy, now 21 and a 2008 graduate of Bristol Township schools. "It drove the teachers crazy. One of them said, 'You should join this group.' "

The group was Drummers With Attitude, the region's only bucket drum ensemble, a band of plucky kids who find joy in making music with a basic five-gallon plastic bucket, a couple of sticks, and a head full of rhythm.

Special-education teacher Kevin Travers started DWA a decade ago when he was looking for a positive way for his sometimes-bullied special-ed charges to express themselves and be heard.

In 2000, Travers - a native of Northeast Philadelphia and a drummer since he was 8 - remembered how drumming had helped him focus during a turbulent childhood.

His idea that banging on buckets could do the same for his students has succeeded beyond his expectations. Now he has high school football stars and students from the gifted program joining the drum circle as well.

"It's a family away from home," Travers, 42, said. "This is a place students can come, and that includes everybody. That's what I'm most proud of. There are popular kids along with kids that are not connected to the popular crowd. Being a part of this group they can feel included."

If this reminds you a bit of Glee, with buckets instead of singing and dancing, then you've got the right groove.

Candy remembered that in high school, he couldn't stay away, even when some of his friends on the football team put the music makers down.

"At the time they thought it was corny and used to laugh," he said, "but once it was growing and getting bigger, the athletes started coming out and performing."

More than two years after his graduation, Candy turned up at a Drummers With Attitude practice this month with 20-year-old alum Jonathon Square, who chimed in, "You can be yourself here."

The success of Drummers With Attitude has made the outfit - with as many as 100 kids involved - into a band of roving ambassadors for the diverse blue-collar suburb. It performs up to 35 times a year across the region at major sporting events, such as Flyers and Sixers games, and elsewhere with the implied message that teens can find a legal brand of high by simply making the right sound with a plastic container and a stick.

"They are by far one of our fan favorites. They do a great job," said Brenda Mitchell, spokeswoman for the Reading Express, an Indoor Football League team for which DWA has performed three times. "Normally at halftime, if it's not too exciting, people will leave their seats, but not when they perform, because they're fantastic."

The group is prepping for another big gig - warming up the large crowd expected for the return of minor-league hockey's Phantoms to Philadelphia for a game Friday at the Wells Fargo Center.

It will be another special night for drumming-addicted kids such as 15-year-old Jordan Livingston, a young Fresh Prince look-alike who excels at football and dreams of law school if the NFL doesn't work out.

"What made me so crazy about it is the buckets," said Livingston, who stands in the coveted spot next to Travers and sometimes peels off into hip-hop solos. "I didn't know that there was so much sound to a bucket. There are four sounds: rim, side, base, and hitting it off the ground."

A sturdy old-line suburb like Bristol is not the first place you'd expect to see bucket drumming. Making music with a plastic container is typically an urban phenomenon, practiced on street corners or subway trains by the likes of New York City impresario Larry Wright or the best-known youth group, the Chicago Bucket Boys.

At rehearsal at the Benjamin Franklin Freshman Academy (the former middle school), students sat on buckets on stage with another bucket squeezed between their legs. Before they became instruments, the tubs were giant sour-cream containers from a New Jersey bakery.

With Travers whaling away on a plastic trash can, the group launched into the universal language of rhythm and sound. Members hit and banged with such energy that it was hard to resist banging feet and clapping along.

Stephen Soto, a 14-year-old freshman wearing an Elmo baseball cap, said drumming kept him out of trouble and made him earn good grades, a requirement for the group.

"I've always been hooked into drumming," he said, but his mother told him that a real drum kit was too expensive. Bucket drumming is a fun and easy way to connect to the musical heritage of his family, including a grandfather who played in a jazz band, he said.

"It's like a second family," Soto said. "You can come to them about anything. When you're upset, you can come here and you're happy by the end of the day. Because you know you're going on a trip."

With their next show days away, Travers reminded his players what was at stake.

"It's probably going to be sold out, and we're probably going to play all four pieces. So sticks in front," he commanded. "Make this look professional. Maybe even smile."


Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.

For DWA's performance schedule, visit www.drummerswithattitude.net