Layne Redmond (1952-2013) Composer, Drummer, Author, Filmmaker, Educator
Following in the Footsteps of the Drumming Goddesses
by Andy Doerschuk
Layne Redmond is resigned to the task at hand. At once a labor of love and an albatross, it's actually a book -- a very long book, as it turns out -- called When the Drummers Were Women, that she's been writing for the past six years. "I would have never done it if I had known what I was getting myself into," she now admits, laughing with 20/20 hindsight. Even as she spent her advance, Redmond didn't realize that to finish the book, she would have to drop her huge roster of students, move into the country from New York City and severely cut-back on her performance schedule. In fact, she was convinced that the book had been completed several months ago -- that is, until she turned it into her publisher and received back a sheaf of suggested rewrites and cuts.
Such is the price one pays for possessing many talents. In her 43 years, Redmond has been a band leader, photographer, performance artist, scholar, hand percussionist, teacher, and now, the author of a book that traces the connection between women and drumming back to the origin of recorded history. Reading between the lines, you might notice that it also tacitly chronicles Redmond's personal self-discovery. She believes that her chosen path began in her teens, when she lived in Crystal River, Florida. It was a rural setting, and she was only vaguely exposed to the music of the day. Her parents subscribed to the Record Of The Month Club, which brought discs from Connie Francis and Mantovani into the household. To hear rock and roll, she had to wake up in the middle of the night and tune in distant stations from New York or Cleveland. There wasn't even a choir at church.
Her earliest exposure to live music came during tap lessons, which she studied with a former professional dancer from New York who insisted on using a live pianist for accompaniment. Then in high school, Redmond made it onto the cheerleading squad, which proved to be a turning point in her story. "As I reevaluated it later in my life, cheerleading was a very important part of my training," she says. "In a small town in the south, the football game is the biggest thing going in the county. I was using rhythmic movement and chanted sound to entrain large groups of people with me. And now that I'm doing community ritual, I don't see how it's so very different."
Although this unlikely similarity between spiritualism and cheerleading hadn't yet become clear to her in high school, Redmond was already sure of one thing: She had to leave Crystal River, and did, on the day after her high school graduation. However, she only made it as far as Gainesville, where she majored in art at the University of Florida and began to experience the '60s counterculture for the first time. While in Gainesville, Redmond married a northerner and later moved to New Jersey. She admits that she never would gave gone there on her own. All of her hip friends were moving to Colorado, and she had been raised in a place where Yankees were still considered to be on the unjust side of the Civil war. "People from New York didn't have any manners," she says, laughing, "I don't think I've completely gotten over that idea - its just that now, I feel like a New Yorker myself!"
Redmond continued studying art at Rutgers University in Newark. "I left from a beautiful agricultural campus and went to the middle of an inner city, where all my teachers were artists who were living in Manhattan. Everyone was very focused on what we were doing there. There was certainly very little partying going on." Enveloped in the ethnic melting pot of the big city, Redmond found herself attracted to exotic styles of music that had never made it to Crystal River. She would go to the library every week and check out exactly 12 albums -- which was the limit -- of traditional music from around the world and the work of experimental Western composers.
After graduating from Rutgers, Redmond received a scholarship from the Brooklyn Museum, and started to network with people in the Manhattan arts community. Eventually, she and her husband took a loft in the city, and Redmond began presenting a series of performance art works, including one called I Was A Teenage Cheerleader, based on her high school experience. She attended inner city basketball games, learning the cheers and chants of the young black cheerleaders. Many of her performance pieces involved excerpts of the new music that she had borrowed from the library.
Then, on a whim, Redmond decided to learn how to play congas, in order to somehow integrate them into her performances. She signed up to take a class with a local teacher. "I totally loved it," she says. "I just loved the experience of being in rhythm with the other students. Interestingly enough, the other three people in the class were women. I remember telling people, 'You should do this,' but nobody could figure out what I was so excited about." After only a handful of classes, her teacher informed his students that he was moving out of New York. At the final lesson, he brought in hand drummer Glen Velez to play a duo with him on pandiero, a Brazilian tambourine. Afterward, Redmond was on her own with her newfound passion for percussion.
Several months later, Redmond saw Velez once again, this time playing dumbek in concert. After the show she approached him and asked if he would be willing to teach her the dumbek, which he agreed to do. However, when she arrived at Velez's apartment for her first lesson, he informed her that he had broken his ceramic dumbek. Grabbing a riq -- a Middle Eastern tambourine -- from the wall where it was hanging, Velez asked if his new student would mind working with it instead. Redmond agreed, and has since gone on to make tambourine technique her specialty. Somewhat incredulous, she now says, "What are the coincidences and circumstances that led me to that point? I don't know, but there I was with a tambourine, and I took a lesson and tape recorded it, and went home and practiced every day."
Redmond progressed quickly on percussion, and began to feature Velez in her performance art pieces rather than using recorded music. Slowly but surely, "The drums led me away from my previous life," Redmond says. "I stopped doing the things I had been doing, and stopped working with the people I had been working with. I gradually stopped doing performance art altogether, and let go of the visual side of what I was doing. Something was definitely missing from the downtown performance art scene for me. I was interested in doing semi-ritualistic work, and it was as if we were doing fake rituals.
"I got very involved with Tibetan Buddhism in the early '80s. I went to a four-day ritual with a very old Tibetan Lama who has since died, and it was an amazing experience. He had a group of monks with him playing traditional music. The empowerment went on for four days, and I realized that what I was experiencing was more astounding than any performance that I had ever seen -- and it was totally real. It was invoking real energies. It was a real spiritual experience. It was what we were missing, and that completely changed me. I saw the emptiness. I saw that our music and art had gotten so far beyond the originating impulse behind music and art and dance. They were all used in ritual to entrain people together in a communal experience to acknowledge the time of year like the solstices and the equinoxes; to have initiatory rites of passage where people were moved from one state of consciousness into another."
Disillusioned with the downtown artist community, Redmond quit doing performance art entirely, and began drumming full-time with Velez and flautist Steve Gorn. The trio soon gained recognition in the East Coast new music scene, playing highly visible festivals like New Music America and clubs like the Knitting Factory. After shows, Redmond was often approached by women who had been in the audience and who wanted to learn how to play the frame drums. In time, she was teaching 50 students a week and conducting a workshop every weekend.
"I knew how to teach people who weren't musicians,' she says. "I knew how to make it understandable to them. I also knew how to give them a way to practice, because drumming is an incredible way to channel repetitive obsessive behavior. You've got to do things repetitively and obsessively for hours at a time. Any serious musician has to spend upward from five to ten hours a day in a room by themselves practicing. So when you start to teach a non-musician, you have to give them a way to approach that ability to repeat something with mindfulness. So I developed a way to teach non-musicians in a ritual context so that they could get meaning from what they were doing. A few of my students have decided to become professional musicians, but mostly that's not their aim. They're trying to add music to their lives. They wanted to have communal experiences. They wanted to have rituals that had meaning, that left them inspired and optimistic about the year or making of birth or death, because so many of our rituals have lost their meaning at this point."
While working with Velez, Redmond discovered that he had begun investigating the history of the frame drum, and had collected slides of various images and types of drums from around the world, which he used during scholarly lectures. Redmond's photography instincts kicked in when she realized that he had no duplicates of his slides, and she began organizing and duplicating them. In the process she realized that most of the ancient images involved women playing frame drums. "I was playing with Glen, who was a virtuoso mallet player who came out of a conservatory, was playing with Steve Reich, and then picked up these frame drums, and became a virtuoso on them," she says. "I was graced with the fact that I was always playing with people who were considered virtuoso musicians. But the underside was that I always looked at myself like, 'God, I don't have this training. I didn't start playing until I was 28 years old. I'm a woman.' So when I realized that it had been mostly women who had played the drums for thousands of years, that meant something to me. I started to pursue that. When I started looking, I didn't know who these women were on the vase paintings, these sculptures of women, engravings on the sides of the temples. I started to realize that many of them were goddesses and priestesses of different goddesses."
By 1990, after years of playing Velez's music, Redmond had become compelled to explore her own musical agenda, and quit the group. "Glen's music got more and more complex over the years," she says. "I was always going to just be playing whatever part Glen gave me in that group. I certainly brought a lot to that group, but it was never going to be a vehicle for any ideas that I had. I was still obviously his student, too. I don't think I ever moved out of that relationship to him. So it just came to that time when I had to do something in terms of growing, and I had a lot of ideas of my own at that point."
Drafting a number of drummers from her legion of students, she started a group called the Mob of Angels. The all-women ensemble began performing community rituals involving Redmond's compositions, which differed greatly from Velez's work. "Glen's music was extraordinarily fast," she says. "If you play with him you play at this really intense level of speed. So the first thing I did was to slow way down. It turns out that most of my pieces are sort of at a relaxed heartbeat rate, and they really had this ceremonial quality to them. We began to explore the energies based around the solstice or the equinox; these powerful times when the earth is shifting. I've always done things that just personally make me feel good." In the meantime, some of her former colleagues wondered what the heck Redmond was getting into. She remembers: "In the middle of Manhattan everybody kept going, 'You should be in California. You'd be really successful out there.'" But the fact was that the Mob of Angels was wildly successful. The group attracted crowds to its rituals that were twice as large as Redmond had previously played for with Velez, and recorded an album, Since The Beginning on Interworld Records. She also made an instructional video for Interworld -- Ritual Drumming. While the Mob of Angels gathered momentum, Redmond accelerated her research into the tradition of women drummers, and integrated the history into her performances and workshops. She spent hours pouring through texts in libraries and took extended sabbaticals in countries throughout Europe and Asia to locate research materials.
"I took a month-long trip to Turkey and Syria two years ago," she says. "I drove a car and went to obscure museums where I would have to wake up the guard to have him turn the lights on. I had been a photographer for years, so those skills came into play, and I have a vast collection of images now. It's almost as if I can go to any little library in any rural town now, and if I spend an hour or two there I can come up with a new reference or a new image of a woman playing a frame drum. I just know where to look at this point."
Each new scrap of evidence that Redmond found led to another, like pieces fitting into an elaborate puzzle which, over the course of time, have accumulated into a comprehensive picture of woman's role in the history of drumming. "It took years of thinking, 'How does this fit here? And how does that fit there?' I found that the frame drum was used over and over again throughout the millennia in initiatory death and rebirth rituals. It was the instrument that would create a trance that would move you into a death-like state. So the frame drum was the trance-inducing technology used to create rites of passage for people. They were used in the mystery schools of the ancient world -- the mysteries at Eleusis in Greece that were based around the goddess Demeter and Persephone -- and in Dionysian initiations and rituals, and the mystery schools of the goddess Cybele. Inanna, Hathor, Isis, all these different goddesses were linked to a male god, a vegetation god, who dies and is brought back to life every year through the power of many women playing the frame drum. The drums would be played over the ground as the seeds were planted and as the vegetation was growing to bring the life back up out of the earth.
"The frame drum was used over and over again as a symbol of bringing life back into manifestation. From the oldest times, from at least as far back as 2500 BCE, people were buried with little figures of women playing the frame drum. In Egypt, because the sand is so dry, frame drums have been found preserved in tombs. The Phoenicians, who were originally from Lebanon and Syria, colonized the whole Mediterranean world, and took the frame drums with them everywhere. On their grave monuments there's often a women playing the frame drum, as there also is on Egyptian grave monuments. So it was an ancient symbol of rebirth. From Mesopotamia, the frame drum was associated with Inanna, the ancient great goddesses of Sumer who transforms into Ishtar in Babylonia. Ishtar becomes Anat, Astarte, and many different goddesses. She is the goddess of love, sexuality and of war, who splits into Athena and Aphrodite in the Greek traditions. Athena is not associated with the frame drum, but representations of Aphrodite are heavily associated with the frame drum, and her priestesses played frame drums. Her most famous priestess was Sappho, the great musician, composer and poet of the 7th century BCE. The oldest goddesses are associated with cow goddesses. Hathor in Egypt, who becomes Isis, is the oldest depicted deity in Egypt, male or female. She is portrayed sitting in a lotus playing the frame drum. Many of the goddesses hold the frame drum in one hand and hold the lotus in the other, or sit in a lotus. Or the frame drum has a lotus painted on the head.
"I've also collected the symbols painted on the frame drums, particularly from ancient Greek vase paintings from about 2,500 years ago. I've deciphered what they represented. Because I had studied Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, I knew what the lotus represented in that tradition. It's a symbol of creation. Also it's a symbol of the goddesses womb out of which all life comes. I gradually began to realize that these goddesses are holding attributes that represent their role as the creatress of the universe. The frame drum is the aural archetype of creation, like the lotus is a visual archetype of creation. One sound, one stroke on the drum, and the whole world comes into being. All the ancient cosmologies believe that vibration was at the root of manifestation. Physics is telling us now, with the newest Superstring theories, that everything is a manifestation of vibrations.
"The drums were also painted red, predominantly, over and over again. If they had no symbols painted on them, which connected them to symbols of creation, they were painted red, which is the color of blood. Then in my research I kept seeing this connection with the sacred egg. Many of the most ancient mythologies say that the world starts as an egg that breaks open with the first sound, and the whole universe spills out. So this egg is an ancient symbol of creation, and of death and rebirth. I realized that often the frame drum was representing the symbol of the egg breaking open.
"I wanted to find out when we first could hear in the womb. And from studying fetal development, we first hear sounds about six months of age. I realized that the drum also represents that first sound that you ever experience. It's sort of the popular thing right now to say that the first sound we hear is our mother's heartbeat. It's not. It's the gush of blood through our mother's arteries. I've got all these recordings from inside the womb. It's blood; the first sound that we ever experience is the vibration of blood pulsing.
Redmond pauses, takes a breath and says, "I have a whole book's worth of information which I'm not going to try to tell you now." Over and over again Redmond's focus returns to the book. She can't ignore it. It won't go away, at least not on its own volition. As enamored as she is with the subject, she wants to get on with it, and get it out of the way, so that she can move onto a whole new set of projects that are in the works.
In addition to the continuing Mob of Angels, this includes a new duo called Mad Honey, featuring Redmond and percussionist Tommy Brunjes in a less ritualistic concert setting. She and Brunjes have also designed a line of signature hand drums which will be made and marketed by Remo, Inc. However, she doesn't intend for the book to mark the end of her research. If anything, Redmond plans to delve even deeper into the subject. "My next project is to go where the remnants of these traditions still exist, before they're completely gone,l" she says. "Because in places like Portugal, Spain and Italy, the old people are the only ones still playing the old styles of the frame drum. Young people are moving to the cities where they can make a living, and the traditions are starting to fade away. I've got to go to these places and try to learn from them."