Carolyn Brandy

Short Film by The Understory, Maya Pisciotto & Fabián Aguirre

Carolyn Brandy

is a percussionist, composer, educator, performer, cultural worker, and mom. She started playing the conga drums in 1968 and has been a pioneer in opening doors for women in the world of Afro-Cuban percussion. She has led six tours to the Island of Cuba to study music and dance with masters of Afro-Cuban folkloric music. She has a degree in music from Holy Names University in Oakland.  It can be easy to read through these achievements, but when one thinks of how women have been excluded from the drum, each step of Carolyn’s work has come as a result of great courage and persistence.

“The rhythm of the drum is so profound. It is that rhythm of the heart beat that says that we are alive.”

-Carolyn Brandy

Carolyn is a spirit teacher. She gained visibility and respect in the Women’s Music community in the seventies as a founding member of the jazz quintet Alive! It was groundbreaking. Women playing jazz! Not playing standard jazz, but jazz that grew out of a feminist woman identified esthetic.

Then Carolyn founded Sistah Boom in the SF Bay Area, a large mobile ensemble of women drummers, created to call community together, letting the drum invite us to our highest selves. Their first outing was at the San Francisco Gay Pride parade in 1981. The spirit of the room—or the street—rises when the sound of Sista Boom arrives on the scene.

Collaborating with many Bay Area Artists, Carolyn played with the vocal/percussion group OJALÁ! which was selected to attend the Festival Del Caribe in Santiago de Cuba in 2014.

Carolyn Brandy, 1976, San Francisco.  Photo: Unknown
Carolyn has taken the drum into perhaps the most isolated community: prison.

She spent years teaching drumming and music classes to men in San Quentin State Prison and both men and women in the San Francisco County Jail.   At San Quentin, she monitored the men’s time in the music room so they could rehearse their various bands.  She also facilitated and played in a jazz ensemble.

Carolyn is the founder of the non-profit organization, Women Drummers International, and is the producer of the Born To Drum Camp for Women Drummers, which was created to inspire and empower women students, teachers and performers of hand percussion.

The drummers come from all over the world and what they do is no longer forbidden.

Carolyn Brandy's curriculum vitae
  • 1998-2011 Organized and led 6 tours in Afro-Cuban Drumming/Dance in Havana, Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Guantanamo, Camaguey, Santiago De Cuba, Baracoa Cuba with master drummers, singers, and dancers of Cuban Folkloric Music and Dance
  • 1991 Holy Names College, Oakland, CA, B.A. in Music and Music Education
  • 1988-1991 Completed three intensive workshops with drummers from the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba and Danza Moderna in Tijuana, Mexico
  • 1988-1999 Studied with master drummer Mario Jauregui, director of percussion at the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba in Havana, Cuba
  • 1988-2004 Study with Regino Jimenez, Director of Percussion, Danza Moderna, Havana, Cuba
  • 1989-1990 Traditional drumming from Ghana with C.K. Ladzekpo at University of California, Berkeley
  • 1982-1987 Drumset technique with Chuck Brown, Oakland, CA
  • 1984-1989 Brazilian drumming with Chalo Eduardo
  • 1975-1981 Afro-Cuban drumming with Marcus Gordon
  • 1970-1975 Drumming, marimba, and Mbira from Zimbabwe with Dumisani Maraire, and Lora Chiora, Seattle, Washington
  • 2010-2020 Adjunct Professor, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco; Adjunct Professor at The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Palo Alto, CA
  • 2006-2020 Faculty, Born To Drum International Drum Camp for Women
  • 2011-2013 Take Drums To Heart, Community Service Program through WDI
  • 1980-2020 Private instruction, classes in Afro-Cuban percussion
  • 2000-2006 Music Instructor, Chabot Elementary School
  • 2004-2006 Lafayette Jazz Camp
  • 1999-2009 Jazzschool, Berkeley, CA
  • 1996-1999 California Arts Council grant recipient for work in San Francisco County Jail
  • 1996-2009 Pacific Women’s Circle Association, Vancouver B.C.
  • 1981-2009 Faculty, Rhythmic Concepts Jazz Camp
  • 1989-1992 Faculty, Cazadero Family Camp
  • 1986-1996 California Arts Council grant for percussion in San Quentin State Prison
  • 1982-1994 Music instructor, Berkeley Arts Magnet School, grades K-8. The percussion ensemble from the school performed regularly, including performances such as Berkeley Community Theatre program for Winnie Mandela, Shriner’s Football Game, Great American Music Hall, Cinco de Mayo, Carnaval parades in San Francisco
  • 1983-1986 California Arts Council grant recipient for work in the public schools
  • 2008 The Drum is A Woman Award, Ubaka Hill Museum and Archives Honoree
  • 2009 Purple Moon Dance Project, “In Honor of Our DreamSpeakers”
  • 2010 Certificate of Appreciation, Sistahs Steppin’ In Pride
  • 2006 Creator of Women Drummers International 501 non-profit
  • 2006-2020 Producer of Born To Drum Women’s Camp
  • 2016-2019 Producer of The Maestra Series: Concerts Celebrating International Women’s Month at Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center, Berkeley
  • 2014-2019 Susana Arenas Dance Company (drummer)
  • 2016, 2017 Alive! Reunion tours
  • 2006-2020 BORN TO DRUM Women’s Drum Camp
  • 2005-2018 OJALÁ, Leader, women’s percussion/vocal group
  • 2015-2016 Jamaica Drum Retreats with Afia Walking Tree
  • 2002-2010 Seattle World Rhythm Festival, headliner, featured performer, and clinician
  • 2006 Art and Soul Festival, Oakland, CA
  • 1977-2006, 2015 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival
  • 1996-2000 Rhythmic Concepts, Jazz Camp Weekend
  • 1993 Redwood Cultural Work, Skin Talk Drumming Festival
  • 1991 Aspen Jazz Festival
  • 1991 World Drum Festival, with Zakir Hussein, Eddie Marshall and Seiichi Tanaka
  • 1990 World Drum Festival, Commissioned Work, Skin Talk, Palace Fine Arts, S.F.CA
  • 1987 Oakland Youth Chorus, Tour of Jamaica, guest artist
  • 1987 West Coast Women’s Music Festival
  • 1981-1983 Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival
  • 1983 Jazz City International Jazz Festival, Edmonton, Canada
  • 1977-1980 National Women’s Music Festival, University of Illinois
  • 1980 Jazz Showcase Festival, Michigan State University
  • 1981-2020 Creator, Director and Arranger for Sistah Boom, community percussion band
  • 1990-2008 Faye Carol Group, Jazz
  • 1997-2005 RhythMix, world percussion trio, performed at Lincoln Center, Adventures in Music (AIM) program sponsored by San Francisco Symphony, RhythMix played concerts in all of San Francisco elementary schools, played New Year’s Eve Celebration in Union Square, plus many other performances
  • 1995-1999 Skin Talk Band, eight-piece band featuring Carolyn Brandy’s original music
  • 1995-1998 Oakland Jazz Choir
  • 1996-1997 San Francisco School concerts with Keith Terry & Crosspulse
  • 1993 Commissioned by Rockefeller Foundation & Redwood Cultural Work for composition and production of Skin Talk, Heartbeat of the Ancestors
  • 1993 American Conservatory Theatre’s (ACT) production of Pecong
  • 1990 Commissioned by City Celebration to write, direct and perform in Skin Talk, Ancestral Ballet of Women, performed at the Palace of Fine Arts San Francisco
  • 1987-1993 Guest artist with the Oakland Youth Chorus
  • 1988-1990 Escola Nova de Samba Performing Group, Brazil
  • 1986-1992 The Carolyn Brandy Band, Latin, jazz, funk
  • 1975-2000 Co-founder of Alive! A jazz quintet with many national tours, three LPs and one CD
  • San Francisco War Memorial Opera House
  • The Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, CA
  • Yoshi’s, Oakland, CA
  • Kimball’s, San Francisco, CA
  • Berkeley Community Theatre, Berkeley CA
  • La Peña, Berkeley, CA
  • Keystone Korner, San Francisco, CA
  • Kuumbwa, Santa Cruz, CA
  • The Bottom Line, NYC
  • Lush Life, NYC
  • Jazzmania, NYC
  • Folk City, NYC
  • Town Hall, NYC
  • Constitution Hall, Washington D.C. Lincoln Center, NYC
  • Jazzschool, Berkeley, CA
  • Blues Alley, Washington D.C.
  • The Pier, Raleigh, NC
  • Peabody’s Cafe, Cleveland, OH
  • Detroit Jazz Center, Detroit, MI
  • The Jazz Gallery, Milwaukee, WI
  • Stages, Chicago, IL
  • Orphans, Chicago, IL
  • Fitzgerald’s, Houston, TX
  • The Buffalo Grille, Austin, TX
  • Texas Ernestine’s, Seattle, WA
  • Lulu White’s, Boston, MA
  • Michael J’s, Seattle, WA
  • The Bijou, Philadelphia, PA
  • San Jose Repertory Theatre, San Jose, CA
  • Jazz Alley, Seattle, WA
Colleges and Universities:
  • Harvard University
  • Mt. Holyoke College
  • Columbia University
  • Stockton State
  • Antioch College
  • Marshall University
  • Virginia Commonwealth University
  • Michigan State University
  • Washington University
  • Berklee School of Music
  • San Francisco State University
  • University of Massachusetts
  • Bard College
  • Brooklyn College
  • Kent State University
  • Ohio State University
  • Holy Names College
  • Duke University
  • University of Illinois
  • University of Wisconsin
  • San Jose State University
  • University of California
  • Berkeley University of California
  • Santa Cruz
  • Mills College
  • University of California, Hayward, East Bay
Prison Work:
  • North Carolina State Prison for Women
  • California Rehabilitation Center for Women
  • Susanville Prison
  • San Francisco County Jail
  • Colorado Women’s Prison
  • Santa Rita Rehabilitation
  • San Quentin State Prison
  • Juvenile Hall, San Leandro, CA
Partial list of artist collaborations:
Zakir Hussein, Paquito D’Rivera, Airto, Wayne Wallace, Susan Muscarella, Pete Escovedo, Luisah Teish, Babatunde Lea, Eddie Moore, Martha Young, Rebecca Franks, Raz Kennedy, Keith Terry, Tina Blaine, Faye Carol, Eddie Marshall, Flora Purim, Rhiannon, John Santos, Ed Kelly, Jennifer Berezan, Mel Martin, Holly Near, Mary Watkins, Bobi Céspedes, Mark Levine, Janet Koike, Afia Walking Tree, Elouise Burrell, Edwina Tyler, Nydia Mata, Susanna Arenas Pedroso

“Carolyn wrote a gorgeous song called ‘Spirit Healer’ that came from playing the drum. The song is melodic, emotional and then when she arranged it, she arranged herself right out of the song. No conga. Many women including June Millington and Mary Watkins have recorded this song. This version is performed by Alive! and sung by Rhiannon. So fine.” -Holly Near

This version features vocals by the band’s vocalist, Rhiannon

Holly reflects on Carolyn’s work: 

I first heard Carolyn play the drum as part of the jazz band, Alive!

All women. All feminists. All wildly exuberant!

There had been all-women jazz ensembles during WWII as the men musicians had been shipped off to Europe and the Pacific.  But when the war was over, the women were strongly “encouraged” to go back into the home or into lesser jobs. I can’t even imagine their sadness and rage.  So it was a rarity to see even one woman in a jazz band.  ALIVE! was made up of five gloriously talented women.  We in the audience fell in love.

Carolyn Brandy has a degree in music. Fortunately she understood how big the word MUSIC can be if we are brave enough to follow the sound.  Carolyn’s spirit became intertwined with the drum and went out into the world to find its origins, especially in Afro Cuban traditions.

She found that although in ancient times women played the drums, over the centuries the drum had been removed from the hands of women and deemed forbidden. Sometimes at the risk of her safety she asked the simple question of the drum masters, “Why?”  So every time I see her I want to sit close to her, to breathe in her stamina and passion.

I’m moved by her deep respect for the cultures into which she ventures—no bull-in-a-china shop, rather she gets to the heart of the matter—more like a gentle breeze—to find the stories, the rhythms, the sounds, the calloused hands, the dancing feet—and all the while Carolyn never leaves herself behind.  She brought craft, her essential female perspective, and her love for the drum back to Oakland, California and to women.  (And by the way, little girls are playing the drum in Cuba and Carolyn is smiling.)

A conversation with Carolyn Brandy and Holly Near

Filmed on location at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, California, 2019

Rhiannon reflects on her work with Carolyn, 2019