A different drummer

Former rock ’n’ roller Liz Broscoe brings West African beats—and the sense of community they inspire—to the tourist town she calls home

Photo By David Robert with Photo Illustration by David Jayne

South Lake Tahoe, with big casinos on the lake and manicured shopping areas near Heavenly Ski Resort, is a nice place to visit.

A few miles from the main drag, where Susquehana Drive dead-ends into forest, drummer Liz Broscoe answers the door to her quiet, spacious house. One of the first things she mentions is how the neighborhood has changed. Since the dot-com boom in the 1990s, she estimates, about half the homes on her street have become vacation pads for out-of-towners.

But Broscoe, a pretty, dark-haired 43-year-old in jeans, short leather boots and a black T-shirt with her Web site address on it, is inspired by notions of community—even in a place where people come to get away from it all and neighbors may be strangers. She traded in a career as a successful rock musician to take up West African drumming.

“It’s about unity, community, playing together,” she says.

With a quiet, deliberate passion in her voice, Broscoe recalls how she started playing drums at age 10. By 16, when she got her first drum set, she was so hooked that she’d drum in her sleep.

She paid her way through college drumming with rock and country-western acts. Then she moved to Tahoe to pursue the ski-bum life and made a good living playing in casino lounges.

Eventually, the ego-fueled music world started to feel like it wasn’t the right arena for her.

“When you’re on the bandstand playing a set, you can sometimes have ‘dig me’ on your forehead. You know, ‘I’m cool; I’m playing in a band.’ But that is not what people are drawn to,” she says.

She’d been hoping that life as a musician could provide a greater sense of immediacy and community.

Liz Broscoe drums with the blues-funk group Java Djembe, seen here at the Sparks Farmers market in 2005. “I look at drumming as more of a communal, universal empowerment kind of thing,” she says.

Photo By David Robert

Two cosmically well-timed coincidences set Broscoe on a new path.

During a brief stint living in San Francisco (and devising an exit strategy from the music business), she was invited to fill in for a conga player at an Afro-Cuban dance class. She’d never played congas before, but her friends convinced her that the skills she’d developed behind the drum set would translate easily to hand drumming.

“I played it, and all of a sudden, 40 women came out of the back of the room and just started dancing up and down the dance floor, doing these incredible Afro-Cuban moves,” she says. Drumming for 40 dancers and touching the drum directly with her hands were the visceral experiences she didn’t realize she’d been looking for.

“I had never felt the power of playing a drum without sticks in my hands. All of a sudden it was hands-on.”

She moved back to Tahoe, took a steady lounge-act job and spent her off-hours teaching herself how to play congas.

One night, while Broscoe was moonlighting with an acoustic duo at Mc P’s Irish Pub, she recognized a face in the audience. It was renowned conga player Jorge Bermudez. She’d seen him the previous year at a workshop in Sacramento. Bermudez had just landed a four-month gig at Harrah’s Casino, and Broscoe became his student for those four months.

“I studied with him twice a week,” she says. “So my conga chops went from being mezza-mezza to, all the sudden, I knew what I was doing on that instrument.”

That was 15 years ago, and Broscoe has been studying and teaching hand drumming ever since.

Her tiny, pine-paneled studio is equipped with congas, a rock-band-type drum set (with which she still plays and teaches) and a stack of cylindrical Dunun drums made of wood, goat skin and colorful rock-climbing rope. Her specialty these days is the Djembe, a bright-sounding, chalice-shaped drum from West Africa.

She plays with her drum/dance troupe Java Djembe and with the blues-funk group Raw Nature. But performing is only part of the picture.

Liz Broscoe says each rhythm of West African drumming plays a role in a bigger life story.

Photo By David Robert

“I can’t say that I still don’t have some of those desires,” she says, referring to the “dig-me” days of pursuing music-world glory. “But they have shifted. Now I look at drumming as more of a communal, universal empowerment thing.”

She teaches kids’ workshops for arts organizations and the Boys & Girls Club. She also teaches at community colleges.

Her adult students are usually middle-aged people who don’t mind looking to other cultures for influences; many are also interested in yoga or tai-chi.

Corine Lucich, 46, is one of Broscoe’s students. She expected to be a misfit among 20-somethings when she enrolled in a Djembe class two years ago. She was pleasantly surprised to find herself among like-minded peers. The group aspect is one of her favorite parts of playing drums. “I can come home and play, but it’s much more fun when you play with a group,” says Lucich. A lone rhythm can be appealing, but it’s nothing like the collective energy that arises when many hands contribute to layers of sound.

Another common denominator among Broscoe’s students is that they’re mostly women. She’s often been singled out as a “girl drummer,” having come up in the male-dominated music world. (She still gets asked before performances if the drums she’s setting up belong to her boyfriend.) But she’s more interested in being a gender egalitarian than a feminist crusader.

“Eighty percent of my students are women,” she says. “I could go off on some female bullshit that guys are just uncomfortable with women as teachers, but … the drum is about unity. It’s not about separation.”

In a West African ensemble, she explains, each rhythm plays a role in a larger story.

“They are ceremonial, and they mean something—somebody got married, somebody had a good harvest, somebody just had a baby,” says Broscoe. “It’s their history, it’s their life, and it’s all spoken through the drum.”

Anybody can learn to drum, she says. At Lake Tahoe Community College, she’s had about 60 new students each quarter for the past five years. She’s only encountered three students who just couldn’t play. Everybody understands rhythm, to some degree.

“Your heartbeat has a rhythm. You’re beating a rhythm the way that you walk, the way that you talk. … Breathing is this rhythm. All of that we’re already doing. … The drum is just an extension of that,” Broscoe says.

South Lake Tahoe, where teenage pedestrians carry snowboards on the shoulder of a busy road and “For Rent” signs advertise 8-plexes, may not look like the kind of place where groups of people get together to play the spirited, infectious, get-up-and-dance rhythms of West African Djembes and Dununs. But drums can go anywhere. And to Broscoe, who is slowly transforming the tourist town into a place with a high proportion of amateur drummers, drums provide a way for people to understand each other better.

“Drumming brings you back to the simplest form of communication,” she says.