Our Town Revisited: Bang the Drum Madly by Caroline Azar

Each drum movement is a chance to further establish ourselves and our intentions in the (psychic) space chosen.
     ~Wednesday Lupypciw
Tribal. Turbulence. Tambour. 
Wednesday Lupypciw (pronounced lu-pip-chew) loves art, drums, punk rock, and the aspect of community that glue it altogether. So much so that these tenets are the port of call around her latest site-specific performance: QUEER NOISE SOLIDARITY. A loud and confident initiative, QNS was curated by FAG, a.k.a Feminist Art Gallery (spearheaded by Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue) and was proudly matronized by FADO Performance Art Centre. (For more information on what it means to matronize an event or artist, check out FAG’s mission statement on their Facebook page.)
Wednesday’s everyday multi-media art practice involves making low-fi video, film, and performance, with an ultra modernist approach to textile creation—weaving, machine knitting, and embroidery. She travels abound installing, presenting, lecturing, and sometimes making fun yet formal public happenings. Along with visual artists Anthea Black and Nicole Burisch, Lupypchiw is one-third sparring partner of the performance art collective LIDS, or the Ladies Invitational Deadbeat Society. LIDS identifies themselves as a loosely knit group of purposefully lazy womenfolk. A third-wave feminist outfit that combines notions of female-ness with a blasphemed commentary that is smart, sloppy, and garish enough to awaken the unfunny academic giant within. For Lupypciw, QNS was “the next phase” in her practice, venturing out on her own to manifest a battalion of women armed with drum kits. 
I just want to do a living sculpture, with drums, with drummers facing one another. I’d like to provide more opportunities for a group of performers to engage with each other—to be focused on the tasks at hand, developing the group brain and sound.   ~WL
Wednesday’s vision on this Friday evening in May is a public performance in Christie Pits Park involving 12 rock drum kits that are set up in triangular form. Four drum kits inhabit each of the three sides of the triangle. For each kit, there is a drummer, 12 in total. The drummers face Wednesday, as well as one another, in order to track rhythmic shifts and other sensory cues. 
Enter the drummers’ dozen, made up of all shapes and sizes. A delight as the drummers are all of a female persuasion and/or simply female-identified, with a queersome bent and heart for all things pink, punk and percussive. The casting is unconventional, as those invited to participate possess a variety of approaches—from rock drummers to sound artists, artists to activists—and each possess varied skill levels. This is combined with what is most interesting—a generational diversity. The drummers range in age from 10 years old to over 60. A wonderful and deliberate equity ensures that everyone and no one is “the star".
Manicured and benign as a golf course, this dip of robust land known as Christie Pits Park has a history of racist violence. How ironic and strange that the vast cleanliness of the park resembles a typified imitation of heaven. Irony aside, tonight the Pits will become heavenly as it undergoes a transformational ritual making it a “safer psychic space”, as per what this artistic mandate is after. 
In August of 1933, neighbours Francesca Di Prima and Maisie Cohen are shaking by the outskirts of the grassy bowl. Bloodied ant-sized males are swinging bats in the baseball diamond that was once a sand quarry. Their teenage boys can’t escape the bone-cracking fury. No end to the violence in sight, perched high and peering down, they holler until their throats crack, screaming for their kin to escape. But they are unheard under The Pit’s hellish battle acoustics, blaring charcoal noise like war drums. 
“The kids just came out here to play ball.”
“But we’re different. They don’t want us here.”
“One day, you’ll see—there will be harmony.”
“Keep dreaming. Crazy hate like this never runs out.”
Christie Pits is situated at the northwestern tip of what is the Annex region of Toronto. Its name triggers images that will always carry the burden of the park's riots back in the 30’s. At that time, like many of the growing urban communities in the city, the Annex was populated with Nazi sympathizers. Imagine raging white goons swinging bats at anyone unlike them, namely Jews and Italian immigrants. So much for “Toronto the Good”. 
"The Pits” are also known for numerous muggings and rapes. Two QNS drummers were mugged and attacked here, and not long ago. A site-specific performance can by no means erase the memory of such trauma, but what about eradicating any trepidation and fear about being in the park itself? Can one’s weapon and talisman be blazing drum beats?
Regarding landmarks and memory, can Lupypciw’s experience heal? Transforming victims into the victorious? 
The first incarnation of this event took place in Lupypciw’s hometown for the independent music festival Sled Island during the summer of 2012. Her idea garnered a spot on the bill, perhaps in part because of the title: Shitty Feminist Drum Circle. Was this a low-self esteem confessional? Or something else, directed at… who? Then upon then seeing the words on the page, you get the joke. It’s not hard to imagine these exact words coming out of some typical rocker dude’s pie hole as he nastily describes a parliament of women drumming in a circle, maybe sporting Birkenstocks, and—gasp!—with no apparent awareness of him whatsoever. Of course, this broad brushstroke of an image is an assumption based upon many assumptions that are both ridiculously and unfortunately true. And because Wednesday’s manner of casting welcomes both the technically proficient with the novice all drumming together, it makes one wonder if this early title for the work was meant to poke fun at the pedagogical and/or patriarchal manner of how we learn music. Or was it about seeing who you can piss off by calling a performance installation a “shitty feminist drum circle”? Art has no obligation to anyone to appear reasonable. We f*ck shit up in our line of business: They don’t call it risk for nothing, right Punk? 
Wednesday’s premiere performance for Sled Island was a slightly more subdued version of QNS: 6 drummers, set up in a circle. One of the players featured in the Calgary premiere also appears in the Toronto follow-up: Lupypciw’s mentor Rita McKeogh, a Halifax-based artist/educator who performed in the women’s jazz/rock fusion group DEMIMONDE and is known for her challenging multi-media performance pieces, which have been exhibited worldwide. Sincerely heart-felt, the student creates a role for the role model, bringing the relationship full circle. 
In Calgary, I think I knew what I wanted to do deep inside, but in Toronto I admitted what I wanted to do. Out loud, and cultivated it. I made the stakes higher, the work became very necessary. In Toronto, I had a lot of feelings, whereas in Calgary I had a lot of thoughts. I screamed longer, louder, unabashedly in Toronto.   ~WL
Post-Calgary, Toronto
Lupypciw’s next step of evolution with the work is to replace the circular set-up with a triangular one. The triangle anchors many organic and manmade creations with a mathematical reliability. Triangles are meta-fractals of nature: leaves to trees perform the same mimicry, as mountains are fractal to rocks and boulders. Many ancient and occultist rituals apply triangle and/or prism-like apparatus, which bring mystique and magic to the practice. Lastly and perhaps most significant, the LGBT triangle as an emblem is an elevated moniker thus inverted of its hideous Nazi roots where it was used as a tool to brand and track people of otherness. Lupypciw’s appliqué of the triangle as a theatre set embodies a highly politicized mode of what queer solidarity looks like.
This new triangular set-up echoes aspects of the drumming circle applied in Calgary. Wednesday elevates her role of Shamanic Guide with her tribe of drummers and with us the audience. Are we the collective embodiment of a pagan village in ceremony? Heard chanting all the way to the next village? She has transformed the front “man” role into a queer traveling Carney, yelling and running around, compelling the space with a different intention. The playing of orchestral music is not unlike the building of a small community. As a musical pageant, QNS is a social democracy. Wednesday keeps it fun as a “Miss Mischievous Speaker of the House.” She races in and around the triangle to her congress of drummers, coercing like a motivational gym coach, guiding like their Sherpa, wearing a hoodie, equipped with a whistle.
Under a silver spring sun in harmony with a chilly pastel sky, the audience anticipates what this pulsating cavalcade will be. The Drummers prepare, setting up inside a triangular boundary of rope and spikes hammered into the earth. The 10 year old drummer positions her crash symbols with an enthusiasm beyond playing the latest Xbox. Lupypciw kicks off the event with megaphone in hand. She declares the space of the park as OUR space. The performance follows, in three movements. Each movement starts with a collective chant by led by herself and echoed by the drummers’ dozen.
1. "HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY!" with pure waves of just snares or cymbals. Mobilizing.
2. "ALL HERE NOW!" group drum tag, communication between sides of the triangle.
3. "ALL! NIGHT! LONG!" sunset observance with heavy/dark kicks and floor toms, growing into max noise sendoff. Making noise to resonate into the night, all though the night.
The performance contains three extended play-movements. Each movement is about 20 minutes long, and even with the designed short breaks in between, there really is no stopping. Rather, the drummers sit and click their sticks together in time during the breaks, while one goes off to the washroom, or gets something to drink, then the drummers organically reassemble and start the next movement. 
Each movement is its own marathon, and this marathon is on message: beats are bullets that paint pictures of rage, and/or gratitude. This drummers’ village is a metaphor for the adversity that queer life and/or alternative thinking has endured against corporatism’s monolithic shadow. Toronto has a unique site-specific performance art legacy, peppered by a queer presence nearly three decades old. Many of these actions have involved spiritualizing neighborhoods as newly protected areas for refuge. Some artists who have maximized this local history-based gesture would be Jess Dobkin, Will Munro, Leif Harmsen, Sky Gilbert, amongst the many others.
This evening here in The Pits is curiously sentimental, tremendous even, as a severity of styles are played, passionately and in unison. Skin shivers from the militaristic patterns mixed with tribal drum rhythms. It harkens to the genesis, the Mother of all minimal bamm-bamming: Mo Tucker.
Alternative punk drumming took its cues from the harbinger of thunderous minimalist drumming, Maureen (Mo) Tucker of The Velvet Underground (1964-1973, 5 recorded albums). Tucker took basic rock drumming patterns, made them small in their bigness and big in their smallness. Her finite style, puncturing accents in a moody hollow of reverb, re-addressed rock n’roll as depressingly theatrical—an even darker expression of 60’s Girl Group Producer Phil Spector’s tragic resonances. It was no surprise then that the VU were featured in performance art happenings during the 60’s, like Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
At the time, critics and rock contemporaries alike abhorred The Velvets for a sound that was clearly ahead of its day. Less than 10 years later, after the group’s demise, Tucker’s stamp birthed a zenith of female drummers during a sliver of time where a post-punk/no-wave canon of girl bands (circa 1981) fashioned their homage to her shtick in smashing a bent out of shape hit, that was minimalist, militaristic, and tribal. This new mode of angry young girls thumping skins a la Mo Tucker was a reaction to the exhausting male posturing drum solos that smeared the mid to late 70’s era. The presence of the Bonhams and Moons turned drumming into an unidentifiable disturbance, lacking compass and distinction. It was this next generation of women who trashed that norm with an innate style and arrogance, elevating performance all the same. And so by 1981, it was comic how drum trills and bombastic solos that we had been accustomed to were now perceived as a clichéd caricature. Some key hitters: Ikue Mori (DNA), Lislot Ha (Kleenex, Lilliput), Palmolive (The Slits, The Raincoats) GB Jones (Fifth Column), and June Miles Kingston (Mo-Dettes).
As drummers of this breed pioneered a style that was stubborn and uncompromising, this gesture innovated how other instruments were to surrender to its mission, planting a completely new sound that was intrinsically post-punk. It was inevitable that someone was going to break the heterosexist sound barrier. This was the underground music and fashion culture of its day, solely popular with renegade feminists and late night pirate and college radio enthusiasts. Concurrently, there was another interesting ilk of drum-heavy experimentally charged women’s groups, reinventing jazz, folk-rock fusions and reggae rhythms. The groups who come to mind would be The Moral Lepers (Vancouver), Demimonde (Toronto) and Essential Logic (UK). 
This female drum style was strikingly precise in its mathematics, influencing its canon of music, thus confusing the male rock critic argument about gender-based dexterity in playing. The good news was that when it came to feminist music festivals, the female band shortages left promoters no other choice but to program all these styles together under a general women’s (or Womyn’s) banner. And like variant species on a lost island, these modes of female music shared the jungle’s resources in harmony.
Congruently, Queer Noise Solidarity embodies the binary of these drum styles, simply by casting players informed by one or both styles. And it works because the drum movements that Wednesday designed have a universality to them. The act of the “drum band” as a whole is greater than its sum of the parts as the participants are bashing together in a matching (maybe even marching) goal towards a utopic collectivity.
QNS takes what would be a choir of female voices and replaces it with a society of drums, united in sync, powerful in anger and joy. Drumming for drumming sake (sans guitar, bass, and vocals) eradicates all that is expected in a rock n’roll artifice. There is no plot needed to this play, as the play is about pure presence. This gesture is as far away from commercialism and capitalism as can possibly be, monumental and exhilarating. We embrace this spirited confluence of live drums where the natural elements go hand in hand with the art, showing us a new manner of “religious” congregating. As player to player and from player to audience, we commemorate humanity’s compassion in concert with sound and nature. 
Lupypciw arranges the three movements structured inside a formal sound-based plan. The plan enables her drummers to play their interpretation of the assigned structure, as long as they keep on the same accent and in unison. And like a concert bowl, The Pit does a fine job containing a “wall of sound” that imbues a widened and orchestral sensorial feeling. Do you recall the aforementioned, great and troubled people-hater, 60’s pop producer Phil Spector? He made sonic history by applying instrumental multiplicity in a most bombastic way. His reverberated beats, layered atop one another, made us aware there could be theatre for our ears. Imagine hearing glimmering sheets of steel creating a textural depth to the frequencies. At the time, this mono-based orchestral pop competed with the grandeur one could have from listening to Herbert Von Karajan or St. Martin in the Fields. Spector’s style changed the complexion of popular music as an unforeseen black swan of sophistication and glory. He elevated his singing protégés from their mean streets into teen idols bellowing heartbreak from an echoing Mount Olympus. This ear theatre was like a fractal of nature, where the use of multiplicity and unison-playing techniques were the main ingredient for building a “populated” resonance reflecting the populated world it was made for. Spector’s other goal was for this orchestral fantasia to conjure a sex magic inciting the heterosexist sale of seduction, or the promise thereof, especially for nerds, not unlike the self-proclaimed misogynist-impresario himself.
Contrariwise, Lupypciw’s mission in creating live sonic multiplicity deals a different deck of romance, where a sonic queer village of all-sorts create a homebrew of sound that is locally harvested, and solely for self-consumption: uncomplicated, unconventional and un-commercial. One drummer likened the Queer Noise Solidarity experience to a big ship on big water trying not to capsize, where drummers drummed non-stop like their lives depended on it. 
This living sculpture creates a celebratory reminder, an heirloom to the past, present, and future. The Take Back The Night homage, ALL! NIGHT! LONG!, was a closing show-stopping chant that came off like an ancient spell, perhaps to keep the bad-isms at bay. This last act gave this event a successful conclusion, which is rare in critical agit prop performance art. And lest we forget all of the many inspiring women fighting back (whether it be Pussy Riot or The Gulabi Gang, a group of pink sari wearing vigilantes who pressure men to stop abusing their wives or face the bamboo stick themselves).
Lupypciw’s performance unabashedly offers up a heightened incantation of third wave feminism, contributing to a queer sentiment in staying united and inspired. It would be exciting to imagine QNS traveling from city to city, each time with a new drummers' battalion. This is where collective drumming can enliven dangerous arenas into the safe public places they are intended to be. 
I never liked the park after the mugging. Remembering the incident and all the horrible feelings that came from it. Park felt cursed to me. 
Drumming in the Park: Felt vindicated, powerful, maybe even euphoric.
I think the 3rd movement was my favorite. We used mostly tom and kick drums with crashing cymbals. There was a continuous build up and then come down but the loudest parts were my favoritefelt like an exorcism. Felt safe and supported as a large group of women and queersjust felt free. Playing drums is freedom to me and to do it in a space I never imagined hanging out in again—I was unleashed...reawakened... the project being a huge reminder for a loner like me that sisterhood is powerful. 
QUEER NOISE SOLIDARITY was performed by:
Alaska B, Simone TB, Selina Carroll, Heidi Chan, Karen Frostitution, Laura Hartley, Eleanor King, Samara Liu, Rita McKeogh, Conny Nowe, Tyla Crowhurst-Smith, Shavonne Tovah Somvong.
Caroline Azar is a Canadian Playwright-Dramaturge/ Director and Teacher. She instructs Actors and Writers using a self-designed method called "The Archival" in order to complete performance work that is rigorous, relevant and frightening for stage and film. Azar is teaming up with Trinity Square Video presenting an intensive for artists in the Fall of 2013.

From 1981 to 1994, Azar was the lyricist-lead singer and organist with the 80's Toronto female experimental punk group Fifth Column. The group is best known for the song All Women Are Bitches, Repeat!. Despite the controversy surrounding the song, it was reviewed by Everett True and named Single of the Week in the UK music magazine Melody Maker. She has teamed up again with founding Fifth Column member GB Jones in creating interactive art and Theatre projects for the public like The Bruised Garden for Nuit Blanche 2012 and the She Said Boom Feminist Zine Making Symposium. Azar also volunteers for Girls' Rock Camp Toronto. Azar has a play in development called DINK, which will be published in a National Anthology collection in 2014.


Photo credit: © Wednesday Lupypciw. QUEER NOISE SOLIDARITY. 2013. Images by Henry Chan.