(All photos by Jesse Untracht-Oakner)
There has always been something special about female drummers. More than the way they don’t cross their legs, and more than the way their long (if they have it) hair flails around at the kit; it’s something more spiritual, almost sacred.
In the Old Testament, after the Hebrew slaves were freed from Egypt, Miriam, the first woman in the Bible to be called a prophet, lead a victory dance with her timbrel, an early tambourine and main percussion instrument of the Israelites. Some even speculate it was her drumming that parted the Red Sea. For 3,000 years in ancient civilization, women were almost exclusively in control of sacred music, using the frame drum to conduct rituals and trances for fortunetelling, ecstatic transformations, and mediating between realms. The rise of the Catholic Church brought an end to the female drummer by banning women from music, and it was not until recent history that women returned to music with a new power and great drive.
“Drumming is healing and cathartic. You get to bang and make a lot of noise, how can that be bad?” said Mindy Abovitz, who as creator and editor-in-chief of Tom Tom Magazine, the first magazine about female drummers, is forefronting the movement to bring women beat makers to the spotlight. Abovitz is a female drummer herself, for the wild all-female post-punk trio Taigaa, as well as at least eight other mostly female bands, and she was also the featured drummer for Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn’s recent whimsical video “The Forest,” that was filmed at Mirah’s parent’s farm in Vermont last year.
Abovitz, 31, who is self-taught, started playing drums when she was 20, after her friends pooled together to buy her a drum kit. Previously, she had been banging on anything she could find. She moved from Gainsville, Florida to New York where she began teaching at Rock Camp for Girls, working at East Village Radio, at a guitar shop in Williamsburg, and taking Brooklyn’s indie-rock scene by storm.
With long brown hair and eyes as green as leaves, Abovitz has a strong jaw, a button nose, and a consistently raised eyebrow that seems to say, “I get you” with skepticism and empathy. She also has meekness and sass. Like that Israeli cactus cliché, she is prickly, but sweet, giving off a no-bullshit approach, and a confidence that if she can dream it, she can do it, even if it means publishing a magazine in a time where that seems more difficult than parting the sea.
Born to Israeli parents and raised as an Orthodox Jew, her world shifted focus upon entering public high school. “I had to quickly get my bearings and become a normal kid,” she said. It was there that “the world around me came into focus” and she began to embrace anarchist punk culture. Being a self-identifying Israeli-Jew was not easy in the radical scene, whose leanings tend towards Palestinian rights, and when I asked her if she experienced a clash she said, “It wasn’t easy.”
Abovitz is not one to hide her identity or roots. Her family had lived in Israel before it even became a state, which Abovitz commented was “hardcore.”
“I’m Jewish/Israeli. It’s undeniable. I’m part of the Cohen tribe. I’m not going anywhere,” she told me.
Her family is very supportive of her work, even when they don’t exactly understand what she does. When her saba, the Hebrew word for grandfather, asks her if she plays music at Bar-Mitzvahs, she replies, “Saba, I have a magazine. Saba, I don’t play cover songs.”
Coming from a family that she calls “creative and businessy,” Abovitz thanks her parents for teaching her hard work and to “do the best with what you have,” she said. It’s not easy to have very much when working in the magazine publishing business, but instead of being discouraged, Abovitz spends her energy making Tom Tom available to more people in more places worldwide.
As is, the magazine is not sustainable, but she’s rallied the support and help of around 1,000 people, without whom it could not exist. Along with her parent’s insistence on hard work, her radical-anarchist adolescence taught her that if you want to make something happen, you should just D.I.Y (Do It Yourself) or D.I.T (Do It Together) and though Tom Tom’s much sleeker and shinier than a zine and the production value is much higher than staples and a photocopier, Tom Tom Magazine is a punk collaboration at its core.
All things have to start somewhere and Tom Tom started as an online blog after Abovitz became bothered by the lack of legitimate representation of women in the media. “It just dawned on me that we female drummers need a place to connect and communicate and promote ourselves and that’s how Tom Tom emerged,” Abovitz said in an interview with GearPipe last April.
She began raising money from benefit shows until he had enough to print the first issue. “This thing is going to keep going because of all the people who think it should be in existence,” she said, and compared the project to crowd surfing.
With four issues and a fifth one coming out next week, the quarterly magazine offers interviews with female drummers, features, and even though it contains practical technical advice, the magazine is still accessible to those who may not be female or drummers. I had heard the criticism that the magazine is all pictures of pretty hipster drummers, but I don’t think Abovitz is to blame for so many female drummers looking good.