In the tradition of good old American music, it’s not usually women you’ll find manning the drums. Dozens of bands are known for their legendary drummers — The Rolling Stones, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, KISS — and none of them are women.
But in the tradition of ancient Mediterranean music, women dominated the percussive world with the frame drum, a handheld drum that is one of the oldest on earth.
And today, women are taking back the drumsticks, in both antique and modern ways.
Layne Redmond has been bringing a feminine perspective to drumming since the 80s. That’s when she was an artist living in Manhattan and saw the flyer: “Afro-Cuban drum class.”
OK, she thought. I’ll try that.
But really, that’s not the entire story, just the second act. The first started years earlier, with 14-year-old Redmond posted up in front of her TV.
“I saw Karen Carpenter playing the drum set on TV and I was very inspired,” she said. “My mom said ‘Oh, honey, the drums are for boys. Stick with your tap dance lessons.’”
So she did. Which, she concedes, is very good rhythmic training for a future percussionist. But the drumbeat never truly left her mind, and that Manhattan class not only rekindled her love of drumming, it launched her career.
She has since recorded albums, made instructional videos and traveled the world teaching and performing. She will be leading a frame drumming retreat from Aug. 3 to 7 at Lake Junaluska.
She’s also written a book, When The Drummers Were Women, which chronicles the long and storied history of female frame drumming.
“It was 15 years of research,” Redmond said of the book, which she published in the mid-90s. And in the intervening years, the frame drum has seen a renaissance, and so has the tradition of women playing it.
“It’s still harder for women, but yes, it’s really changed,” said Redmond. Part of that, she said, is the willingness of teachers to allow girls a place at the drums, which didn’t often happen in the past.
And now, with the advent of the Internet, anyone can learn the skills it takes to be a drummer, picking up skills and techniques from videos and seminars all over the web and combining them into their own, unique style.
This online cross-pollination has led Redmond into a world of players and percussive styles that, before, just wasn’t possible.
“There’s a sort of huge fusion of techniques going on throughout the Middle East. The last time I was in Egypt, I met a bunch of tambourine players who knew me through the [online instructional] videos,” said Redmond. “We are constantly sharing videos and information about the tradition. I’m so excited about what’s happened to me through Facebook and being able to see them playing in their homes and in their backyards.”
And thanks to online venues such as YouTube, women in countries like Iran, who are not allowed to play in public, can share their skills and live their musical lives in the vibrant online community.
Outside of traditional frame drumming, women are slowly breaking into percussion, as well.
In the rock arena, there’s a magazine that’s devoted solely to female drummers called TomTom.
Orchestral percussion has seen an influx of women as well, who, like Redmond, are now members and presenters at the prestigious Percussive Arts Society.
At her retreats and workshops, Redmond sees men and women from all corners of society, including women into their 80s who weren’t allowed to drum in school but are now committed to the practice.
And she’s as excited about the future of the frame drum as she is about its past. From Moses’ sister Miriam and Egyptian priestesses drumming praise to their goddesses to therapists and mothers and pastors today, the allure of the drum is still very much alive and growing.
At one time, said Redmond, there were five professional frame drummers in the U.S.
“And now there are so many professional frame drummers, I don’t even know them all anymore,” and as long as the music is still alive and evolving, she doesn’t mind that at all.
Frame Drum Intensive Training Retreat
Who: Layne Redmond and Tommy Be
When: Aug. 3-7
Where: Lake Junaluska
How much: $350 (does not include room and board)