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Attitude, talent help Argentinian drummer find success at UW-Eau Claire

| Judy Berthiaume (story); Jesse Yang (video)

With a feisty mom as a role model, Camila Mennitte Pereyra grew up determined to show the world that she could do anything that a man could do … and maybe do it even better.

“I always had a little of that rebel attitude,” says Cami, who will graduate this month from UW-Eau Claire with a music degree. “When I was a kid and would see a man doing something, I would always think I could do it, too, and I wanted to prove it. I thought the fact that I’m a girl doesn’t mean anything and I’m going to show you.”

Her choice of musical instruments — drums — reflects her “I-can-do-it-too” attitude, says Cami, noting that she also was drawn to the drums because of its groove and versatility.

“The drums were definitely a way to prove myself,” says Cami, a native of Argentina who came to the United States 4½ years ago to study music. “I love the music, but the attitude definitely was a part of it. I’m small, but I can do it, too. It’s a powerful instrument, and I can produce a lot of power, too.”

That the drummer often is a leader in a band is another bonus, she says.

“I like being the boss,” Cami says with a laugh. “If I change things up, then we’re going in that direction. A drummer has that power, and I like that aspect of it.”

As the drummer — and only female — in UW-Eau Claire’s Jazz I ensemble, Cami already is proving that she’s more than up to any challenge.

This spring, UW-Eau Claire’s top jazz ensemble won its eighth DownBeat award, the second consecutive year the ensemble was honored by the premier jazz magazine. Cami was the drummer both years.

When Cami graduates, she’ll take with her two prestigious DownBeat awards, a host of connections in the music industry and enough confidence to know she has the talent to make a career in music.

Cami came to UW-Eau Claire to study music thanks to a mentor in Argentina who saw her potential and used his music industry connections to get her to a jazz camp in Shell Lake.

“He was trying to convince me to come to the States to study,” Cami says. “I didn’t know it at the time, but the Shell Lake jazz camp was a test to see how I would do. The next year, he said I should go to UW-Eau Claire and that they had scholarships for me.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m all in. When do I take the plane?’ It was an incredible opportunity.”

She also credits Steve Zenz, a UW-Eau Claire music graduate, and Ron Keezer, a UW-Eau Claire associate professor emeritus of music, with helping her study at UW-Eau Claire.

Cami first began playing the drums nearly a decade ago, when she was 14.

The more she played, the more she came to appreciate all that the instrument offers.

“You can create thousands of textures with a drum,” Cami says of the range of music drummers can create. “It’s like a painting. You can use any color to create something, and that’s how I feel about the drums.”

In Argentina, music is not part of public school curriculum so she took private music lessons once she became interested in learning an instrument.

She was fortunate, Cami says, to take lessons from an excellent teacher, who also became her mentor.

In addition to teaching her an instrument, he also encouraged her to think big, she says.

“He’s the one who encouraged me to consider a career in music,” Cami says. “He wanted me to go to the States. He was really great at showing me that my music is not just about practicing in a little room, but that I could become an expert and that I could do it as a career.”

Studying music at UW-Eau Claire is an important step on her journey, which she hopes will lead her to a career as a professional musician.

“It was a culture shock,” Cami says of moving from her home in Argentina to Wisconsin, noting that she struggled with everything from the language to the weather. “It took a little while to adjust, but after that transitional period, it’s been awesome.

“It’s been a positive journey and I’m extremely grateful for all of it.”

She credits Robert Baca, UW-Eau Claire’s director of jazz studies, for helping her get the most out of her opportunity to study at UW-Eau Claire once she got onto the campus.

A tremendous teacher, he helped her improve as a musician, but also has pushed her to pursue opportunities that will help her to learn and grow away from the campus, Cami says.

“He constantly tries to show us that Eau Claire is not ‘it,’” Cami says. “We’re a great band, we won another DownBeat and that’s awesome, but this is not ‘it.’

“It’s easy for us to think that once we’ve made the top band at UW-Eau Claire that we’ve made it. But the reason the band is so good is because we’re constantly thinking outside of the box. If we think we’re the best, then the learning curve stops. Jazz I is not ‘it.’ There are many more places for us to go.”

Cami will take her next steps toward those places in the fall, when she begins her graduate studies at Indiana University.

She had opportunities to study at other prestigious universities but picked Indiana University after it offered her a full-ride scholarship.

Equally important to her, however, is that a member of her Blugold family already is part of that campus community.

John Raymond, a UW-Eau Claire graduate who continues to have close ties to his alma mater, now is an assistant professor of music at Indiana University.

“Blugolds are family, and that’s especially true in the music department,” Cami says. “Anywhere I go and meet alumni, I know I have support. I’ve gotten to know a lot of Eau Claire grads, and I play some with them. They’re amazing and always looking out for me.

“John is at Indiana and I know him well. So I’ll have this incredible trumpet player there for support, and that means a lot.”

Given her experiences at UW-Eau Claire, she knows that having the support of another Blugold will make a difference as she continues her studies and looks to her future.

After all, when she first came to UW-Eau Claire, Ron Keezer introduced her to a number of Blugolds, many of whom have supported her in various ways during her four-plus years in Eau Claire.

“I kind of have my Eau Claire network,” Cami says, noting that they’ve provided everything from emotional to financial support. “Ron Keezer is connected to everyone. When I first came here, he introduced me to so many people, and they became like family to me.

“What they’ve done for me is amazing. I don’t know anybody else who has come close to being in a situation like mine. It is a huge blessing in my life.”

Cami says the support from so many people, as well as the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, is especially meaningful because she’s a woman of color.

“People with power are taking the time to empower a woman of color,” Cami says. “Why did they choose to support a woman drummer from Argentina? They could have turned their backs on me and gotten some guy drummer from Iowa. But they chose to help me.

“I think that’s amazing. I want to pay that forward a million times over.”

After graduate school, Cami hopes to be a professional musician, pursuing projects that interest and challenge her.

“I’m constantly thinking about big pictures,” Cami says. “I’m always thinking about how I can make something better. How can I be better? We won a Downbeat award, now how do we win a Grammy?

“When I think about what’s next, it’s how can I be more successful? How can I be better at my instrument? How can I get up even earlier so I can practice even more? Where it all takes me, who knows?”

For now, she is most excited that her family is coming from Argentina for her May 19 graduation.

While she visits them once a year, this will be the first time they will be in Eau Claire, her home for more than four years.

“My parents are extremely proud,” Cami says. “But I don’t think they understand everything that’s going on here. Once they come, it will be eye-opening. I think they will understand better what I play and do. They understand that I’m in the top jazz band and won awards. They celebrate everything I do. But it will be different for them to be here and see it.

“I had no idea this would ever happen to me. If you had said to 12-year-old Cami that this would happen, she would never have believed you.”

Photo caption: As the drummer and only female in UW-Eau Claire’s Jazz I ensemble, Camila Mennitte Pereyra is looking forward to a career as professional musician.