Drum Like a Lady: Led by Women. Governed by Percussion.
When entering Dahlak Paradise bar in West Philly, the first thing you notice are the walls decorated with traditional Eritrean pieces of art from the east African country. From masks to pottery, the art stands out under dim lighting and the smoke from the hookah that fills the bar. It’s ambiance that can speak to the soul.
As the musicians set up for the Drum Like a Lady sister event Jam Jawn, in the center stands the talented mastermind behind this gathering, LaTreice Branson.
While joking with the other musicians, Branson begins to organize everyone by placing a conga here and setting up a keyboard there.
On every third Friday of the month, Branson gathers musicians, women and men, here for a jam session. Little known, yet swiftly growing, is this musical collective Branson has been expanding called Drum Like a Lady.
Branson, 32, first decided to create Drum Like a Lady as a form of therapy for both physical and mental health issues. In 2013, one year from tenure at Cheyney University as an assistant professor of graphic design, doctors diagnosed Branson with borderline personality disorder, PTSD and depression among other disorders. Not helping matters, she received a letter from the PA State System of Higher Education appointed psychologist stating that she was unfit for duty.
“Realizing that I was unfit really took a toll on my depression,” says Branson. “I didn’t leave the house much. Still it’s a struggle.”
While looking for an outlet to express herself, Branson recalls her friend saying, “Why don’t you drum it out?”
At the time, she felt that playing drums wasn’t the outlet she needed. But she tried it anyway and people began to notice her gift. People’s repetitive question of where she learned – to which she explained that her mother was a drummer (below) and taught her – led her to come up with the idea for Drum Like a Lady.
“I was trying to figure out, ‘Where’s my place now,’ coming from academia and now mourning my career,” Branson recalls. “Realizing what to do next or how do I teach when there’s no university to hire me. Drum Like a Lady was something that was important. It was something that could resurrect me from this despair that I was in. But in order to do it I needed other people’s help.”
Branson decided that if she was going to organize this, it wouldn’t be only to help her, but also to aid others like her.
One of the musicians who got involved, Barbera Duncan, currently plays for the band JJX and has been a part of the collection from early on, once she met Branson at one of her shows.
“[JJX] performed every third Thursday. That’s how I met LaTreice,” Duncan says. “Eventually, she asked me if I wanted be a part of Drum Like a Lady. I’ve been coming ever since.”
A young up-and-coming saxophone player, Art Crichlow III, is the featured conductor for this night’s event. As the conductor, Crichlow leads the jam session with Branson’s guidance.
After set-up, Branson introduces herself to the crowd and includes information about Drum Like A Lady, openly inviting anyone to join, with one rule: Ask her or Crichlow first.
As soon as her intro is done, a low rumble escapes from the drums.
The session includes a bassist, a keyboard player, Crichlow on the sax, three congas and a drummer on a kit. The synchronized music make it feel like they have been playing together for years. Not a single beat is missed and smooth transitions are commonplace but most of the people playing together have never met.
After leading most of the night’s session with his stylish and funky notes on the saxophone, Crichlow takes a moment to explain the open environment of jam sessions held by Drum Like a Lady.
“You just walk up and play, man,” Crichlow explains of the relaxed vibe (as long as you ask, of course). “It’s not really that deep!”
People switch out to let someone new step in or borrow one another’s instruments, letting the music slip out of them, while consistently adding to the organic mixture of sounds.
It’s no wonder that Bernie Sanders once recruited them to play for his presidential campaign visit to Philadelphia.
For two hours, they play with unimaginable vigor. Yet in this moment, sitting off to the right, playing her conga decorated with the Puerto Rican flag, Branson looks at peace.
“It’s led by women,” says Branson with a sly smile as she grips her instrument and explains Drum Like A Lady, “and governed by percussion.”