Ten women are seated in a circle. A single candle glows in the center. Large drums are at their knees. Some are roughhewn, some gleaming in rich tones of red and black with shell inlays. Each woman has one hand poised in the center of the drum. Then it begins: a thunderous heartbeat fills the room. Smiles break out on all the faces. Then a more complex rhythm ensues, which tells the story of a train ride in the mountains of Zimbabwe. Smiles turn into laughter as the women struggle to keep up, hands moving so fast they’re a blur. At the end, a collective shout of joy!
Welcome to the women’s drumming circle held at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula, one of many held around the country and the world. Women drum for many reasons: for fun, community, stress relief, empowerment, or spiritual growth. Drumming is women’s spiritual heritage, according to Layne Redmond, author of When the Drummers Were Women. In the ancient world priestesses led ecstatic drumming rituals to invoke divine energy. Let’s meet three Tidewater women who are carrying on that tradition.
Connie Ralston is a soft-spoken grandma with a calm yet joyful demeanor. Beneath this unassuming façade beats the heart of a lioness. She is on a fearless mission to help heal society’s ills. Also known as the Drum Lady, she was stricken with polio as a child. “This right hand which was once paralyzed can now beat a drum,” said Connie, who leads the Peninsula drumming circle and earns her living as a drumming facilitator.
A Hampton resident, Connie moved here forty years ago from Lansing, Michigan, to escape the harsh winters. She was introduced to drumming in the late 1980s during a women’s retreat in Louisa County, Virginia. Ubaka Hill of New York University taught a drumming class there, and she told her students that the powerful voice of the drum can change the vibration of the world. “She had a strong, beautiful, powerful heart,” Connie said.
Some of the women at the retreat didn’t want to wait until next year to drum again. They began their own drumming circle, which they named “Ma Gun,” which means the Mother Goddess’ Heartbeat. After more instruction by Ubaka Hill and other teachers, they began performing. Later Connie joined with a few local women drummers to form Beleza, a professional drumming group which performed all over Tidewater.
Connie leads drumming circles at schools, libraries, with youth groups, churches, elder care facilities, memory support units, women’s shelters, with the homeless, and even jails. “I had experienced the healing properties of drumming in a women’s group where some had experienced assault and abuse.” she said. When she read research by the Remo Corporation (a drum manufacturer) about drumming as a proven therapeutic tool in elder care facilities, she decided to begin her journey of healing others.
Her childhood experience with polio inspired her to help those burdened with limitations. She was completely paralyzed and flat on her back in a body cast twice for six months each time. “I know what it’s like being bored and powerless, and the utter frustration of my body not being able to do what I wanted it to do,” Connie recalled.
When she began facilitating groups, her work was underwritten by a grant from a local nonprofit agency. To fulfill the required performance based outcomes, she recorded how participants responded to the drum therapy, and the results were always encouraging. Especially striking is the experience of people suffering from dementia. “The changes are immediately visible,” Connie explained. “People who are withdrawn and unengaged suddenly come out of their shell of isolation and start contributing. The nurses say this is the most present they ever see their clients.”
Sometimes her job is just plain fun. She was teaching drumming all week long at a Virginia Beach elementary school when the kids decided to challenge their parents to a contest. They thought adults have no rhythm, and they would surely win. On a Friday night in the school gymnasium there were 300 drums and more than twice as many people. The kids were amazed to find that, yes, adults have rhythm, too. The contest was a tie.
Connie says drumming changed her life and gave her purpose. In contrast with the utter helplessness she experienced with polio, drumming in a group was the most empowering experience of her life. Now she is helping people do more than they think they can.
Drumming is magical, Connie believes, especially when people who don’t think they can make music discover they can. It also brings people together. “Multi layered rhythms are blended, and the group produces powerful music,” Connie said. “People work together to blend energy without judgment.”
A POWERFUL SOUND
Patty Westcott is a world traveler. She is intensely curious about different cultures, their music and rhythms, their differences and their commonalities. On her trips to Europe, Morocco, West Africa, Cuba, the Virgin Islands, and Mexico, she always seeks out the drummers. Most drummers she meets are men, she says, but that is changing.
On a recent trip to Cuba, she saw the all-female dance and drumming troupe Habana Compas. “They were great,” she recalled. “They have met with criticism by people who think women shouldn’t drum, but it doesn’t stop them. I’m struck that such young women can be so highly skilled in such complex rhythms. They are making a place for women in drumming.”
Patty lives in Va. Beach and works as a contract manager. Her journey to become a drummer began in her native St. Louis, Missouri, in the 1990s. She always loved rhythm and wanted to drum. She even bought a drum but didn’t know what to do with it. So for years, it just served as decoration. In 1994, her search led her to a West African drumming class at the Center of Creative Arts. Later, she spent several years as a percussionist with the Brazilian Samba group, Joia.
In 1997, she had the opportunity to visit Ghana in West Africa. She traveled with her teacher, Babatunde Olatunji, and a small group of his friends and family. The University of Ghana at Legon had a two-week study program in drum, dance, and balaphone (somewhat like a xylophone.)
“Africa was amazing, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” Patty said. “The people were so warm and welcoming.” One of the highlights of the trip was seeing young dancers and drummers do the traditional dances and music of their village to win a place in the university.
Patty’s passion to learn even led her to take classes meant for children where she was the only adult. Then she took a two-year course in Winston Salem, North Carolina, commuting once a month for a day-long class. After completing this course, she became a Certified Associate Instructor. Besides these classes Patty took every workshop she could find. “I always grow, and I always get better,” she said, “but I am not a master drummer.”
Patty is also certified by Health Rhythms to facilitate therapeutic drumming. “It is incredibly rewarding to do drum therapy,” she said. “The special needs kids I teach, who are unresponsive to begin with, suddenly become engaged. The drum touches them and connects them to their environment. Their caretakers are amazed by the change.”
She believes the experience of drumming should use both the head and the heart. “That is one of the reasons it brings so much peace to the drummer and joy to the listeners,” Patty explained. “Either extreme does not provide the drummer or the listener with the best experience. Many of the traditional rhythms fit together like a complicated and delightfully challenging puzzle.”
Upon her arrival in Tidewater, she searched for drummers and met Connie Ralston. Together they helped form the professional drumming group Beleza. “That was a wonderful time in my life,” Patty said. “We had so much fun and became so close.” She was an active member for about eight years until the group disbanded.
Patty drums because it brings her joy, stimulates her, and fosters a sense of community with other drummers. Most of her friends are drummers. “I love drummers because they are curious and interesting and a lot of fun to be around,” she said. “Drumming is about having fun, being free, and having a tool to express myself with.”
Drumming empowers women, Patty says, because women are expected to be quiet and modest. This cultural restriction has only just begun to change. “The sound of the drum is powerful, and today women can make a powerful sound,” she said. “It’s OK for our voices to be heard through the drum.”
Charisse Minerva is described by a colleague as an “extraordinary human being who brings to every environment a spiritual sensitivity. Her drum is an extension of herself with her own voice and her own heartbeat. She is a Peaceful Warrior who calls the listener to study war no more but to live and heal with Universal Love.” Charisse works as a consultant in mindfulness, arts, and education and teaches a class called “Dance, Drum, and Meditation” at the Sattvic Space in Portsmouth, Virginia.
She became interested in drumming when, as a college student, she danced in the African dance company, Ezibu Muntu. She wanted to drum during this time, but no one would teach her. “In those days women didn’t drum,” she said. “Men were the drummers and women were the dancers. I had to fight to be able to drum.”
Her first lessons in drumming were in 1994 when, along with the Portsmouth Community Development Group, she helped bring over sixteen Trinidadians to teach steel pans and drumming to community youth. One of the Trinidadians called Roots gave her lessons in steel pan drums and African djembes. Later she took lessons from her mentor, J.C. Carter, who was impressed by her natural talent and told her, “You’ll be teaching this someday.”
While Charisse was at a race relations conference in Miami, people were speaking out about the pain they had suffered due to racism. “We had open wounds,” she said. Six people who brought their drums were asked to perform. Somehow the six drummers sounded like twenty. “It was like the ancestors came to drum with us,” Charisse recalled. People started dancing and laughing. Their sense of sorrow had turned into a sense of joy. While they were playing, a thunderstorm started raging. The loud thunder added to the sense of drama. By the time they finished drumming, the storm had ended, and Charisse went outside to see a beautiful moon and stars above. She felt a sense of promise.
In drumming, she feels that an organic loop is created. “You play the drum with your hands, your body embraces it, it’s resting on the earth, and the sound moves through the air,” she said. “All these energies are unified. It creates a force around you, and the vibration makes you feel high.”
In drumming classes, she teaches her students to let the mind go and be in the flow, to play with their hearts instead of their minds. She reports that girls and women can be challenging to teach because their being loud and aggressive is frowned upon in our culture. She teaches girls to let go of their inhibitions and “hit that thing.” In drumming, being loud is encouraged. She believes being aggressive is a positive way to raise self-esteem and gives a sense of power that can enhance a woman’s daily life.
Charisse believes that participating in the arts helps her perceive reality. Without the arts, she feels that she’s lost one of her senses. “Drumming builds community across cultures, connects hearts, moves energy, and connects people with nature,” she said. She feels blessed to be a drummer and blessed to teach drumming.
“My intention is to soothe the weary and provoke the comfortable,” Charisse said. “It is time to wake up, and I serve as the bell ringer!”
Like priestesses of ancient times, these women drum with passion and purpose, weaving a tapestry of empowerment from the rhythm of life.
For more information:
• Women’s Drumming Circle - www.uufp.org
Dona Sapristi lives in Newport News.