In 1985 I took my first (legal) trip to Cuba to study music. I was in love at once. Besides the fact that everyone liked us even though we were Americans shocked me. The media had once again mislead me. One of the other many things that shocked me in a very positive way was that when I told people I was a conga player they were not only supportive but impressed. Someone was taking the time to learn and study their culture. They were very open to teaching and showwing me everything they could. I am saying this as a juxtaposition to my experience for so many years in the USA. When I have told people in the past when I was younger that I am a conga player they used to make Lucy Ball/Desi Arnez “Babalou” comments. I would say a negative association, like it was a joke, not a featured art form. These days when I or someone else say’d I play djembe there is an acknowledgement it is usually related to a drum circle. I can’t begin to express what a profound experience this was to be in a culture where not only did everyone know the instrument I played but also appreciated it. I was not looked down upon. It mad me feel comfortable at once and inspired still to this day. Knowing that somewhere, not to far there is a whole country that knows. A whole country that loves and adores the drum. I met a clave player for a famous rumba group there. When I talked to him I asked if he played any other instrument as well. He looked at me like “why would I?” He was perfectly happy being the clave player. That is all he did every day, every time. And of course he sang. But my point being he was happy in his role. he was not dreaming about the day he was going to be the quinto or soloist. This also had a profound effect on me. that in traditional cultures everyone has a role. And everyone is equally important. it is not just the lead player that gets the glory. Its the whole group combined. The parts make up the whole. If any link is weak the whole chain is effected. The clave is indeed the heart of the rhythm as is the dunun in west african music. Its these very basic parts that the rest of the music is built upon. People think it is all about soloing but it’s not. It is about structure and form which creates the space for the soloist. To find what your role is in drumming try to experience playing all the different parts in traditional drumming. Be willing to play the simplest parts. Please understand every part is important and no one part is more or less important then any other part. It is the group experience that makes the experience. In Afro Cuban bata drumming they say, “one drum”. This means that all the parts played together should sound and feel like it is all one drum.
When playing with others try to tune in with what they are playing. Listen to each part, see and feel where you fit together. By playing each part and listening to others you can learn the whole arrangement in a meaningful and wholistic way, getting different vantage points on the rhythm.