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Bucket Drumming, an Origin Story

Stormi’s Bucket Drumming Origin Story (cue the heroic cinematic music…)

 

In 1992, on its downtown sidewalks, Spokane, Washington held its first Gay Pride March.

It was also my first Pride March.  The event was organized by the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, and was, regrettably, more of a demonstration than a celebration. The next year, we moved off the sidewalks and into the streets, but again, the vibe was more of a protest than a party.  For those of us who participated, it was



thrilling and powerful, but it was definitely lacking in spirit.  It didn’t have the flavor of joy and self-love and acceptance that was conveyed in Pride events in other communities.  In those early years, many participants wore paper bags over their heads to keep from being identified.

 

A few years later, as we began planning for the 1999 Pride event, we decided it was time to showcase the creativity, vibrancy, diversity, playfulness and loving nature of the Spokane queer community.  It was time to love ourselves up, throw ourselves a party, and invite the entire Spokane area to join us!  It was time to shift from a Pride March to a Pride Parade!  And this is where my bucket drumming odyssey began…

 

As we, the Pride planning committee, began tossing around ideas for changing our annual protest to a celebration, a voice rang out from somewhere in my nether-regions --“I’ll bring a marching band!”  What the hell? Was I possessed?  Had I temporarily lost my marbles?  Had I eaten something rotten for dinner?  I wasn’t a trained musician -- playing the viola in public school orchestra from third through seventh grades could hardly qualify me musically. I had been participating in group lessons for African style hand drumming for a few months, but even that didn’t raise my credentials to the level of “musician.”  I didn’t know how to march -- as much as I take pride in being a captain in my elementary school crossing guard in fifth and sixth grades, that wasn’t very translatable for this endeavor. The closest I had ever been to a marching band was watching from the sidewalk as the bands filed past during the Apple Blossom Parade while growing up in Wenatchee, Washington.  The secret crush I had on a girl who played clarinet in my high school marching band wasn’t helpful either.  And maybe, my biggest barrier to leading a marching band was that I was painfully shy!  Could there have been a worse candidate to form and lead a marching band?  Really, the only thing I had going for me was a relentless commitment to making life a little better for my queer community.

 

Well, the planning committee was thrilled about my offer, and I was panicked!  I’m talking deer-in-the-headlights, void your bowels kind of panicked.  What made me think I could pull together a marching band?  I wasn’t a musician, didn’t really know any musicians, and didn’t know how to march.  To my credit, I was always game for almost anything that was slightly absurd and kind of ridiculous.  And probably most importantly, I had recently visited family in Atlanta and while there, we went to see a production of STOMP.

 

OMG, it was magical!  What amazing music and theatrics!  It was brilliant -- common objects used as musical instruments!  STOMP, as it turns out, was my inspiration and my salvation.  I didn’t know anyone who had enough money to run out and buy a musical instrument.  I was living in the lesbian ghetto, and most of my friends were living from paycheck to paycheck; our instruments needed to be inexpensive. How about five-gallon plastic buckets?  I had recently seen a busker playing plastic buckets, pails, etc. on a visit to the Seattle farmer’s market.  He was fabulous, and the buckets sounded pretty good, too.  Plastic buckets seemed totally STOMP-ish to me.

 

So that was it.  I would bring a drum corps to the Pride Parade.  We would play on five-gallon plastic buckets.  But what music would we play?  As I mentioned, I had been taking West African group hand drumming lessons.  I could modify a few of those rhythms for the buckets to at least get us started.

 

Okay, I had the instruments figured out, mostly, and I had a couple of ideas for the music.  All that was left was to find the musicians.  I set a date and time for our first rehearsal and called everyone I knew.  Gay, straight, women, men, it didn’t matter -- I needed willing bodies.  I didn’t have a spiffy pitch to entice them to join me in this kooky, half-baked idea, but fortunately I knew quite a few people who had adventuresome spirits and a fondness for the absurd.

 

Invitations sent, I then raced down to my local pawn shop to buy a bunch of drum sticks.  When I told the owner, my friend Garry Singer, what I was up to, he gave me a great deal on the sticks and sent me on my way.

 

Next stop, a few restaurants in search of plastic buckets.  Wow, were they happy to get rid of those!  Pickles, mayo, butter, frosting, even diced onions all came in five-gallon plastic buckets.  Those restaurant managers seemed almost gleeful as they sent me away with a car full of foul and grimy buckets.  Of course, I was absolutely giddy as I raced home with my treasures.  My partner at the time immediately sent me to the backyard to clean up my odorous haul.  Rhythms -- check!  Drumsticks -- check!  Buckets -- check!

 

Now all I needed was a way to suspend the buckets for marching. I had a pretty clear idea about what I thought would work -- a cherry picker’s harness.  I had spent my teen years picking cherries in the orchards of Wenatchee (Apple Capital of the World).  So, I screwed a couple of eyebolts into the side of a bucket, clipped on my cherry picker’s harness (yes, of course I had one of my own) and I was ready to go.

 

The first round of modifications to the drumsticks, buckets, bucket hardware and harness happened right away.  Further modifications and fine-tuning of the equipment happened over the next few years until I arrived at the bucket drum kit that I still use and promote today.  I have found that the details matter.  My bucket drum kits are super easy to use, durable, versatile, adjustable, portable, customizable, and are surprisingly satisfying to play -- hot dog!  Or should I say, hot peach pit?  (Ask the comedienne Kate Clinton or my wife what I’m talking about here.)

 

Okay, back to the story… with version one of my bucket drum kit in hand, we started weekly rehearsals.  About 15 of my friends, all women, heeded my clarion call to the bucket, and we were off and running!  After our third rehearsal, Randy, a male friend of mine, called to ask if it was too late to join the band.  I felt the group was really jelling and already had a spirit of its own, so I told him I’d check with the other members and get back to him. When the group gathered for our next rehearsal, I asked if they wanted to welcome Randy into the group.  The response was a resounding, “No!”  At that point, by default, it was an all-woman, all-lesbian group.  Many of the women shared that they had never been in a group that had all women membership, leadership, everything-ship.  There was no male gaze to navigate.  Every time we looked around us at rehearsals, our own images and life experiences were mirrored back.  For the first time, many of us felt like we were truly seen and heard and appreciated while being our most true and authentic selves.  Wow, I knew something magical was happening when we gathered, but I didn’t really get the depth of the connection, the potential for healing, the bonds that were being forged.  I called Randy back, thanked him for his interest and informed him that our band, The Giant Ass Drum Corps (GADC) of Spokane, Washington was officially a women’s marching bucket band.  (Side note here about the name of the band:  First, I was young and belligerent.  Second, it’s about the size of the band, not the size of the booty.)

 

We marched in the 1999 Spokane Pride Parade, resplendent in our prom dresses and bouffant hairdos - what a riot, and what a hit!  It was a fabulous Pride.  My intention all along was that the GADC would gather to help the transition from demonstration to parade and then disband.  I couldn’t have been more wrong about that.  The women wanted to continue and expand!  We continued rehearing.  We expanded our repertoire using arrangements of both culturally specific and original rhythms.  We performed at Pride events throughout the Northwest, at social justice actions, fundraisers for various community groups and private events.  We offered bucket drumming playshops in almost every imaginable setting and demographic.  We even designed and promoted our own fundraising and fun-raising events.  At our largest, we were 30 women strong -- lesbian and straight.  We spawned sister corps in Davis, California and Missoula, Montana.  And after eleven years of leading the GADC, when I fell in love with my now wife Shaun and moved to Montana, the GADC continued for another five years under the leadership of long-time members.

 

Soon after my arrival in Montana, Shaun and I co-founded the Bozeman-area bucket drum corps, Chicks With Sticks (CWS).  Our primary hope in starting CWS was to offer a venue for lesbians to gather together for fun and connection and to increase lesbian visibility in the rather conservative Bozeman area.  As it turned out, our membership was about 70%-30% straight women to lesbians throughout its lifespan.  As with the GADC, Chicks was a hub for women’s connection, empowerment and visibility throughout Montana.  Chicks With Sticks quickly established itself as an anticipated feature of Montana Pride parades, the annual Sweetpea Festival of the Arts parade, and social justice events such as Take Back the Night and Transgender Day of Remembrance.  We also went to the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings on Mother’s Day for several years to perform and then lead bucket drumming playshops for the women who were incarcerated there.  It is impossible to describe my feelings of humility and gratitude remembering how those women bucketed-up and joined us in the circle to make music together -- they showed such willingness to risk and explore, to be vulnerable, to try, fail, and try again.  We shared tears and laughter and music as our two groups of women came together to create beauty and joy.

 

Shaun and I led CWS for six years, finally handing over the leadership to a small group of long-time members who continued the ensemble for another four years. During our tenure with Chicks, we spawned sister corps in Albany, New York and Campbell River in British Columbia, Canada.

 

Since 1999, bucket drumming has been a transformative power in my life.  I’ve learned to be a leader and a teacher.  I’ve become a percussionist and an inventor.  My heart and spirit have been opened to the magic and power and connection of group music making.  I have met the most incredible, courageous, fun-loving and dear people of my life.  I feel called to invite people to gather and connect around drumming together, and I feel blessed beyond measure to have a platform that allows me to do so!

 

Thanks for reading my story.  I wish you many opportunities to gather and connect with people you love or with people who you will come to love through the experience of group music-making.

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