When Pam Vellutini started a taiko drumming class during lunch recess at Briscoe Elementary School in 2001, parents started calling and asking how they could get involved. Eventually, the performance group Ashland Taiko was formed, and although it never excluded men, none ever joined. Men have taken introductory classes, but Ashland Taiko continues today with four school-age girls and four adult women.

Vellutini said she is not sure why that happened, but members said they liked defying the stereotype that drumming is only for boys.

"I know some people probably think that, but we're here to show them that it's not just for boys," said eighth-grader Christy Chow, who has been drumming for four years. "Girls are strong, and we have the power to do things."

Drumming has diversified over the last 20 years, and Ashland is no exception. Not only are there more opportunities for women, but percussion has grown to include a wider age range and more cultural diversity.

"It's really interesting because when I look around at a lot of different groups, it tends to be a lot of women," Vellutini said.

It has not always been that way.

Sue Lundquist, a local instructor specializing in Afro Cuban drumming who has played with Vellutini, said she longed to play drums as a girl, but instead was encouraged to stick with the piano, guitar and clarinet. It wasn't until she attended a workshop in her 30s that she returned to her first passion.

"Drumming was very discouraged for women and girls back when I was in fifth- and sixth-grade," she said. "Even in band, girls were sent in a certain direction ... so much more is available to girls and women now."

Although her adult classes have more women than men, she attributes that to the fact that she is a woman. The children's classes she teaches have equal numbers of boys and girls.

Another shift Lundquist has noticed is the increase in popularity with the senior crowd, who drum to keep their mind active, be part of a community and even to reap health benefits. One woman began drumming to treat fluid build-up in her arms due to chemotherapy.

"There's so many benefits," Lundquist said. "There's connection with drumming. You're part of a community. Drumming is the most fun when you're playing with other people. It's a very powerful instrument, and it raises your energy."

Global influence

Ryan Camara, who studied drumming in West Africa before moving to Ashland, suggested global influences have made the art more inclusive. In Guinea where he studied, drumming and dancing is integrated into everyday life, played alongside workers in the fields and to mark milestones such as the birth of a baby. No one is excluded, a practice that he said carries over to Western study of African percussion.

"It doesn't matter if you are a man or a woman or what color you skin is, everyone can play it," he said. "A great way we can connect with one another and learn about each other's culture is through music, instead of through religion or things that may be divisive. Music is uniting of everyone."

Camara, who said he began drumming at age 7 after his mother got tired of his banging on pots and pans, has developed a curriculum for teaching percussion to elementary school children, and says drumming enhances early childhood development and group dynamics.

"If you start studying music early, you're smarter," he said. "There's so many connections made with independence and timing, and the community aspects. There's no way that one person can play all these parts and dance all by themselves. It forces you to interact with people and find out how your part fits within the larger ensemble."

With so many different drumming opportunities, some students choose to forego the classical concert percussion offered through high school band, said band director Jon Soderberg-Chase. He is starting a special percussion-only class for students next year, with hopes of drawing more students back into the program and developing a wider range of skills.

"In my experience, kids aren't necessarily interested in all kinds of percussion," he said. "It's my job to fill out the weaker sections."

In many band programs, percussion students play small parts and end up standing in the back of the room for a large part of class while wind students rehearse, but modern composers have "discovered" what percussion can add to an ensemble and are writing more challenging parts, he said. He also fights against the stereotype that drums are a male instrument and points female drummers to role models such as Evelyn Glennie, the only full-time classical percussion soloist.

Why drum?

No matter what style of drumming one does, instructors agree that people are attracted to it for similar reasons. It brings people together, offers plenty of challenge, and in some cases provides great exercise. But much of it can be traced back to instincts like Camara discovered in his mother's kitchen.

"I think it's pretty exciting," Lundquist said. 'Everybody that I have seen given a mallet to and play the bass drums, they get a smile on their face. There's something about that release in people &

we all want to make a big noise sometimes."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or .