Carolyn Brandy is one of the fore-mothers of the women’s drumming movement. She’s a hand percussionist who has played and studied Afro-Cuban and Caribbean drumming styles since 1968. She’s also the founder of Women Drummers International and producer of Born To Drum Women’s Camp, which is in its 12th year in Oakland, California. (The next one is July 19-22).
Women are underrepresented in the percussion world. Our weekly series, Woman Crush Wednesday (#WCW), aims to recognize, celebrate, and inspire female percussionists of all stripes. Each Wednesday we’ll feature a profile of a drummer, who will share tips, advice, and videos.
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What is your city, country, and age?
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and am 71 years old.
What kind of gear do you use? What’s your setup?
I’ve played congas and related drums and percussion since 1968. I also started studying and playing the Aberlinkula (secular) Batá drums in 1988. Women were strictly forbidden to play the Batá until this time. I had heard that the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional de Cuba had started teaching women Batá in Havana, so I went there to begin my studies. I was one of the first women to play the Batá in the US.
What bands/groups do you perform with, if any?
I currently play with an ensemble of women called Ojalá. The members of the group are Michaelle Goerlitz, Elizabeth Sayre, and Jules Hilson on percussion, and Amikaeyla and Regina Wells on vocals. I am also a member of the Arenas Dance Company and play congas and Batá in the group.
Plus, I am the founder of the nonprofit Women Drummers International. Our mission is to empower women and girls with the message of the drum. We produce an annual event called Born To Drum Women’s Camp (which includes women-identified, gender non-conforming folks). This summer is our 12th year. We bring together so many of the incredible women who are mostly hand drummers, and who have been drumming and teaching for years at a very high level. These women come from all over the world. This year we have women from Congo, Ghana, Cuba, Peru, Panama, Venezuela, Harlem, Puerto Rico, and the Middle East. There are 42 women on the faculty.
The drum is being taken back by women who, in a majority of cultures in the world, were forbidden to play drums by taboo.
What led you to your instrument? What’s your origin story?
I grew up playing the violin in Washington. When I went to college at the University of Washington I discovered the conga drum and Cuban music. I was at the Pike Place Market one day and there was a group of men playing Rumba. I was mesmerized and upon asking the leader about the music he told me that they were teaching a class. That was the beginning of a long, unending study of this music with many trips to Cuba, New York, and a move to San Francisco to study.
There weren’t many women drummers in public view at the time I started playing, and in those early days it was much harder for women to be accepted as a serious drummer or musician than it is now. In fact it was very difficult to be accepted.
The first time I started meeting other women drummers from all over the country was in the early days of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I was a co-founder of the band Alive!, which took off in the mid-’70s, and our young band found itself at the second Michigan festival in 1977. That summer I met Nydia Liberty Mata (Laura Nyro) and Edwina Lee Tyler (A Piece of the World, Urban Bush Women). It was so exciting to meet these two women who were so accomplished in their art and such incredible drummers. Tyler’s group A Piece of the World was a remarkable percussion/vocal/dance group of African-American women from New York City. And could they ever play! I was stunned when I saw them and realized then that I had never even envisioned a group of all women, playing drums together like that. We all played together at the festivals for years, with many other women, playing “on the land” and long into the nights.
Who is your favorite drummer and why?
It’s impossible to choose, as there are so many really great women drummers now, both hand and stick drummers, playing all types of music. And in fact, there are women playing drums all over the planet. It seems that the drum is being taken back by women who, in a majority of cultures in the world, were forbidden to play drums by taboo.
How do you practice? Do you have a routine?
After 50 years of playing percussion I still feel inspired to study and play. Generally I practice with the metronome and practice rudiments with hands, as well as exercises for the heel-toe strokes on the conga, for speed and good timing.
Any advice for girls contemplating getting started and making it in this arena?
Practice, study, and respect. Keep practicing and studying — you will never get to the end of it. There is always more to learn and more of your technique to hone and new levels to accomplish. If you are playing ethnic music, it is supremely important to delve into the history of the music and the people who have created the music. For me, this has been the most inspiring and charismatic aspect of learning Cuban music. Any music that came to this continent through the Diaspora is music that was preserved under great hardship, so respect is important.
Where else to find Carolyn: Carolyn Brandy and Women Drummers International on Facebook.