For these women, the beat goes on

October 01, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

A woman known simply as Piel bitterly remembers when her junior high music teacher reneged on a promise to give her drum lessons.

For the 40-year-old interpreter for the deaf, other instruments would not suffice. "I was pent up with music," she says.

Robbye Apperson, a writer, was thwarted at home. "I always wanted to play the drums," says Ms. Apperson, 39, "and my parents bought me a flute."

Joanne Riley grew up playing the piano and became an accomplished musician.But no keyboard "has grabbed me the way percussion has," she says.

As members of Girls Just Want to Have Drums, a women's drumming circle formed in Baltimore two years ago, the three now play with syncopated abandon, in gleeful defiance of parents and teachers.

And they like to share their groove: Tomorrow, at the Fells Point Fun Festival, Girls Just Want to Have Drums will perform a set of hypnotically powerful songs guaranteed to make you move.

"We all feel we were born to drum," says Ms. Riley, 39, a computer specialist and the unofficial leader of the group. "All of us would have given anything to do this when we were kids." But girls didn't play the drums.

The "Girls," whose size ranges from eight to 10 members, are making up for lost time by making exuberant music with goblet-shaped djimbe drums, gourd shakers, claves, agogo bells, rain sticks, tambourines, congas and other percussion instruments. They perform at women's festivals, drum retreats, church basements, galleries and bookstores -- part of a wave of women's drumming across the country.

Long ago, women percussionists were an integral part of community life, says John Millen, a Baltimore drum craftsman and scholar.

"Before the advent of Christianity, women were very much empowered and involved in ritual ceremonies involving drums," he says. Gradually, however, drumming as a means of prayer and communication became largely the purview of men.

Now women are reclaiming their unique sense of rhythm, says Mr. Millen, who suggests women are born to drum in a way men are not.

"They have an innate sensitivity to cycles and rhythms that men are less sensitive to," he says.

They certainly play differently than men, says Jaqui MacMillan, an acclaimed drummer and teacher in Washington who has studied mainly with men. For "a lot of men I play with, it's a competition. It really is like a test of strength: who plays the longest, loudest, hardest, fastest."

While her rigorous apprenticeships have served her well, she enjoys playing solely with women.

"I love it," says Ms. MacMillan, percussionist for a popular world beat group called Big Village. "You go in the circle and it's like going into open arms."

At a Wednesday evening rehearsal of Girls Just Want to Have Drums, 12 women ranging from their 20s to their 60s have gathered at Toby Rivken's Lauraville home. Sweat shirts and other protective coverings are removed from djimbes and congas. Soon the orchestra is deep into a mesmerizing song called "Fire."

With a sure hand, Ms. Riley conducts the players, urging them on with body language, beat counts and well-placed grunts. When the band peaks, it plays in crisp unison, while allowing certain members to lace the music with polyrhythms, emphatic slaps and the spicy clang of two-toned agogo bells.

Drawn from the African diaspora, the bombas, rumbas and spiritual incantations the band plays have been filtered through the drummers' own experience as American women. "What we're building here is a North American tradition. We're not trying to be Africa," Ms. Riley says.

Among those playing is Dee Kinsey, 51, a psychotherapist and one of the few members who persuaded her parents to let her play drums as a girl -- not easy for the daughter of conservative Midwestern Republicans.

There's Natilie Towles, 37, who has recently formed Iona Productions with sister member Cindy Bauer to bring drum masters to Baltimore. Ms. Rivken, a French and Spanish teacher, has been inspired by her drumming community to make clay and goatskin drums in the North African style. She calls her fledgling business Conundrums.

The band practices intensively for two hours, and then players call it a night. Colorful T-shirts and whimsical hats are distributed for Sunday's concert. The women pack their drums and go home.

But before she leaves, conga player Maya Reid, who is in her 60s, ably sums up the group's source of vitality and joy: "We're all very diverse, and it's a lot of fun to share this."

Girls Just Want to Have Drums will perform at 1 p.m. tomorrowSunday in front of Market Square Stage at the Fells Point Fun Festival.

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