Women’s History Month

Beauty and Power: Drumming as Transformative Art

By Ross Hickman

The history of Rwanda is long and convoluted, reaching much further back than the 20th-century travesties of imperial abuse and genocide. What happened in 1994 deserves clear recognition: thousands of people killed and raped hundreds of thousands of people – all of it either worsened or ignored by France, Belgium, the United Nations, and the United States. If you don’t know as much as you feel you should about those hundred days in 1994, I encourage you to watch the PBS documentary “Ghosts of Rwanda.”

Traditions have persisted beneath and in spite of the virulent developments in Rwanda’s recent past. Among these vestiges of a pre-colonial Rwanda is the art of drumming. The (male) Rwandan royal would seek out the most talented young (male) drummers, lavishing them with some of the highest favor in the royal court. This kind of prestige and social capital was left only to women’s imagination. Myriad excuses cropped up to explain away the gender disparity – women’s perceived ‘weakness’ chief among them. Gendered assumptions persisted for centuries, and many of those cling to the cultural consciousness to this day.

In the politically, socially, and culturally chaotic wake of the 1994 genocide, artistic expression lost much of its luster. As the mechanics of government and society shifted and strained, art and music became, for some, a means of personal persistence. For visual artists like Innocent Nkurunziza with the Inema Arts Center and musical artists like Kiki Katese, finding artistic release in Rwanda is not only a restorative method, but a transformative one. During an academic trip to Rwanda in the summer of 2018, I met these artists; their work is beautiful and powerful.

Kiki Katese
Kiki Katese, founder of Ingoma Nshya

For Kiki, founding the first women’s drumming group in Rwandan history was a defiant act, political and personal. In 2004 Ingoma Nshya became the first drumming group to include professional female drummers and a professional female director and choreographer. When speaking with Kiki on a subdued, yellowy afternoon in late July, the word of the hour was ‘taboo.’ The notion of a female drummer, steeped in the exclusive past of the Rwandan drumming tradition, was utter anathema in past decades. Instead of hostility, however, Kiki and her drummers were met with something more biting – ridicule.

Despite their initially strained reception, Ingoma Nshya has come to enjoy national and international renown. To add to their mission of empowering women through the arts, the group has started an ice cream business, partnering with a Brooklyn company to give Rwandan women greater economic mobility.

Kiki and Ingoma Nshya are just one example of the tangible power of music education as a means of personal expression and empowerment. Music ought to permeate borders and barriers; musicians like Kiki and the drummers of Ingoma Nshya do just that.

Ross Hickman is a first-year student at Davidson College, who’s deeply interested in film music and works at WDAV.

Mozart’s Invisible Sister

By Lawrence Toppman

By that I mean invisible to us today. Crowned heads of Europe saw plenty of Maria Anna Mozart, called “Nannerl” by her brother, when the two toured in the 1760s. Papa Leopold mainly wanted to put his elementary-school-age genius on display, but he took both to Vienna and Paris. Nannerl, who was five-and-a-half-years older, sometimes got top billing in harpsichord and fortepiano recitals.

Wolfgang later praised her songs in his letters, but none of her music remains for us to judge. When she reached the marriageable age of 18, Leopold “retired” her from performing. He frustrated her romance with a military captain; she then ran her parents’ household, especially after her mother’s death, and remained unwed until she married a magistrate at 32.

In the midst of Women’s History Month, I’ve been thinking about Nannerl, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler and Amy Beach. All five were talented pianists who showed promise as composers but were overshadowed or suppressed by two brothers and three husbands, respectively. Four left memorable work behind: Mendelssohn a piano trio, Schumann a concerto and trio, Mahler a group of songs, Beach a symphony, piano concerto and chamber music.

I can think of only one woman allowed to compose freely all her life before 1950. Lili Boulanger’s father died when she was 7, and nobody pressured her to marry. She had no brother to grab attention away from her. Elder sister Nadia, herself a composer and teacher, supported her financially and psychologically.

Lili Boulanger remains my candidate for the greatest female composer. She was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome for music, writing the cantata “Faust et Hélène.” Her settings of Psalms 24, 129 and especially 130 (“Out of the Depths”) have beauty and innovative touches. “D’un soir triste,” written in the last year of World War I with her native France in turmoil, is among the most profoundly melancholy pieces you’ll hear. But tuberculosis killed her at 24 in 1918, so we’ll never know what she might’ve done. And isn’t that true of all these women? Ruth Erickson, my first college music teacher, regretfully noted no female composer has left a large body of first-rate work. Perhaps that’s because they weren’t the equals of Wolfgang Mozart or Gustav Mahler. Or perhaps it’s because none were encouraged to find out if they could be.

Familiar Names

by Hannah Liberman

When you think of Mendelssohn, odds are that you’re not picturing Fanny plucking out a tune on the piano. Ask people about Mozart, and the name that comes to mind probably isn’t Maria Anna. But these women, whose brothers, fathers, and husbands enjoy legacies as classical music heroes, had noteworthy careers of their own, albeit often overshadowed by their male relatives’ successes. Here are some great female composers whose music is so magical you’ll find yourself saying “Wolfgang Amadeus who?”

Fanny Mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn’s baby brother Felix might be the household name, but the German-born pianist composed over 460 pieces herself, including a number of songs published under her brother’s name. Fanny and Felix were close; her only known public performance was of his Piano Concerto No. 1 and after her death, Felix wrote his String Quartet No. 6 in her memory.

Check out the hauntingly beautiful melody of Fanny Mednelssohn’s Noturno in G Minor.

Schumann, "one of the most soulful and famous pianists of the day", according to Edvard Grieg.

Clara Schumann

Clara was a child prodigy turned accomplished pianist who premiered several works by Johannes Brahms. Her husband was the famous composer Robert Schumann; the two were so close and so respected each other’s talents that they kept a joint musical diary. Clara composed more when she was younger, before her pianist career and married life got in the way. She wrote several piano pieces, songs, and orchestral works.

Here is Clara Schumann’s gorgeous piece Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Opus 22.

Maria Anna Mozart

Maria Anna Mozart

Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart was Wolfgang’s older sister and enjoyed a short-lived career as the family’s musical prodigy. Her father would take Nannerl and Wolfgang on tours across Europe to showcase their musical talents (she was incredible on the harpsichord and piano forte and even received top billing over her brother). Unfortunately, society and Nannerl’s own father dictated that she stop pursuing music once she reached a marriageable age. Wolfgang wrote letters indicating Maria Anna composed pieces herself, but no such records exist. However, you can learn more about Ms. Mozart’s life through a variety of pop culture references, including this recent play from Sylvia Milo in 2013.


Hannah Lieberman is a senior at Davidson College where she studies Political Science and Theatre. She loves her work at WDAV, where you can hear her live on Sunday mornings.

A Simple but Powerful Message: Girls Rock

For prominent composers like Clara Schumman, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Louise Farrenc, composing beautiful pieces was only half the battle in becoming successful, influential figures in the classical music canon. They also had to deal with the social inequality faced by women in music and in a variety of other professions, making their musical accomplishments even more commendable.

If these women were alive today, perhaps they’d have an easier time making names for themselves- they’re no longer required to compose whilst in rib-squeezing girdles, they can exercise their right to vote, they can get musical education just like their male contemporaries. But women still face obstacles as musicians, no matter the genre.

Fortunately, there are a handful of organizations and institutions working to combat this gender gap. Locally, Girls Rock Charlotte (GRC) works “to educate and empower girls through music, creativity, and collaboration.” The annual summer camps and workshops are part of a national organization with the same goals, the Girls Rock Camp Alliance.

At these camps, campers (most of whom have never played a musical instrument), form a 5-person band, write an original song together, learn how to play their instrument and practice all week for a community concert. New campers learn basic chords, melodies and rhythms while returning campers become increasingly sophisticated with their original songs and arrangements. The campers practice all week, learning to collaborate across diverse identities as they perfect their timing and performance.

Girls Rock Charlotte Executive Director Kelly Finley notes, “they cheer each other on and grow evermore confident as they prepare to rock the stage. In between practices and instrument instruction, campers attend workshops on leadership, confidence-building, gender equality and more. It’s a powerful mix! By the night of the concert they are in true rock star form – impressing their families and delighting the crowd. These Girls Rock Charlotte concerts are open to the community and they are the perfect, family-friendly musical event sure to inspire!”


The aforementioned female composers and their contemporaries would surely appreciate the development of such a program – one that arms young women not only with musical skill, but self-confidence, empowerment, and role models. In fact, they might go so far as to tell the girls to rock on.

You can learn more about Girls Rock Charlotte, and how to get involved, at their website here.