In 2004, at age 15, Mason Swimmer was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. Today, Swimmer stands on his grandfather’s Weddington horse farm – the site of this weekend’s Drumstrong festival, which Swimmer and his dad, Scott, started eight years ago to help “beat out cancer” through drumming, art and music.
With broad shoulders and long blond hair, you’d never know Swimmer, 25, was once ill until he points out the scar that runs from above his right knee to the large hunk of flesh that’s missing below it. His knee was replaced again last year. “Apparently those things only last 10 or 15 years,” he says, smiling.
At the time of his diagnosis, Swimmer played baseball at Providence Day. When his hair fell out during chemo, his teammates would rub his head for luck. Surgery changed his pitching delivery. He would fall into it and follow through with his right leg sweeping in a wide arc.
“He was striking kids out,” Scott Swimmer says. “His delivery was a distraction.”
Distraction was the impetus for creating a festival that gave cancer patients and their friends and families a therapeutic distraction – one that they could control.
“In the hospital, you lose your individuality, you’re told what to do. It’s empowerment,” says Mason Swimmer, who is studying music therapy at Queens University of Charlotte.
He and the other folks behind Drumstrong visit hospitals and treatment centers, where they pass out drums and shakers to patients, families and medical staff in order to help even the playing field between patients and those caring for them.
“The interactive rhythm factor is a moment of distraction,” explains Scott Swimmer, who is also a cancer survivor. (He was diagnosed with prostate cancer while Mason was recovering from his first surgery.)
The Swimmers have always been a musical family. The elder Swimmer thought of drumming when Mason was asked to bicycle in Lance Armstrong’s Ride for the Roses. Many with osteosarcoma lose a limb. Drumming was a way for almost anyone to participate.
Drumstrong started as a modest drum circle-centered event with a live music lineup. Today, it’s is a global event. The three-day music festival takes place on Misty Meadows Farm, but simultaneous 24-hour-plus drum circles from Thailand and Japan to Australia and Ukraine are webcast in its name.
The local festival is also growing. This year’s lineup begins Friday with a bevy of local roots, rock and electronic acts. Saturday’s bill boasts Bombadil, Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, Chatham County Line, Railroad Earth and Felice Brothers. On Sunday, former Carolina Chocolate Drop Dom Flemons closes out the show.
In addition to 34 bands and the drum circle marathon, there are children’s activities, Burning Man-style revelry, a yogathon, disc golf, craft beer, arts, vendors, food trucks and health-oriented initiatives like bone marrow testing. A matching donor was actually found at Drumstrong last year.
Drumstrong is popping up a lot more places this year as well, thanks to Clture, the marketing machine behind 2013’s Brews Fest and Triple C Folk Festival. Clture founder Cameron Lee wasn’t looking for such a large project after October’s Brew Fest, but after visiting the farm and researching Drumstrong’s history, he couldn’t resist.
Clture has helped raise the event’s profile using social media, print, TV and radio, offered ways for fans to earn festival tickets through fundraising, and created a weekly Web series named for Drumstrong’s new mascot – Pony Danza, one of the therapy horses at Misty Meadows Farm.
“He’s become the face of the festival,” says Lee, who visits the property along Providence Road whenever he can.
“I feel like I’m on a mini-vacation every time I go there. It truly is a magical place.”
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