In 1973, the 60’s arrived in Atchison, Kansas, my hometown.
They came in the person of Jodi, who was 22 years old and had long, silky brown hair. She wore flowy cotton clothes and was the leader of an after-school singing group at Trinity Lutheran School called the Gospel Vibrations. Instead of singing stodgy hymns with the organ, Jodi accompanied us on her acoustic guitar as we sang folk gospel songs. I remember one that went, “Oh Sinner Man, where ya gonna run to.…,” which I mistakenly thought was about my favorite spice. There was another song where Jodi strummed her guitar and then tapped out a rhythm on the body. “Strum, tap-tap-tap TAP. Strum, tap-tap-tap TAP.” I thought that was the coolest thing I had ever heard.
I was 12 years old, and I had music inside me trying to burst out. I was taking piano lessons, but there was something missing. My teacher always taught me harmless little tunes in major keys when I wanted to play the blues. I was an alto in the Gospel Vibrations even though I wasn’t a good singer—but it was a way to get close to Jodi twice a week.
Deep down inside, I was really a drummer. From my earliest memories, I have always drummed on things. Before I had instruments, I’d drum on my high chair tray with my baby spoon. I’d drum on my schoolbooks with pencils. I’d drum on tables with my fingers, and still do. In 1973, my family took a vacation to south Texas that included a jaunt across the Mexican border into Matamoras. There I spent eight dollars of my hard-earned babysitting money on my first actual drums, a set of bongos.
You can imagine how excited I was when the Gospel Vibrations were working on a song for our spring program at church and Jodi turned to me and said, “Vonn, you have a set of bongo drums, don’t you?”
“Yes! Yes, I do.”
“Can you bring them to our next practice?”
“Yes! Yes, I will!”
As soon as our rehearsal was over, I rushed home and started practicing. I practiced all weekend. I didn’t know what I was doing, so my method was to play along with my AM/FM clock radio as loud as my parents would allow. I played along with Carly Simon—“You’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you”—and America—“I been through the desert on a horse with no name, it felt good to get out of the rain.” When Tuesday came, I put my bongos in a brown paper grocery bag and took them to school with me. I couldn’t wait for school to be over so I could go to the Gospel Vibrations for my big debut.
Finally the moment came. Jodi was waiting for us in the church basement. I carefully put my drums on the lunch table with our jackets and books. She ran us through our warm-ups and then through a few songs we already knew. “Did she forget?” I thought. I hoped she hadn’t forgotten the drum song, but I was prepared to remind her just in case. At last, I heard her play the chords of the song and adjust her capo. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I rushed over to the table and pulled my bongos out of the paper bag and came back over to Jodi.
“Oh! You remembered!” she said. “Thank you.”
She took the drums out of my hands and handed them to a boy. “Do you think you can play these?” she said to him.
My mouth flew open. Before I could remember my lessons about respecting my elders, I said, “No! Those are my drums. I’m supposed to play those.”
Jodi looked at me and shook her head. “Oh no, Vonn. Girls can’t play drums in church.”
I went back to my place with the altos. Even though I had been taught that hating someone was as bad as murder, I hated that boy. He looked so smug sitting there with my drums between his knees. I stared at him, repeating to myself “Mess up. Mess up. Mess up.” He didn’t.
This experience was not enough to stop me from drumming, but it did keep me out of church for a long time. I guess that’s what happens when our gifts are rejected. (I need to remember that when other people offer their gifts.)
39 years later, I have drummed in smoky bars with rock bands. I’ve drummed with lesbians in the woods. I’ve drummed at pride festivals. I’ve drummed for lots and lots of belly dancers. Through all those years, I’ve gotten used to being marginalized. I’ve had guys try to pull the doumbek out of my hands in the middle of a belly dance piece. I’ve had bands set up and leave no room on the stage for me and my instruments. I’ve had a male protegé mistaken for the “master drummer.” I’ve had teachers ignore my requests for instruction. I’ve come to expect this reaction and not make a big deal out of it—just carry on and play. I found a new religious home in a branch of the Religious Society of Friends that doesn’t do music on Sunday mornings.
In the summer of 2012, I was invited to play percussion for an oratorio, The Fire and The Hammer, at the Friends General Conference Gathering. Arranging and learning my parts was, at first, a challenge—I’ve avoided formal, western music for a while now. When I joined the chorus, conductor, pianist, and soloists for rehearsal, I was concentrating so hard on playing well that I didn’t notice whether anyone raised an eyebrow that I’m not male. During set up for the performance, the stage manager and sound techs were so respectful and professional that I felt almost suspicious. “Wait,” I thought, “where’s the part where I have to advocate for the square footage I need on the stage? When do I have to adjust my microphones myself in order to be heard?” It never seemed to occur to anyone that I wasn’t supposed to be there.
Before the performance, hundreds of people filled a big arena at the University of Rhode Island and worshiped. Then came the music. There were sections in the oratorio where my drum boomed to fill the whole arena with great big sound. At other times, I played softly alongside vocals or piano. During “Oh People of England,” I looked out over the large crowd and heard my drum echoing off the rafters and thought to myself, “This is an awful lot like playing in church.”
I did not decide to tell this story to indict Kansas or the 1970’s or Jodi. My experience was not unique to the time and place of the Gospel Vibrations. Lots of people have their contributions rejected because they don’t fit our image of a person with those gifts to offer. Friends are not always successful at seeing beyond stereotypes and expectations to a person’s gifts and raising them up, but sometimes we do get it right. When we do, it matters.