Cuba has a long tradition of drumming, and until the mid-twentieth century, that tradition was male. However, in 1932, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a ten-year-old girl of Chinese, African, and Cuban descent, played the drums in Anacaona, an all-girl band formed by her older sisters. Zaldarriaga went on to enjoy a successful career as a jazz drummer: she performed with many leading jazz musicians of the day and even played at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birthday celebration when she was fifteen.
Inspired by Zaldarriaga’s early life, Drum Dream Girl explores the obstacles the young musician overcame to even study her instrument. In free verse, Margarita Engle describes how a youthful Millo heard music in island life: “the whirl of parrot wings/the clack of woodpecker beaks/the dancing tap of her own footsteps.” Forbidden to play percussion, she practices in secret and retreats into her dreams until she is finally permitted to pursue the instrument she loves. Engle’s verse evokes both Cuba’s beauty and that of the world Millo creates for herself.
Rafael López’s gently surreal illustrations round out young Millo’s dreamscape and bring her Cuba, with its cafés, flowers, and carnivals, vividly to life. In one spread, set against a starry sky, Millo mounts a ladder of conga and bongo drums to play a timbale that is the surface of the moon. Pleased to be part of her music, the moon smiles. In another, a flamingo, small bird, butterfly, and a snake paused to listen as Millo drums beside a small pool at night. Even a fish peeps from the water and smiles up at her: all nature delights in her beats. In this way, López captures exaltation and the sense that the universe itself rejoices with the creator: a feeling familiar to all those who’ve experienced real joy, whether it is the thrill of creation or falling in love. Various motifs float through the book’s illustrations, including a small bird who appears in several spreads. With a purple body, pink wings, and humanoid legs, she seems to represent Millo’s desire for freedom.
With lyrical verse and gorgeous illustrations, Dream Drum Girl is an inspiring introduction to Zaldarriaga’s life and work. It is also a moving reflection on the human need for creative expression.
-Dorothy A. Dahm