The Irresistible Drum Beat of Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Los Angeles 

“So many spaces in the world are white, cis, male dominated. … If we don’t make space for ourselves, it’s not going to just magically appear.”

The Irresistible Drum Beat of Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls Los Angeles 
(Courtesy of Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls L.A.)

In summers before the pandemic, showcases for Rock N’ Roll Camp for Girls were held at the famous Troubadour rock club in Los Angeles.

On the day of the show, audiences would spot 9-year-olds fastening on instruments, with glittered cheeks and bright hair extensions giving off a very “School of Rock” kind of charm. There were young women running the soundboard. Girls with cameras moving confidently to get the best possible snapshots and concert footage. More girls, ranging from elementary age to high school, were pulling out lyrics for songs they had written. They had designed their own band logos, and had them screen printed on shirts. The minis would be everywhere: taking tickets, cheering in the wings, calling the shots on the balcony, holding court in the crowd, on the microphone, leading the back end and front end of production, asserting their creative vision and taking up space. 

It’s easy to think about gender representation theoretically—but you really don’t understand just how much you’re missing until you see the opposite triumphantly rocking out in front of you. This is one of gifts of Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls L.A. 

Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls L.A. was founded by Mona Tavakoli and Becky Gebhardt—two more examples of women who, once you see them in action, you never forget. Tavakoli is a master percussionist who tends to play her cajon and drum kit with a speed, skill and exuberance that feels otherworldly. To the audience’s delight, she does it while headbanging her jet black, curly hair. Gebhardt is an expert bassist on both electric and stand up, and was the first woman I’d ever seen play the sitar. She’s studied with world-renowned sitarist Shujaat Khan, and was drawn to the instrument in part with her Punjabi heritage. 

The Irresistible Drum Beat of Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls Los Angeles 
Tavakoli and Gebhardt. (Courtesy of Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls LA)

Gebhardt and Tavakoli are members of the band Raining Jane. They got their start out of UCLA, coming up with their buddy Sara Bareillis. They were “self-booked and self-taught,” playing local venues and colleges around southern California, rocking regularly to modest but enthralled crowds with seamless three part harmonies and original, emotionally intelligent electric-rock folk songs.

Today, Raining Jane has been together over 20 years. In non-pandemic times, they perform to packed houses around the world, often in collaboration with singer-songwriter Jason Mraz. The group—who plays over 11 instruments total—was catapulted to the national level thanks to their undeniable excellence, energy, inclusiveness, feminism and persistence. They have a talent for creating intimacy (even on a big stage) and invite audiences to join them in a kind of play and permission. The Rock n’ Roll camp for girls is a natural extension of that superpower.  

Gebhardt and Tavakoli had the idea for a camp after they attended a Portland Rock n’ Roll camp for women in 2008. They were struck by the possibilities of a noncompetitive, collaborative space rooted in social justice—one that put women and non-binary folks forward in every possible role.

“So many spaces in the world are white, cis, male dominated,” said Gebhardt. “We have to carve out space for everybody. If we don’t make space for ourselves, it’s not going to just magically appear. Every marginalized population is made up of people who are working to create space to exist in the world. They are working to be able to thrive and be happy and have a life that is rewarding. In creating Girls Rock n’ Roll L.A., we wanted to create a space where we could feel good. So we did.”

Tavakoli agrees representation is essential. “I never saw an Iranian woman playing drums growing up. I was like, is this okay? Is this allowed? I did it anyway because I was passionate about it, and now I’m at a place in life where I’m a professional drummer. I’m playing around the world! I know that there are girls that see me and go, Wow is that possible? [Then they think]: Well, that girl is doing it … that lady is playing the drums.”

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Girls Rock n’ Roll L.A. is part of a the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, an international coalition of organizations, including that camp in Portland, whose shared mission is to empower girls, women, trans and gender non-conforming people using the tools of music and arts education to foster community and build power. The camp in L.A. is approaching its 12th year, with over with 160 campers each summer and 80+ volunteers, including prominent female musicians on hand to mentor the girls. The showcase is a culmination of a week of classes and workshops which involved each girl taking lessons on an instrument, forming bands, and composing original songs. Girls Rock L.A. provides all instruments and equipment to all campers and volunteers while at camp.

The Irresistible Drum Beat of Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls Los Angeles 
(Courtesy of Miche Lucas)

If there’s one trait the camp hopes to offer its participants, even above musical expertise, it’s confidence. The camp’s leaders want the girls to know how to trust themselves and how to hear their own voice in a room. In some cases, they’re giving space to girls who rarely express their opinion in a group.  

Sara Bareilles recalled watching a girl come out of her shell at camp: “I watched a girl come into our vocals class and not be able to raise her eyes from the floor. She said almost nothing. We did an exercise where we saw people share their favorite song. So we just played the song from the corner of the room and she came to life; it was like seeing a light switch go on in this girl. That is a real-time example of someone who is changed by the frequency of music. It’s a life language; it’s universal in the deepest of ways. I watched it happen.”

“Music is the medium,” said Tavakoli. “Music is the way we get them to let go of a little bit of the self-talk, and the normal, the day to day grind that they experience as a child or a middle schooler or a high school student. We’re saying: Here’s a task and focus on accomplishing this task, and here are the tools to accomplish that task. They are practicing communication, collaboration, compromise, self-esteem, through the journey of writing a song with four people they’ve never met. It’s an incredible way to get them out of the normal day-to-day grind and to achieve this higher-level [exercise] that’s not common.”

The Irresistible Drum Beat of Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls Los Angeles 
(Courtesy of Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls LA)

The guest artists are a thrill for campers who get to see women thriving in the music industry carving a path they can follow. In addition to Bareilles, artists like Sia, Katy Perry and the band KING have stopped by to spend time with the campers. Camp leaders say that when Katy Perry showed up, it took a minute for the campers to believe it was really her since she was wearing a camp t-shirt and jeans. When the Indigo Girls visited, they were in town to play their own sold-out show at the Troubadour that week. It was an extra vote of confidence for the girls to know they were about to light up the same legendary venue as top-tier female musicians. 

Long after the guest visits, campers stay buzzing about the details. For example, how Sia sat on the ground with the girls with her laptop, sharing songs she was working on and talking about her process. Or how when KING visited, it was great to see a band of talented, successful musicians who “look like me.”

The Irresistible Drum Beat of Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls Los Angeles 
(Courtesy of Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls LA)

With the start of the pandemic, like all youth-based organizations, the camp had to go virtual. It was very different from in-person experience, but the founders felt the essence of camp translated online with help from their community. “The heart and soul of camp radiated through our screens because of the intentional space that is created by volunteers and campers, and the container that our volunteers hold for campers to learn, take risks, and express themselves,” Gebhardt said. 

It’s noteworthy that the camp’s music video production unit—also exploring a male dominated field—has continued successfully during the pandemic. Campers shot footage through their screens and in their own homes and edited collaboratively using the screen share feature of Zoom. For the first time, a whole week of camp was dedicated to learning about recording and audio. Guests who wouldn’t normally make it to camp because they don’t live in L.A. were able join, including Alexandria Perryman, an Emmy-winning audio engineer for NASA.

When the camp is in-person, the girls get to operate professional cameras, edit with cutting-edge software, and screen their finished videos in front of a live audience.

The Irresistible Drum Beat of Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls Los Angeles 
(Courtesy of Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls L.A.)

Either by screen or in-person this season, listeners catching the girl’s original tunes are bound to be inspired by their intelligence, swagger and heart. Their hooks are catchy and authentic, urging one another to keep their heads up and speak truth to power, with a little bit of complaining about homework and looking forward to summer sprinkled in.

Listening to them, it’s impossible not to have songs from their newly formed bands—with excellent names like: “Poisonous Pizzas,” “Bubbles, Inc.” “Angry Pacifists” and “Strawberries Don’t Care”—stuck in your head. I, for one, found the mantra by “Strawberries Don’t Care” especially catchy. Their song “FEAR” involved a chorus of little girls chanting: “Face everything. Face everything. Face everything and rise!”

The camp showcase comes with its own invitation for audience members to leave a little more open. They ask us adults to be more inclusive, a little bolder and interested in a state of possibility. As for the girls, you can’t help but think they will hear the underlying rhythm of inclusion and invention wherever they go next. Watching them shred on their instruments, it’s not far-fetched to imagine them knowing how to access their own voice and power off stage. It’s a skill they can rock for the rest of their lives.

To learn more about Girls Rock n Roll L.A.’s in-person and digital programming this summer, click here.

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Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.