There are several different ways to learn to play or express yourself on drums originating from the african diaspora be it afro cuban, west african or other areas. Here is a short overview.
It does not matter which style of drumming you choose to play in be it traditional drumming or freestyle, if you balance your practice and studies you will increase your overall playing abilities and as a result have more fun. I would like to divide the ways I have found to learn into categories or approaches, how we come to the drum and from what mind set we use.
The first approach to learning would be practicing or learning a traditional form from a specific place. This usually happens with a teacher but we all learn differently. It can of course include books, videos, audio and any other means you find to learn. Moreover, this would include learning the traditional rhythms, arrangements, hand patterns and solo techniques from that region or place you are studying the drums from. It could even extend to learning about the culture from that area , the dance form, songs. Everything. It all blends in. rounding yourself out is the way to go as is immersion.
The way to learn by immersion would of course be going to the place the music comes from. The reason traveling to the area your drum style comes from is so powerful is that by breathing the air, living in the environment, eating the food, being with the people, hearing the language and living the lifestyle that produced the music can give you the feeling just like it gave the feeling to people that created the music in the first place.
I am not saying simply by going cuba, africa or brazil you will “get it”. But is sure helps!This is not the only way to learn of course. However, everyone I have ever been associated with from friends, students and other players that have gone to the source have always come back playing better. I know good and bad are relative terms but it is a big difference how people sound after they have traveled.
The second way or approach to learning would be practicing from a western perspective. This means applying western thought and analyzation to the process of learning and practicing exercises that are general. A drum set or a hand drummer can use theses exercises. For example a paradiddle such as rl-rr, lr-ll. I believe that studying from a western approach uses left side of the brain, the analytical side while learning from assimilation or on the set (being in the place) or by feeling the rhythm uses a different side of the brain (right side), the feeling side.
Neither way is right or wrong. I have a personal preference which is the traditional forms of music and study however, I do feel learning the western side, writing out rhythms in notation and being able to converse has it’s positive places and that is why I am writing this post.
Therefore, the third approach of “combination” would be the best way to go and is a mixture of the two. If you can pull it off that is. Sometimes it is hard to dance and both worlds and sometimes the people or teachers of one style are not into the other style so the combo style is something you might have to learn on your own. Please don’t expect a teacher to have or be able to communicate in western means and ways if they are from somewhere else.
This is what I recommend for those who really want to expand their horizons. By studying traditional forms of hand drumming to the fullest (a lifetime study of course) and adding western exercises for truing you can really have a well rounded program. The traditional style and forms of drumming will give you the feel of the instrument. The western approach can almost never do that (give you the feel and swing of african based music). Unless of course square is a feel you enjoy in and of itself.
The fourth approach is making up your own style. I have seen and heard this called “I do my own thing” or “freestyle”. I call it “no style”. I have only seen this successful a few times where someone has made it to a professional level with out using and traditional technique. I am not saying your goal should be to be professional and I understand many people just want to have fun occasionally hitting their drum. That is why this article is called “if you really want to learn and grow”.
When we try to learn west african drumming, or afro cuban drumming or even freestyle drumming on an instrument that was originally made and designed for a specific style of drumming we can do it but it is not always as productive and fulfilling to ourselves or our audiences as if you practiced the style the drum was made for. Most of the people that I have discussed this with who disagree with this can not play well enough at traditional to understand that it sounds better to hit the drum correctly then what they have made up on their own style or form. Often it is simply laziness oe resistance for change that keeps us from opening up to learning.
I see people doing western drum rudiments on djembe and it can work but if you were to combine the two styles, actually learn traditional drumming styles and practice western approaches as well you would be twice as powerful. Western rudiments have successfully been integrated into conga playing by several conga masters who maintain the traditional feel yet do incredible western sourced rolls and other movements based on what we would analyze as western drumming techniques. For example paradidlles.
I saw several Indian table masters or at least great Indian players in my 4 trips to India playing djembe. They carve decent djembes from light wood there and are actually getting better year by year.. It was mind blowing to see these guys play. However, not one of them bothered to learn how to make a correct slap or tone for that matter. They were simply using their own technique. No one could see the benefit of actually learning how to play the correct technique on the drum.
They spent a lifetime learning how to do it on their own native drums, but when it comes to djembe they do not. Why? Do they look down on the drum because it is from another place?
If they were indeed to learn how to play it correctly and learned a few rhythms or phrases I think this would be amazing.
If you are a person that only does or plays the tradtional style and are not aware of the western style of notation, thinking or approach it can indeed be beneficial for you to learn about it to some degree. Any tool that helps is a useful tool. It is simply an addition to your arsenal. And it can help you communicate with others at times.
And the same goes for people who are coming at the drum from an analytical or western approach. Many of us have to loose or drop our addiction to western ways and means of thinking and analysis to really get the drum. To fully understand it. If we only bring our western thought to the drum and are not open to learning feels, means and ways from a different perspective we will indeed miss the beauty of the drum. I was listening to a person who comes at the drum from only a western perspective describing another players style as “using only quarter notes all night”. To me he totally missed it. Maybe the player he witnessed was repetitive but you simply can not reduce a playing style to “notes”.
The point here is to balance and use both styles or appraoaches to learning and playing if you can. You don’t have to but it will tremndously increase your playing abilities and style. Opening up to learning an d using the form that is opposite to what is comfortable to you will also help you broaden your viewpoint in other areas of your life as well.