Drum Like A Lady event at Dahlak | photo courtesy of Drum Like A Lady
Drum Like A Lady: Rhythm runs in the family
Often times drums are seen as a man’s instrument.
The sounds can be disruptive; producing a powerful rhythm takes an enormous amount of energy. Far be it from a woman to choose not to stand in the spotlight as a singing diva. When one does see a woman behind a set, a feeling of wonder, confusion, and awe is born. This does not mean that women like Sheila E., Meg White, and Cindy Blackman did not completely hold their own when it came to playing the drums – but their choice of instrumentation was more than musical, but a little bit political.
The prior description is one of a rock ‘n roll aesthetics. Yet in African cultures, where the drum was born, there still seems to be a strong male dominance over the instrument. Here in Philly, LaTreice Branson and her sister Paulette are creating a space where women drummers of all backgrounds and skill levels can come together and play music without pressure and pretense. Drum Like A Lady is where all the magic happens once a month at West Philly’s popular Dahlak Eritrean Restaurant.
Drum Like A Lady is an open jam session and dance party that is “Led by Women, Governed by Percussion.” The event and jam is by no means closed off to men and other instruments, but it is clear that the energy in the dining room is one of femininity and rhythm.
“When attendees come to Drum Like a Lady events, they can expect to experience new soundscapes, rooted in improvisation…that creates an atmosphere of celebration and love,” says LaTreice.
Usually around midnight the jam area gives way to the dancefloor for “SWEAT” – an Afrobeat dance party where DJ Precolombian and LaTreice share the audiospace and seamlessly blend electronic rhythms with those of live percussion. The desire to dance becomes unconquerable to the point where one’s hips can not stay still. The musical vibration and high energy can be felt throughout the venue.
“In true jam session tradition, even this part of the evening is not rehearsed and purely improvisational,” describes LaTreice. “The pulse from the drums can be felt throughout the entire city block. We dance, and sing, and laugh, and burn calories until we can’t go any longer.”
The Branson household was a musical one. When LaTreice and Paulette were growing up, the family was deeply involved in the church – and where there is faith, music is likely to follow. A love of music has followed the Branson sisters into adulthood. Their mother Paula was an active member of the church and lead an African dance group there and at the girls’ school. The relationship that the young women had with their mother and her music had a lasting impact.
“Growing up, music was also present in the house, at school, and at church,” reflects Paulette. “My mother first taught me the drums, so I vividly recall drumming everywhere in the house – on pots and pans, on telephone books, wherever. We were a creative family. We always sang songs and had our own shows in the house, performing our favorite church songs or creating our own.”
For LaTreice, she remembers her experiences growing up in the Branson household and how music related to everyday activities like cooking and commuting – “I was blessed to grow up in a musical family unlike any other,” she says. “I mean, we’ve been jamming together since I can remember life itself. All of my fond childhood memories are set to the soundtrack of my family creating music together. I smell pancakes, and I hear my grandmother singing hymns in the kitchen; I hear traffic and am reminded of how my mother always kept her drumsticks in the car, practicing drum rudiments to the dashboard to Gospel hits on the radio. My mother dented up that entire dashboard, and my father never seemed to mind; he adores the drummer in her.”
Music and, more specifically, drumming was ingrained into their childhood. Neither Paulette and LaTreice can find an exact moment when they began their journey with playing music – it was almost as if the began learning before they were even born. “I could argue that I started playing drums in my mother’s womb. I can’t say a specific age I started playing, but through my earliest memories I recall playing when I was age three or so,” says Paulette, who also plays guitar, bass guitar, and piano.
Since The Branson Sisters have been instrumentalists their entire lives, it makes sense that LaTreice founded Drum Like a Lady in 2014. For her, drumming represents a spirituality that embodies love, kindness and God. There was a period in time where LaTreice was diagnosed with bursitis in both hips and sciatica in her lower lumbar – sitting, standing, and walking proved to be a major challenge – drumming was completely out of the question. Mental illness also played a significant role in LaTreice’s unwanted lifestyle change.
“As a result of much prayer, faith in God, and a consistent yoga and body-weight exercise practice, I’ve learned how to strengthen myself mind, body and spirit,” says LaTreice. “I asked the Lord to teach me how to live a fulfilled life – a healthier life – that would allow me to serve the community through music without the burden of pain.”
Due to her mental and physical health issues, LaTreice found that she was no longer able to be in bands that required numerous hours out of her week, hours that she could be using to heal herself. LaTreice found that producing Drum Like a Lady was a cathartic experience.
The organization aims to provide a safe space for women of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs and lifestyles to express their uniqueness through collective drumming, and encourages women, and young girls alike, to see the drum as a healing instrument, a community tool, and one of the most powerful and effective methods of non-verbal communication known to humanity.
The next Drum Like a Lady event takes place on Friday, January 22 at Dahlak Paradise in West Philly. Every third Friday of the month, Drum Like a Lady features different lady percussionists. The future looks bright for ‘Drum Like A Lady” – outdoor drum circles, community workshops, and leadership program for young girls.
“The drum is the heartbeat, the pulse, the foundation, that part of the song that enables your head to knob, your shoulders to move, your feet to tap, your hands to clap,” says Paulette. “It’s the force that moves the current. When I create and produce music, I can definitely say the drum motivates the sounds, the tone, the dynamics and intensities of all other instruments.”