LaTreice Branson always brings an extra drum or two to her performances — just in case someone wants to join in.
“We always bring more than we need,” she said one recent Friday evening, tapping her silver cane on the stone floor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, only a few hours before she and four women with her were to fill the Great Stair Hall with cathartic clangor.
They call themselves Drum Like a Lady. Their goal is to provide a safe space for players of all ages and backgrounds to experience the joyful, healing power of percussion.
Branson’s own memories of drumming are shaped by this power. Growing up, she and her sisters practiced rhythms on phone books until they could drum on bongos — then they practiced on bongos until they could play their mother’s silver drum kit.
But while home was supportive, the world she found outside was inaccessible and unwelcoming. Male percussionists questioned her teachers, her aptitude, and her experience.
In 2013, Branson founded her collective, which she describes as “led by women, rooted in improvisation, and grounded in percussion.” Today, Drum Like a Lady is composed of over 50 rotating performers. It’s collaborated with local groups like Kyo Daiko and Batalá, hosted jam sessions at the West Philly bar Dahlak Paradise, and carried the beat at the Philadelphia Women’s March for the last three years.
Jan Jeffries, 65, calls herself a “woman of rhythm." The lead player of the Music Over Matter percussion group, she says Drum Like a Lady gives its players what Branson originally sought: the opportunity to explore self-expression in a supportive space.
“Individually, we each do something different,” Jeffries adds. “Collectively, we’re a monster.”
It hasn’t always been straightforward for Branson. Prior to founding the group, she was a graphic design professor at Cheyney University. After a panic attack at work one day, “they took my keys and said I was unfit for duty,” she says simply. “The only thing I had was my drums.”
Since then, she’s battled both physical and mental health problems. She struggles with bipolarity and anxiety, among other disorders. She wears a back brace and fights chronic pain in her legs and feet due to osteoarthritis and spinal disc degeneration. Some days, it’s hard to sit, stand, and move. But when she plays, she says, the pain disappears.
“This drumming is my hope,” she says, leaning forward and emphasizing every sentence. “This drumming is my greatest love. And I just want that to always be shared.”
In past years, Drum Like a Lady has hosted workshops for girls at Camp Sojourner, taught the elderly with the New Jersey Commission for the Blind, and served youths at Project Elijah Empowering Autism. Branson’s goal is to help communities around Philadelphia experience communal wellness through the act of drumming.
At 75, Marcy Francis can attest to the power of percussion. She calls her shekere, a West African percussion gourd strung with colorful beads, her “healing instrument.”
Francis once led a girls’ band named Better Days, which toured as part of USO performances in the 1990s. But 25 years ago, a major car accident left her with head injuries that challenged her ability to hear and create new rhythms. Playing with Jeffries and Branson, she says, has allowed her to regain that ability.
“Drumming is healing for everyone,” she adds. “It makes you move when you don’t want to move. It makes you happy.”
In the Grand Stair Hall, the women were warming up.
Branson sat and played an experimental cadence. For a minute or two, only the sound of her congas echoed through the hall. Then a young woman in a bright jacket started a complementary polyrhythm on the drum kit; Francis picked up her shekere and rattled in time. Two girls coming down the staircase laughed and began to dance.
All their performances are improvisational, based on intentional listening. “I don’t tell anyone what to play," Branson says. "We’re all in this together.”
Barbara Duncan, 28, says the group has taught her more about herself both as a woman and an artist. As a young drummer in Philly, she lacked mentors who looked like her; playing with Branson has given her a community. “These women are incredible,” she says, shaking her head with a smile. “And they were here the whole time.”
“You have three percussion instruments on you,” Branson told the crowd gathered on the steps of the museum: “your feet, your hands, and your heart.”
Under the spotlight, she appeared even taller than her six feet. She sang, and the room grew silent; she clapped, and every audience member clapped with her; she called people to dance, and teens, children, and married couples made their way up front. She was unfaltering, at least for this night.
Eventually, Branson says, she’ll lose the physical ability to perform. She’s not sure what that’ll be like, or when it’ll happen. “But I keep welcoming other people into drumming,” she adds. “I want it to always be bigger, mean more, reach more.”
Every drum in her collection has been gifted into her life. Before she stops drumming, she’s determined to give the way she’s received.
That’s why the women of Drum Like a Lady always bring more than they need.