Hand-crafted at the Desert Rain Community communal living outpost in Chaparral, Monk Drums musical instruments are made with prayer and purpose.
Written by Ashley M. Biggers
Photography by Dennis Muncrief
When handyman turned artisan Jacob Neria was considering moving into the Desert Rain Community, he and his wife, Mireya, prayed about whether the family of seven should join the Christian communal-living outpost. They received their sign when a clothes dryer caught fire, burning their home to the ground. They moved into the sprawling 60-acre development in Chaparral, 36 miles southeast of Las Cruces, a couple years ago. He says, “I never ask for signs any more!”
Whether he asked or not, Jacob received a second signpost when friend Eric Boseman broke a drum. Eric, a world-class musician who has taken the stage with Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow, and Whitney Houston, is currently producing music at El Paso’s Star City Studio Productions. When he needed someone with a special touch to repair his cajon, he turned to Jacob, an accomplished musician in his own right. Jacob not only repaired the drum, but also imagined a new drum design.
In 2014, Jacob’s waypoints led to the formation of Monk Drums, a business that builds top-of-the-line instruments and serves a purpose beyond the bottom line.
John Laweka and Jacob Neria
The Desert Rain Community took root in the small town of Chaparral, population 11,000, in 2003 when several families who had grown up in Vineyard mega churches decided to follow their own path. Today, six families make their homes at Desert Rain Community year-round.
“It’s the monastic life that we’re trying to model here. It’s holistic, meaning a whole life—religion, work, family, bringing all those things together under one practice. It’s not compartmentalizing life and having a life that doesn’t come together in a spiritual way,” Jacob says. “We’re not structured like a church; we’re structured like a community. We wanted to be a lighthouse to a poor community, whatever the need was, we wanted to fill it. And in Chaparral, there’s a great need.”
Since its founding, Desert Rain Community has sheltered women and families escaping domestic violence, served as a locale for spiritual retreats, and housed groups doing missionary work along the border and in Mexico. Jacob helped build the dormitories that house these groups, along with the church, pond, and labyrinth walk.
His skills were valuable, but they didn’t mesh with many of the other members, who work for Steele Consulting Inc., an El Paso–based technology consulting firm owned by Greg Steele, one of the community’s founders.
When Jacob began fashioning drums, he found a new path for himself—and a new business venture for Desert Rain community and investor/owner Steele Consulting Inc. These groups saw Monk Drums as a way to provide fair-wage jobs in an impoverished community and give the gift of “second chances” to the people who join them for a few days or a season of communal living.
Of Greg and Steele Consulting Inc., John Laweka, Monk Drums project manager, says, “Being in business, they don’t invest in a certain product. They have a heart for people. They see a larger return in improving the lives of the people they hire.”
A New Beat
Monk Drums’ influence starts with a great instrument design. When Jacob began imagining a different style of cajon—the Peruvian and flamenco style drums percussionists usually sit on to play the face—he found an unusual inspiration. “I wasn’t looking at drums for ideas, but I was looking at speakers. That’s what makes it unique,” Jacob says.
The all-wood construction drum doesn’t have any nails or brackets; instead, it’s glued and clamped together. Monk Drums’ signature is a double sound chamber that plays sound out to the audience, instead of down or back, and it delivers amplified volume with low hand fatigue. The variation also allows it to be played upright—more like a conga. Essentially, it’s a drum percussionists love to play.
Dr. Andrew Smith, visiting assistant professor and director of percussion studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, learned about the drums from Eric Boseman. He likens the design to the difference between a trumpet and a trombone, by elongating the sound, it gets a warm tone and a wider range.
Smith, a specialist in Afro-Cuban music, soon commissioned Cuban folkloric style cajons. “In the case of a cajon, when you’re dealing with something made by a craftsman, you’re typically getting a better instrument than with something mass produced,” Smith says. His commissioned drum trio creates a set—the slightly different designs allow for a low, middle, and high sound. He worked closely with Jacob to fine-tune the design, especially for the quinto, the drum designed to solo, interact with dancers and a singer, and emit a specific clack. “That was really the point of working with a custom craftsman—to have a relationship there and be able to tweak [the design],” he says.
It’s a Social Business
Monk Drums sells three to five drums a week through the website or by people calling. John plans to expand distribution in the coming year. “Getting the drums into stores and having people play them themselves, that’s what’s going to sell the drums,” he says.
However, for every drum the company sells, it donates around two to schools, churches, and non-profit programs in Las Cruces, El Paso, and across New Mexico. The company donates part of its profits to supporting programs such as Basketball in the Barrio, a two-day camp in El Paso.
The company also supports the Chaparral/Las Cruces/El Paso area in other ways, too. As people move in and out of the sheltering Desert Rain Community, they sometimes help in the workshop where Jacob teaches a strong work ethic. It’s something he says not all of the visitors have internalized. He also teaches a trade to individuals who may not have one. If the visitors show artistic talent, they are commissioned for custom paintings on the three styles of instruments Monk Drums creates.
“They have people of all races, creeds, and backgrounds staying at Desert Rain Community. Some people come in battling addictions, homelessness, breakups, or divorce. The community will do its best to keep them busy. With Monk Drums, not everyone is good with their hands, but there are a lot of aspects of the drum making that someone can help with,” John says. “That’s one of the coolest aspects to me. People come in not knowing what to do. Then they work and see the drum come out, and are able to play it with their bare hands. A glow comes over them.”
In keeping with his holistic lifestyle — and the prayers that began his journey — Jacob includes a card with each handcrafted drum noting meditation he said while making the drum. It’s just one more trace of this holistic community and business.
Monk Drums’ influence starts with a great instrument design.
Want to hear Monk
Drums being played?
UTEP students will perform the music of Trinidad and Cuba with them March 26, at 5:00pm at Fox Fine Arts Recital Hall. The concert will also feature guest artist Joe Galvin, a top national steel pan performer and an authority on Afro-Cuban music.