Shrouded in mystery, the frame drum can be traced back to the Paleolithic era, and has been historically used as an ancient technology to alter consciousness in spiritual ritual. Images of women playing the frame drum are pervasive in artifacts of goddess traditions from ancient civilizations in the Near East, India, Greece, Rome, and other parts of the world.
Last November, internationally renowned tambourine virtuoso, singer, dancer, actress, and author Alessandra Belloni brought together a group of kindred women frame drummers in a weekend workshop and evening concert at Remo’s Recreational Music Center in North Hollywood to honor the feminine and the healing power of the frame drum.
The group included devotional singer/frame drum artist and teacher Miranda Rondeau and Judy Piazza, a multi-instrumentalist, workshop facilitator, recording artist, and educator who teaches the Egyptian riq and has performed on many frame drums from various cultures.
We gathered together Belloni, Piazza, and Rondeau to talk about the history of the frame drum, and how they learned from – and broke with – tradition in their own work.
DRUM! What inspired you to bring together these
specific women artists?
BELLONI I had been conceiving of this event for a long time and chose a unique ensemble of women artists who I believed were very different and all had the power to summon feminine power with frame drums, voice, and ritual dance from ancient healing and musical traditions around the world, including southern Italy, Brazil, Asia, and the Middle East. They were all my best students and they each took their own path musically and artistically. I think we created a fiery global percussive journey in honor of the feminine principle, for women and men alike. The workshop participants were taken by the different skills and knowledge each woman had to offer, and the audience really loved the concert as they all danced with us at the end.
DRUM! How did each of you take what you learned from
Alessandra and apply that to your playing?
PIAZZA I met Alessandra early on in my drumming. I took her workshop in Vermont at a camp fair. I was in a transitional point in my life. I had been a musician of many other instruments, and still am, but the drums really shifted things in me. My first teacher and inspiration was Glen Velez, and then to see a woman who had taken this path and was so proficient and passionate about living her gift in the world, really inspired me.
BELLONI And that was great to see, too, because Glen Velez was my first student and he inspired me to continue this path.
RONDEAU I started playing the frame drum 15 years ago, after I first saw Layne Redmond perform. She gave a slide presentation of women playing the frame drum throughout history, and when I saw that my heart cried out. It was like a homecoming. There was something familiar in seeing women playing the drums. She was my first teacher, and then someone gave me an article that Alessandra had written. When I read it I was crying because I was resonating with what she was speaking about and I knew that I had to take her workshop. When she plays I feel the room fill up with the energy of women drummers from ancient times.
DRUM! What is the connection between women and frame
BELLONI The instrument goes back to prehistoric times. They were used mainly by women to honor the goddesses and to heal the community, because they are highly spiritual, very feminine, and are connected to the Moon and the Earth. We believe it was mainly a matriarchal society. The Earth goddess, Cybele, was a very potent goddess from Anatolia [Turkey] who is also worshipped in ancient Greece and Rome. The legend is that she was made from a black meteorite that fell from the stars and is now worshipped as the “Black Madonna.” I was born in Rome where you can see still frescos of Cybele with a frame drum or women holding a round instrument, not necessarily like a tambourine, but with the skin and the frame. The tambourines were very popular in ancient Greece and the women would use them to induce trance in their rites. They are now still used in southern Italy ceremonies honoring the Black Madonna in the tammurriata. I’m really proud of the fact that I was born in southern Italy and the tradition has never died there.
DRUM! Each of you plays multiple instruments, but
what drew you to the drum specifically?
PIAZZA I had a total insatiable curiosity about women and frame drums and how they were connected. The frame drum, in a broader sense, was so totally integral to healing, for men and for women, because of it bringing alive the feminine aspect of our human nature. It’s much more subtle – there’s a fluidity and motion with the drum unlike some of the larger drums. To use the healing aspect of rhythm to connect to the mother, to the Earth, to all the elementals, became very important to me, especially in my work as a music therapist.
RONDEAU I got into drum circle drumming at a [Grateful] Dead show, and I was magnetized. But I dance – I didn’t think to drum. It wasn’t until I read Mickey Hart’s book, Drumming At The Edge Of Magic. There’s a section where he talks about the technical side and the spiritual side, and in a way, that gave me permission to play the drum. Inside my head, there was conditioning that said drumming is for men. Later I saw Layne Redmond play, and I knew I was supposed to be playing this instrument. I realized, too, that I had a lot of other conditioned, collective thoughts about women – that they are inferior – and I carried that around. Healing began as I learned about the connection between the drum and the divine feminine. The sound echoes the mother’s heartbeat. Its archetypal shape represents wholeness, unity, and oneness. Like Judy was saying, the drum connects me to the Mother and the Earth and elements that sustain us. This gave me new thought patterns about women. Wendy Griffin, a women studies professor at Cal State Long Beach, created a group called Lipushiau, [who was] the first written, named drummer in history, a high priestess. And our first gig was a women’s conference at the university. All changed my life.