Tina Blaine Inspires Dance and Drumming at Rhythmix
Via a rather circuitous route, Bean landed in Alameda to mix up drumming and dance.
Bean uses a djembe to beat out a rhythm at Rhythmix Culture Works.
Photo by Chris Duffey
Laryngitis has Tina Blaine’s tongue tied during a recent Wednesday evening drum class. So the percussionist, better known as “Bean” to friends and associates, lets her hands do the talking.
Three men and one woman of varying levels of accomplishment—drums between their legs, steadied by their knees—join their instructor while sitting in a circle in her live-work studio at Alameda’s Rhythmix Cultural Works. She demonstrates a series of syncopated rhythms one at time on her djembe, a West African cousin of the Latin American conga. The students replicate the pattern she plays, and once they’ve got it down, they take turns soloing for four musical measures, then two, and finally one, as the rest maintain the primary beat, striking the drum skins near the rim for high-pitched tones and the center for deeper ones.
Bean, who one week earlier had taken her students on a percussive journey through the Middle East, became enchanted by drums in the late ’70s while living in San Francisco and working as a guide on the Stanislaus and American rivers. Having seen a circle of congueros at Aquatic Park, she enrolled in an African dance class at the Women’s Building that was accompanied by live Senegalese drummers, purchased two congas, and studied at San Francisco State with Congolese dancer and drummer Malonga Casquelourd. She and a friend were soon in Lam Lam, Senegal, where they spent six months studying with local members of the Senegalese National Ballet.
“Everyone in the village came out to watch us dance and drum,” Bean said a week prior to losing her voice. “We were quite a spectacle. They had never seen ‘Europeans’ in their culture before. They called people from the West Europeans even if you were from North America.”
The fact that they were female was particularly striking to the villagers. “In a lot of cultures,” she explained, “it’s forbidden for women to play drums if they’re bleeding. In places like Cuba, women are only allowed to play social drums but not in the religious music. That’s changing, because women like myself have been traveling to different parts of the world, and people have seen the men in their cultures teaching women who are foreigners about their music. The women are saying, ‘If you’re willing teach them, why won’t you teach us?’ ”
Blaine was nicknamed Bean to distinguish herself from another Tina in D’CuCKOO, an all-female electronic percussion group she co-led during the ’80s. The band, which ranged in size from three to 10 members and collaborated with Brian Eno and Mickey Hart, frequently used electronic devices in addition to drums and marimbas to enhance and involve audiences in its performances, such as the huge helium balls that were thrown into the crowd when D’CuCKOO opened for the Grateful Dead at the Oakland Coliseum Arena. Fans then tossed these MIDI-balls back into the air, turning them bright colors and triggering sounds that informed the musical directions the ensemble took.
Not long thereafter, faced with the challenge of D’CuCKOO playing on a floating barge in the middle of the Cuyahoga River, Bean turned to dancer and taiko drummer Janet Koike to help create pyrotechnics so that the band could better connect with the crowd a half mile away at SeaWorld Ohio.
In 1997, Bean and Koike formed a five-woman acoustic percussion group called Rhythmix Ensemble that mixed Japanese taiko with African and Afro-Cuban drumming. The quintet performed mostly for schoolchildren around the Bay Area.
The Rhythmix Ensemble no longer exists, having morphed into another cross-cultural group called Maze Daiko, but the original name provided the impetus for Rhythmix Cultural Works, the nonprofit community arts organization located in a 5,000-square-foot red brick building at the corner of Blanding Avenue and Everett Street in Alameda. Koike purchased the then-dilapidated former rug-cleaning facility in 2004 and spent three years renovating it while Bean was in Pittsburgh teaching at Carnegie-Mellon University. Koike is the organization’s artistic director, and Bean has been its executive director since 2010.
About 100 adults and 75 students in grades kindergarten through 12 are presently enrolled in weekly classes in drums, capoeira, taekwondo, children’s theater, and salsa, belly, and Zuma dance. The facility also offers bimonthly bingo nights and frequent concerts. The next Rhythmix Cultural Works performances by Maze Daiko, in which Bean and Koike remain members, are slated for Friday and Saturday, Nov. 14 and 15.