Oakland Music School Creates Corps of Female and Transgender Drummers

Near Oakland’s Lake Merritt, the windows of the Trybe Youth and Family Resource Center vibrate with rhythm. Two nights a week, this space on Park Boulevard throbs with pounding bass drums, tapping snares and clunking agogô bells, as the students of Boomshake Music play through their two-hour lesson.

Boomshake is a space for novice and experienced drummers who may not feel welcome in more traditional musical environments, who want to learn the cultural roots of their music and who may hope to employ their newfound skills on the front lines of protests. Founded in 2014 by Sarah Norr and Nkeiruka Oruche, the school provides classes that are multicultural and multigenerational.

The night classes are open exclusively to female, transgender and gender-non-conforming adults and teens. Norr and Oruche also host a "tyke tunes" session for toddlers, preschoolers and their parents, as well as afterschool programs for older kids at Manzanita SEED and Malcolm X elementary schools. They have a class specifically for LGBTQ families, too.

When Norr and Oruche started Boomshake, they came up with a set of class agreements, built on their own experiences as musicians, dancers and community activists. They want their students to be willing to take risks, to make mistakes and to express themselves without having to apologize for it.

Boomshake's adult classes are open to women and transgender and gender non-conforming people.
Boomshake's adult classes are open to women and transgender and gender non-conforming people. (Susan Cohen/KQED)

Oruche has taught at Dance Mission Theater, Loco Bloco and other Bay Area dance and arts organizations, and is a mother who has taken her own kids to community music classes. She thinks Boomshake provides an alternative to more traditional extracurricular music programs.

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“When you go to those classes, a lot of times it’s multicultural in the presentation of the music,” she said. “But the crowd there is people who can afford the money, to make the time, to get to that location and to experience this multiculturalism from afar without having those lived experiences.”

But at Boomshake, the founders build their repertoire around their students. Drummers of all ages are welcome to bring their own languages and musical traditions to the class, and Oruche and Norr make sure to emphasize the historical and cultural context of the techniques they teach, something that adult student Julia Sen appreciates.

“Learning all the ways that so much of African culture has traveled around the world because of slavery, the ways that fighting spirit has endured and has come to us today, especially with all the stuff going in Oakland and the Black Lives Matter movement — that feels very connected to me," Sen said.

Supporting activism is another key tenet of the Boomshake philosophy; Norr is a labor and community organizer who has used music on the front lines of her work.

“[We] had to find ways to sustain ourselves on the picket line, sometimes for years,” Norr said. “[I] really came to feel the power of music and rhythm of bringing people together and keeping spirits up.”

Shreya Shah signed up after learning about the Tuesday night class on Facebook, bringing a group of her fellow #AsiansforBlackLives activists with her.

“We wanted to play together at actions, just keep the spirit alive,” she said. “We’re hoping to play and do the work for the long haul, and so we’re trying to build up all kinds of capacity.”

From left: Boomshake founders Nkeiruka Oruche and Sarah Norr with student Shreya Shah.
From left: Boomshake founders Nkeiruka Oruche and Sarah Norr with student Shreya Shah. (Susan Cohen/KQED)

Norr and Oruche started with one adult class. But as word spread, they watched their student body, like much of Oakland, become whiter.

“As we were trying to do something to help people preserve and share their culture and build community, we’re seeing our community be destroyed,” Norr said.

Oruche explains that she and Norr wanted to create a space that looked like the diverse community that currently exists in Oakland. So they decided to start a second class specifically for women of color and transgender and gender non-conforming people of color. And as the city continues to change, Norr and Oruche hope that Boomshake can serve as one of its cultural anchors.

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"Many other people have this urge to drum and this urge to play music ... but not have music be something that you practice alone in your room for many years," Norr said. "Have music be something that we play together to express what we’re feeling, express what’s going on in our society, and to bring people together and to build our own power."

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