Monday, September 14, 2009

The Ramadan Drummer

Mohammad Boota plays for an audience of one outside a Pakistani business in Brooklyn. Photo: The New York Times

By Kirk Semple

A FEW hours before dawn, when most New Yorkers are asleep, a man rolls out of bed in Brooklyn, dons a billowy red outfit and matching turban, climbs into his car, drives 15 minutes, pulls out a big drum and - on the pavement of a residential neighbourhood - starts to play.

Mohammad Boota is a Ramadan drummer. Every morning during the holy month, drummers stroll the streets of Muslim communities around the world, waking worshippers so they can eat a meal before the day's fasting begins.

A Pakistani immigrant, Mr Boota has spent the past few years learning uncomfortable lessons about noise-complaint hotlines, profanity and the crankiness of non-Muslims rousted from sleep at 3.30am.

''Everywhere they complain,'' he said. ''People go, like, 'What the hell? What you doing, man?' They never know it's Ramadan.''

Mr Boota, 53, who immigrated in 1992 and earns his living as a limousine driver, began waking Brooklynites in 2002. At first he moved freely around the borough, picking a neighbourhood to work each Ramadan morning.

As the years went by, he and his drum were effectively banned from one neighbourhood after another. He now restricts himself to a short stretch of Coney Island Avenue where many Pakistanis live.

Fearing that even that limited turf might be threatened real estate for him, he has modified his approach even further - playing at well below his customary volume, for only 15-20 seconds in each location, and only once every three or four days.

Mr Boota wants to be a good American, and a good Muslim. ''I don't want to bother other communities' people, just the Pakistani people.''

Several prominent Islamic organisations in New York said they knew of no other drummers who played on Ramadan mornings. But while the custom's usefulness has been largely eclipsed by the invention of the alarm clock, it has hung on in many places.

For Mr Boota, drumming is a family tradition. He is a seventh-generation ceremonial drummer and is now training his son Sher, 20, one of eight children. In addition to his Ramadan reveilles, Mr Boota plays at Pakistani weddings, birthday parties, graduation celebrations and other events.

During his rounds the next night, he stopped at a Pakistani-run service station and unloaded his drum in the service bay. He wanted to demonstrate the full capacity of his instrument. One of the mechanics slid the heavy doors shut, and Mr Boota started to play at full volume. ''It's a great noise,'' he said.