By Kathleen Richards
When Carolyn Brandy began playing hand drums, the idea of a woman playing a percussive instrument was considered taboo.
"I was discriminated against," said Brandy, who lives in San Leandro. The 71-year-old recalls being told that drumming would damage her female organs or even cause her uterus to fall out. "People would say, 'I wouldn't let my daughter put that between her legs.'"
That was half a century ago, and Brandy never stopped drumming. Her drum of choice, the batá drum, has two heads and is shaped like an hourglass. It originated in Nigeria and was later brought to Cuba via the African slaves. "I was one of the first women to play that drum in 1988," she said. "I took so much flak for that. People really attacked me."
Despite all the threats and discouragement, Brandy chose to spread her love of drumming, teaching children in Berkeley and Oakland as well as inmates at San Quentin State Prison. Since the late '90s, she has used drums to empower women and girls through her nonprofit, Women Drummers International, and, since 2006, an annual drumming camp for women, Born to Drum. Taking place over four days at Bort Meadow inside Anthony Chabot Regional Park, the drumming camp includes drum workshops and drum circles, but also singing, dancing, yoga, poetry, and more.
Held this year July 19-22, the annual event will bring together a diverse group of talented women drummers from all over the world: Cuba, Ghana, Puerto Rico, Congo, France, Jamaica, the Middle East, Venezuela, the East Bay, and beyond. Faculty members include Cuban-born singer, percussionist, and Yoruba-Lucumi priestess Bobi Céspedes; percussionist, vocalist, composer, and dancer Edwina Lee Tyler; Congolese dance queen Mabiba Baegne; Nicaraguan percussionist and bandleader Annette Aguilar; Afro-Peruvian master percussionist Peta Robles; and many more.
Over the years, the camp has evolved and expanded, incorporating more faculty and non-drumming activities such as movement and a healing tent. This year, organizers also added an area for kids' activities and changed the camp's messaging to be more inclusive: "This year, we're saying 'women and women identified and gender nonconforming,'" Brandy said.
The camp is open to all drumming levels—beginners included—and even those not interested in drumming are welcome to attend. On most days there are four session periods and in each session there are about five activities to choose from—from Native American drumming to a discussion on gender identity and how to use herbal medicine for stress and anxiety.
"I'm trying to make it more of a women's camp," said Brandy. "Women, we like to gather together. It's part of our DNA. We like to get together, gaggle, fix food, and laugh. I want all women to feel welcome to Born to Drum."
To that end, Brandy tries to keep the camp as affordable as possible. The full four-day experience costs $240, but attendees can also come for one day. (Campers are responsible for bringing their own camping gear and food.) And if people can't afford the $60-per-day fee, they can participate in a work-study program to get a discount. Mothers can bring their children, too—including boys age 10 and younger.
There's space for 300 participants, and people can buy tickets as late as July 18. (Tickets will also be available at the gate, although they'll be $15 more expensive.)
Bonnie Bell, a retiree who lives in San Jose, has been attending the camp for several years now. She first got interested in drumming about eight years ago after attending a monthly drumming workshop in Oakland called Drum Sunday, which is presented by Women Drummers International and is now held at Ashkenaz in Berkeley. Brandy happened to be teaching that day, and told participants about an upcoming drum tour she was organizing to Cuba.
Bell, despite having no drumming or musical background, and some of her friends decided to go. They traveled around the country in a van, stopping in various towns and getting lessons from local drummers, followed by performances in the evening. "The classes were kind of mind-boggling and hard to follow," Bell recalled. But that didn't deter her. "What it did was whetted my desire to learn how to drum."
Upon return, Bell and her friends asked Brandy to teach them how to play. They began having regular classes together, and then began attending the Born to Drum camp. Now Bell is on the board of directors for Women Drummers International and serves as the nonprofit's secretary.
Although she readily admits that rhythm is not one of her talents, Bell said the experience of learning to play the conga has been an enriching one. "It challenged me to be involved in something that I'm not naturally good at," she said. She also described drumming as "spiritual" and "very community" oriented. "It's an experience of the heart," she said.
That aspect of drumming is what makes the instrument—and the camp—particularly special, Brandy noted. "The drum is an instrument that you play communally," she said. "There's no other instrument like that. You don't get 20 saxophonists playing together."
To non-drummers, drumming may seem like a straightforward instrument compared to a guitar or piano, but Brandy dispels that notion. "It's very intelligent," she said. "There's a lot of intellect in drumming."
In most cultures, drums have played an integral role in life. "In Africa, the drums spoke," said Brandy. "They recited poetry. They were used to educate the children." Drums taught parables about what it means to have good character, she explained. "They say the rhythms are arguments; the beat is your main purpose in life."
Drums are also a healing instrument. "You go into a different state of mind—a much more present moment," she noted. (Bell said drumming has been good for her mind.)
As women have traditionally been the healers and teachers in society, drums are particularly significant for us. "In matriarchal societies, women play drums," said Brandy. "But somewhere along the line, it got taken away from us." Although things are changing, she points out, "Not that long ago, we weren't supposed to play."
Brandy guesses that drums may have been considered too dangerous in the hands of women. "If you think about all the women who were burned as witches for picking herbs," she said. "Imagine if they had played drums!"
For more information on Born to Drum, go to www.WomenDrummers.org.
Campers play the African ngoma drums. The four-day drumming camp comes to Bort Meadow this month. Photo courtesy Born to Drum/Women Drummers International.