Articles written for various community newspapers in the Lower Mainland, B.C. and special interest print and online magazines

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Drum Mama Studios

“I am woman, hear me roar!” These are the words drummer Sandi Millman uses to describe what it is like to participate in a drum circle.

A long-time musician on the Vancouver scene, Millman operates Drum Mama studio out of her Kerrisdale home. It is here she shares her love of rhythm and the healing properties of hand drumming with her students of all ages and levels.

What you’ll take away from Millman’s classes is a sense of empowerment that comes with being fully free to express yourself.

“This is such a wonderful way to connect with each other and we can have so much fun, and it’s not about being a great musician, it’s about enjoying the process,” Millman told the Independent.

Millman isn’t bashful while bashing away on the drums and her infectious energy betrays her South American roots. Originally from Chile, Millman said she thinks what is lacking in Canadian culture is our connection to our bodies. This stifled physicality can be seen in how we respond to music, she suggested.

“When you go to the corner, or there’s a musician on Granville Island, you don’t see people dancing away and totally getting into it,” she said.

“Where I’m from in South America, you see people dancing more. They get into it – they get into the groove. They’re a little more in tune with that energy, with connecting and rhythm, celebrating together, moving and dancing. It’s part of the culture. In our culture, we don’t really express ourselves that way, and I’m all about just bringing back that very organic, natural, primal way through the spirit of the drum,” she said.

To do this, music must be accessible to everyone, she said.

According to Millman, in some cultures, there isn’t one particular word for musician. Everyone is seen as a music maker and relating to the vibration of music is innate to humans.

“In our culture, there’s this idea that music making is for musicians, and a lot of people are left feeling they’re not professional, or they’re not allowed to play or entitled to enjoy music making, and, I think what I do is try to let people know, ‘Hey, wait a minute! We’re all born to make music [and] to make music together.’ It is our birthright to express ourselves with rhythm,” said Millman.

The holistic effects of drumming are manifold, she said. One of these effects is the serenity that inhabits your body, which can be similar to a transcendental meditation exercise or chanting a mantra.

“We’ll repeat the rhythm over and over, and what ends up happening is you feel, in many ways, a brain relaxation or a rest,” she said. “People leave the class feeling rejuvenated and feeling a sense of calm [after having] often come into the class feeling rushed.”

This rushing around manifests itself in an accelerated pulse and, at the start of each class, Millman encourages her students to keep their heart rate steady.

“I try to keep the beat from pushing forward and then, after about five minutes, everybody is relaxed into this beautiful groove together,” she said.

Coming from a classical dance background, Millman approaches drumming kinesthetically, which is obvious when you watch her tiny frame undulate gracefully as she plays. She spent 10 years accompanying modern dance classes at Arts Umbrella before moving onto playing congas at nightclubs around the city. It was when she became a mother that she realized she is most at home when teaching. However, she still manages to balance teaching djembe classes with her love of performing and has taken up the Middle Eastern doumbek as another punctuation on her percussion resumé.

Millman’s belief in the therapeutic aspects of rhythm is evident in her extensive training. She has worked to perfect her art with Cuban and African drum masters, but she has also studied with leading facilitators who use rhythm for personal and health empowerment. This has led her to work with such luminaries as Arthur Hall, grandfather of the Western drum circle, and internationally acclaimed music therapist Christine Stevens, who conducts research on the scientific benefits of drumming.

“Drumming has been such a healing part of my life. It has always been there when I was going through difficult times in my life from a teenager to adult. I want to share that,” Millman said.

There’s no beating around the bush when it comes to the reverence other cultures have for the drum, she stressed. In Africa, the drummer is the high priest. In some tribes, a drummer is equivalent to a psychologist. A book published by Mamady Keita of the Malinke people in West Africa describes which drum beats cure different body ailments and psychological disorders. Millman incorporates these teachings with her university degree in psychology and counseling to better coach students who discover a surge of strong feelings when they play.

“I’m very comfortable with giving space for my students to have their emotional experience to let it be what it is. For some people, I would recommend a private class if I know they’re grieving or having a hard time and then, that way, if something does come up, it’s totally comfortable for them,” she said.

Visit or contact Millman at 604-873-9495 or

Fiesta Fever for Vancouver

Entrepreneur Chen Lizra is once again pairing up with restaurateur Mona Chaaban of Mona’s Fine Lebanese Cuisine to bring back spicy nights of dance and Middle Eastern food to Vancouver.

The duo return with the all-ages celebration Arab Latin Fiesta, offering a cultural fusion unlike any other in the city. The first event of the season held on May 14 was packed, a sign that the event is filling a void in the city, said the Israeli-born Lizra. The two had hosted the event for three years before going on hiatus in 2007, when Lizra returned to business school and subsequently launched Latidos Productions, her Cuban dance business.

“It’s not just a coincidence that, after [the] three years we haven’t done them, that they were packed again and people said, ‘Wow, we’re coming back for the next one.’ There is something very magical about the event,” Lizra told the Independent.

Lizra’s goal is to keep the Arab Latin Fiesta nights going so that people can have an experience of cultural immersion that is generally only found in larger metropolitans like New York.

“It’s very hard to find, in Vancouver, nights where you actually enter a culture the way that culture is in its own country. There are maybe two or three cultures where you can do that but there’s a lot of cultures where you cannot,” she said, citing Latin and Arab celebrations as being particularly underrepresented in Vancouver.

Lizra and Chaaban’s fiesta features a set menu dinner, performances and dancing, as well as a hookah smoking room, all at Mona’s restaurant downtown Vancouver on Hornby Street.

When conceptualizing the evening, the two women created guidelines to help those in attendance understand the cultural setting and to encourage them to find their place within it.

“We create certain rules – not to be rude, but to allow for those cultures to exist the way they are and allow people to come into them. The majority of people coming are basically people from these cultures and they [naturally] form that kind of attitude.”

The atmosphere Lizra works hard to maintain is intergenerational and participatory, one in which everyone gets up to dance and join in the fun that typically lasts until the wee hours.

“It’s all about love, it’s a little more aggressive, [but] it’s warm, it’s family-oriented; you’ve got kids running around. You see grandma get up and dance with the belly dancer. It feels like you’re in the Middle East. Mona is an incredible cook and she just brings Lebanon to you,” raved Lizra.

The Arab and Latin cultures compliment each other because of their similar dance styles, suggested Lizra, whose Vancouver-based Latidos Productions offers courses in Latin dance, as well as vacation dance tours to Cuba.

“You’ve got the music from all these cultures mixed and people just love it, because people who love Latin dance love to shake it Arabic style and vice versa,” she said.

The next step for Lizra and Chaaban is to incorporate sponsorship so that they can make the event even bigger and support bringing in more dancers from outside the city.

“I think Vancouver is still limited with what we have here to work with and after awhile we’re going to run out of people we can book without repeating ourselves. It’s also fresh and interesting when people say, ‘Wow, we haven’t seen that,’” said Lizra.

Finding Cuban dance instructors for her academy is another challenge Lizra faces, as there are only a handful of professional Cuban dancers living in Canada. She travels to Cuba to train with professional dancers and then brings back what she’s learned to Vancouver. She has designed programs in reggaeton (Cuban hip hop), salsa, rumba, son, cha-cha-chá, mambo and rueda. Through the different dance styles, Lizra imparts the arts of flirtation, seduction and feeling sexy – things, she said, that get lost in North America.

“Something happens to you when you’re in Cuba where, a man or a woman, it doesn’t matter, you feel completely sexy and attractive because people come on to you all the time and they do it in such a sweet way that you feel gorgeous and that feels good. We just want to feel like that every day.” In North America, Lizra added, these same behaviors can end up being labeled “sexual harassment.”

Lizra fell in love with what she calls the allure of Cuba’s mesmerizing and energetic life force even before she had ever visited the country. When she finally did visit, she found many things that reminded her of her native Israel, from its core socialist values to the afternoon siesta.

Lizra’s Cuba was something she wanted to share beyond what she was able to translate from her regular visits there. This desire led to her facilitating small, two-week tours to the country to enrich people’s impressions beyond guidebook recommendations and popular tourist destinations. The next dance tour of Havana, which has room for seven travelers, is from July 8 to 22.

“A student who has been taking classes with me for about a year just went to Cuba and, as soon as she came back, she was ‘on’ – sexually. She was full of energy and life and she said, ‘I want more of this, bring it on,’” Lizra shared.

In addition to running her business, Lizra is branching out to reach a wider audience with a television series in development about dance around the world. Another idea in the works is a book, called Seducing Your Way to Happiness, that she plans to write after the TV show takes off.

“I think that at this point of my life I have something to say. I think that as you go through the years and you experience life and different cultures something clicks,” she said.

The next Arab Latin Fiesta night is June 18. For information, visit