Return of the Women Drummers

It’s exciting to see the work of Tom Tom Magazine and other media, organizations and individuals promoting and celebrating the return of women to the world of drumming. Not like women ever went away completely, but there was certainly a dip in numbers. For about 1500 years.

For most of my life, I only heard about a handful of women drummers: Cindy Blackman, Terri Lyne Carrington, Sheila Escovedo, Karen Carpenter, Layne Redmond. Fantastic players, all, but why so few? Well, it turns out there used to be more women drummers. A lot more.

Percussionist Layne Redmond, author of When the Drummers were Women, spent years studying the topic, and found that the earliest known drummers were women. And drummers in ancient, goddess-based civilizations were primarily women.

Priestesses often used frame drums and other drums to connect to the divine, and texts and depictions found from these times (c. 3000BC to 500AD) show countless representations of women and goddesses with drums.

So…. What happened? It seems that Christianity happened, and the decline in numbers of women percussionists very likely followed its ascendancy. According to Redmond, “The Catholic synod of 576 (commandments of the Fathers, Superiors and Masters) decreed: ‘Christians are not allowed to teach their daughters singing, the playing of instruments or similar things because, according to their religion, it is neither good nor becoming.’”

It appears the decree was heeded, and the era of male-dominated drumming was born. And the art of drumming was made all the poorer without the contribution of women. Of course, it didn’t stop at drumming, as the disempowerment of women in almost all facets of society began and its vestiges are still alive and well today. In the arts, business, sports, politics, etc. Thankfully things are moving in the direction of equality, albeit too slowly. And women are again taking up the drums, their birthright.

Enter Meg White (White Stripes), Carla Azar (Autolux), Allison Miller and many others, bringing with them a different perspective, a different sound. A nod to tradition, but a badass forging into the new. Maybe a connection to the divine? Men, too, like Ted Poor, Brian Blade,, have given me renewed excitement for the future of the trap set and music in general.

I used to say in workshops that the earliest percussionists were women, and men were jealous and said “Gimme that,” and took their drums away and kept them for themselves. I was saying that in jest, but maybe it’s the truth. Thank goodness that women are now saying “Gimme that” right back, and girls are being encouraged to explore whatever instrument they want. The unconscionable barriers and stigmas are dissolving, and it’s about time. It’s about drumming and it’s about self-expression. The future looks bright.