When you walk through the front door at 415 Main Street in downtown Rosendale, it’s hard to know where to look first. Besides the musical instruments that are its original raison d’etre, the shop and art gallery known as TRANSnDANCEnDRUM is packed with crystals and curios, antiques and oddities.
Huge, vividly colored and detailed street scenes of Rosendale by Amber Kelly — who also works behind the counter — dominate some of the walls, while others are currently devoted to an exhibition of photography by Anne Coleman and Ted Dixon. Long strings of stone and glass beads dangle alongside baskets filled with drumsticks and shakers handcrafted from recycled materials. In one corner is a display of “talking sticks”: wands and staffs decorated with feathers, polished stones and colored string, made by an artisan named Pam Parker from Hudson River driftwood. On shelves along one wall are stacks and stacks of five-gallon food buckets from nursing home kitchens, gaily painted by the residents themselves and transformed into drums.
In the middle of the floor is a particularly arresting sight: a drum the height and diameter of a round dining table, with space underneath it to accommodate wheelchairs. It’s impossible to walk past it and resist the urge to tap out a little rhythm. And that’s exactly what the shop’s proprietor, Fre Atlast, wants people to do. In her opinion, anyone can drum — provided they don’t think too much about what they’re doing. “In a drum circle, I can tell the exact moment when someone starts thinking,” she says. “When you have three-year-olds drumming and singing in another language, they don’t know it’s hard.”
From preschools to nursing homes up and down the Hudson Valley, you can find Fre spreading the gospel of do-it-yourself rhythm. She mostly makes her living as a consultant, creating innovative drumming and art therapy programs for the aged under the rubric of the Elders’ Drum Project — founded in 1998 in cooperation with a couple of occupational therapists — and running drumming and instrument-making workshops in area schools.
She notes that drumming exercises have been shown to enhance fine motor skills and hand/eye coordination. She has the kids bang their sticks together overhead in reaching or climbing motions in order to develop the larger muscles of the upper back and shoulders. Sometimes she runs into youths who have been through her programs ten years later, she says, and asks them if they still play music. “Almost all of them do,” she reports. “That to me is success.”
Fre, who will be turning 60 next summer, grew up “mostly in the Bronx,” with two sisters. “I’ve been drumming since I was a kid,” she recounts. “My father used to wake us up to the rhythms of Baba Olatunji…My uncle worked for Paramount, and he provided the family with a wide range of music, from Middle Eastern to Benny Goodman to classical.” She took up the guitar at age 10, and by age 15 was out playing free gigs at nursing homes and community centers in a band dominated by boys. “They’d say, ‘Girls can’t drum,’ but I’d sit in on the drums whenever I got the chance.” In her early 20s she bought her own drum kit, and also started learning to play the congas.
Fre studied Communications at SUNY New Paltz in the 1970s and got involved with the local public access TV station, co-hosting a cooking show with her sister Barbara called LaRosa’s Kitchen. “Half the show was people eating,” she recalls. But she never finished her degree because, she says, “I didn’t want to have anything to do with establishment news.”
In the 1980s she made her way to Woodstock, opening a crystal shop called Three of Cups. It was at this point that she changed her name for the first time, to Tyshe Moonfeather. “In Woodstock, everyone had a spiritual name,” she says. “I have a long Italian name. It doesn’t fit on a flyer, and it’s hard to pronounce. It never was a name I ever really resonated with.” Then she went off to Wisconsin for a while to live in a spiritual community based on the philosophies of A Course in Miracles. “They kept saying, ‘You are free, you are free.’ So I decided to become Fre. I’ve been Fre for a long time. It has been a life lesson to have that name.”
The surname Atlast came about as a bit of a fluke. Around 1990, she says, she was teaching a workshop in a public school, and the teacher insisted that she couldn’t introduce Fre to her students without a last name. So on the spot, remembering a friend who always jokingly greeted her with the words, ‘Fre! At last!’ whenever they met, she told the teacher that Atlast would do as a surname. “So then she introduced me by saying, ‘Class, this is Miss Atlas!’”