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On a relentlessly hot Sunday morning inside El Centro Cultural de Mexico in downtown Santa Ana, Ladies Rock Camp is in session. Candace Hansen jumps into the air, her arms above her head, and karate kicks a red punching bag, nearly knocking it to the floor in this community center-turned-studio. In addition to rock music, self-defense is also taught at Rock Camp.
Hansen is the person in the room with whom everyone wants to hang out. She wears skinny jeans and square sunglasses above a silver Monroe piercing. The Garden Grove native has the restless, forward-driving presence of the punk-rock drummer that she is, as well as the agenda of someone who is itching to pass some of that swagger on to the young women she mentors.
"You play drums like a man," Hansen was once told after playing a gig. And since the beginning of 2013, she's taught that same confident musicality to girls and women at Rock Camp for Girls OC. "For girls and women, it's really empowering to actually produce sound on an instrument," she says. "You'll see that typically men are more comfortable making noise and drawing attention to themselves."
The people who work with the Portland-based feminist organization Rock Camp for Girls fight against those ideas. Volunteers teach the basics of rock music to women (Ladies Rock Camp can be a weekend-long intensive experience) and girls (Rock Camp for Girls is a two-week camp held during the summer).
About 45 women—20 volunteers and 25 campers—will attend the all-female Rock Camp, held again in the spring and fall of 2014. On a sparkling, gold, seven-piece drum set, a camper with turquoise hair plays a basic 2-4 hi-hat, snare, bass drum beat. Her fingernails, covered in chipped blue polish, clutch Zildjian drum sticks. Women passing in and out are careful to not trip over amplifiers and the extension cords snaking across the wooden floor. Five other women and a drum instructor congregate in a separate room to run through beats and take turns improvising. They talk drum fills and volume level and learn the "one and a two and a" jazz cymbal rhythm. Ankle-high boots stomp on bass drum pedals, and sticks fearlessly clang against reverberating crash cymbals.
"It's like they're jumping into cold water," Hansen says of the women who start out afraid to hit the drum. She perches on a black amplifier in a practice room. Her arms are colored with tattoos, most notably a blue skull in front of a rose, a red drum on her left tricep and a pirate flag with crossed swords on her left forearm. "But it's really about knowing that it's okay to express yourself and be organically who you are and unashamed of it. To have a release and to have fun, and to connect with people. Women need that. Girls need that. Everybody needs that."
Hansen got into drums at a young age. She played in the school band, but it wasn't until she was 15 that she really got the desire to take it seriously. She bought a drum set for $50 off a guy from school, and from there, persistence propelled her forward.
"I made a drum set out of boxes when I was a little kid. Not even little—I was, like, 13. What a nerd, right?" Hansen recalls. "I would tape myself playing the boxes, trying to be legit." Her first love was punk. She learned to play '90s punk records and was in a ska-punk band for a while. She then learned about jazz and the blues and shuffle. "I always am trying to stay tasteful and complement the other musicians," she explains.
When Hansen is not slugging punching bags at Rock Camp and teaching girls and women how to play drums as a private instructor, her head of feathered brown hair is in books. She is majoring in history and minoring in gender studies at UCLA, and she manages social media for Istanbul Agop Cymbals, based in the Republic of Turkey. She is also a writer for Tom Tom Magazine, a community organizer and, of course, a drummer.
People tend to think of the drums as a male-dominated instrument—focused on biceps, forearms, strong hands, masculine energy and an untamable, unabashed confidence. But despite her chops and years of experience, Hansen is not immune to stereotypes. "The worst is when you're moving gear in, and somebody will ask you, 'Hey, where's the drummer?' Or, 'Is your boyfriend here?' I've gotten that, and 'You're so good for a girl,'" she says.
Perhaps it's fitting that Hansen is showing her skills as a drummer by playing with a trailblazing punk heroine who likes Hansen's style, regardless of her gender. She recently recorded a cover of Nina Simone's "Sinnerman" with Exene Cervenka (a huge Rock Camp supporter) in Joshua Tree, where vintage trailers were fixed up into recording studios. Released by Muddy Roots Records as a 7-inch, Hansen describes its sound as rootsy and organic, as if it were recorded at the end of a dirt road. "Working with Exene is amazing," Hansen says. "She is such a force on the stage and in the studio. She is receptive and encouraging and always thinking outside the box."