Photos by Lauren Thomas
A prayer went out over the intercom at Ulster County Fairgrounds last Sunday, directing each person to turn their spirituality’s focus to the four cardinal directions — north, south, east and west.
A shrill, warbling cry of song and prayer — steeped in Native American and African customs — washed over a large group of mostly women standing in front of the main stage. All around them — clutched in hands, slung over their shoulders, or for sale or trade in a booth — were drums.
Members of the Million Women Drummers Gathering (MWDG) met at the fairgrounds on the weekend to call attention to tree conservation and the environment.
“It’s a call from women who care about trees and who love to drum,” explained Ubaka Hill, the group’s founder.
Hill herself is an accomplished musician, drummer and teacher. She helped form the group with a mission to create something — rather than protest. The women see their mission as planting trees that will one day grow into wood used for new drums.
While the group has a focus on the wood for all kinds of drums — djembes, congas and Native American tribal drums — they also aim to help preserve the future of all wooden instruments by planting trees or donating to forestry programs.
“When I say ‘wooden instrument,’ I mean from the orchestra pit to the dusty village gathering,” Hill explained.
Tonewood — like mahogany, ash, ebony and rosewood — plays a vital role in constructing musical instruments from the string section to percussion. The MWDG seeks to ensure these important plant species remain.
Part of Sunday’s gathering included an instrument “Swap Fest” where people could trade used wooden instruments so they didn’t go to waste.
“We actually don’t have to cut another tree to put another wooden instrument into an adult’s or child’s hands,” she said.
Various branches of the MWDG have sprung up in North America and other parts of the world. There’s an Ulster County branch, a Catskill branch and ones from Albany, Minnesota, Ontario, Western New York, Florida and even Australia.
Sunday’s gathering is also important for feminist reasons. Women and girls in many cultures — and many musical genres — face discouragement from playing the drums. The group also acts as a vehicle for women drummers to show solidarity with each other.
Ruth Staber, the director of communications for MWDG, said she didn’t think musicians in general often thought about where the wood for their instruments comes from and how it is harvested.
“The drummers were not having the conversation,” Staber said.
At noon, the women gathered for the “One Heart World Rhythm Tree Coherence” — a special drum ceremony where MWDG members in New Paltz drummed together with other branches around the globe.
Spirit of Thunderheart, an all-women Native American drum ensemble, was on hand at the event to perform — as was Edwina Lee Tyler, an expert African drum player who is considered the “Drum Grandmother.”
Tyler came onto the scene with her first records back in the 1980s, but she also defied gender norms as one of the first women to gain fame in traditionally male-only West African drum styles.
Million Women Drummers Gathering started getting organized back in 2010, but they officially launched last year with an event at Colony Café in Woodstock.
They hope to have a gathering similar to last week’s event every three years.