In the Afro Cuban conga drum world and in the traditional based West African hand drumming and performance world there is a huge obsession with speed, rolls and “impressive” licks. This is what I call performance oriented drumming. It is created to impress and to entertain others. It has a certain and strong “wow factor”. It’s great!
However, I do not hear (as often as I would like) the fat grooves, the soul, the flavour and funk I used to hear prior to these styles becoming so popular nowadays. It’s breathtaking and mystifying but sometimes it does not move me inside or make me want to dance.
Sometimes, I do not hear or see the focus on deep, rootsy rhythms or structures. What I personally love in drumming is the feel and the “grooviness”. I really like the traditional rhythms and families of rhythms that I can recognize when someone else plays as well. The hand drummers language.
In my observations much of the playing inside the “ballet” and performance styles of hand drumming have become much too technically obsessive. This has rubbed off and effected many of the traditional style drummers as well.
Many people unknowingly are focusing on how to play super fast, super loud and forgetting about how to really dig deeply into a groove. How to happily hold a part and how to function as a group rather then as an individual player.
Many people learn to solo before they learn basic rhythm fundamentals or to play or even hold basic rhythm structures. They copy solos from Youtube and have not lean red the clave, the various bell patterns or other foundation principles that are the basis of anything we play in west african derived drumming music. Many people learn to play 2 or 3 congas before they can play one. Or two and three dunun before they can play one with stick and bell. Playing and mastering one drum will give you the feel.
Our society of star searching and ego orientation has led us even as hand drummers to focus on soloing and solo techniques and not on soul! There is much less focus placed on rhythms, arrangements and grooves these days. Much playing has become about impressing others. I call this the “wow factor”. Wow, look at how fast, how cool he or she is doing that.
Almost every conga solo I see from a young player sounds similar and rarely has originality. everyone is trying to copy Giovanni Hildago and it’s impossible. He is one of a kind. I love to study his techniques, it’s super fun. But don’t forget to learn how to play melody and groove, too!
I am all for technique. I love it. I practice it as much as I can however i try to balance it with other aspects of musicality.
If we move our intention from trying to impress others to trying to unite or play musically with others then a change for the positive can happen at once.
It’s great to be motivated by seeing someone play something technically marvellous, but don’t forget about the groove, the rhythm.
Being able to sit in a a groove, to hold a pattern is just as fun and important if you can open your mind to it. There is surrender involved and dropping of the ego. You are now playing a role as support person, not super star.
The Wow Factor is impressive but I am bored with peoples copy cat recitals consisting of this or that kind of roll or secret hand technique. Of the super fast phrases that are undecipherable. I want hear and feel something that moves me inside.
Less is more! I want to hear something different and creative and not everyone trying to copy or to keep up with the fastest, loudest “coolest” players. I would much rather hear a spicy, funky old school Rumba Guaguanco then someone reciting rolls as fast as they can.Simplicity has often been replaced with complexity. “More is better” has replaced “less is more”.
This is the nature of progress, of the evolution of music, of art and of us as humans and progress as I understand it. I do love progress and innovation. Yet still, (and maybe I am showing my age)…I would rather hear the old Mali masters phrasing, using space, not rushing then an ultra fast player leaving no space to breathe. Funk needs space. It’s just as much about what notes you dont hit as those you hit.
And these guys (masters) can hit fast, its just not “all fast”! Its about dynamics and musicality.
I would rather hear the sound of a single slap hit perfectly then a bunch of notes constantly slurred together. I enjoy the musicality of the older styles. The use of dynamics. I ask you all, why does everything have to be played, fast, faster and fastest? I love to play fast but there is also medium and slow.
I was sitting at my computer with a friend who is an excellent modern style djembe player who was staying with me for a visit. He kept showing me videos of his favourite players. They were all playing incredibly fast stuff, soloing at hyper speed. Places only a few people will ever get. I kept showing him videos of my teachers in Mali or Guinea playing village style drumming music. He was not getting it.
And that is fine, it’s all about choices. And I am definitely seeing and pointing out there are different schools of thought on this as well.
I sincerely hope that these styles of tradition, these older styles based on a mission, a purpose do not get lost in the the glamour and glitz of many of todays performers. Traditional drum styles served the group, the community the “whole”.
In many cases our egos and the need to impress, to perform to be a star has surpassed the need to serve a purpose, a greater whole.
There is much more to drumming then who can play the fastest, the loudest or recite the coolest rolls. Drumming is deeper then “being the man”. I am impressed with the technicians and the recitals. But I want to feel it and be moved! Groove, soul, funk, roots moves you!
My suggestion is to shift our attention playing drums back to the group, back to community. Less “I” and more “we”. Be it a band, a drum circle, rumba, dance class where ever we play.
If we can get out of out egos and into the spirit of the drum we will truly be communicating and celebrating with each other.
More suggestions? Drumming in a dance class play for the dancer, not for yourself. In a band, play less notes. Solo when it is your solo spot and not during the tune.
At a drum circle try playing a groove and take turns soloing instead of everyone soloing at the same time. In your solos play more rhythmically. Focus on melody and phrasing rather then rolls for the sake of rolls. They have a place. It is a technique and a feel no less or more important then any other feel or statement to be made.
In general if you are performing give the audience something to latch on to, a groove. Dont just start ripping off rolls and playing in odd time. We can all play the parts now lets focus on the feel. The rhythms, the structures the things we play are only as important and functional as the feel beneath them.
My main point in this article is to think about and possibly direct people who are interested and open minded towards thinking about and discovering that the beauty and soul of drumming is not about how fast you play what licks you know or about soloing all over the place. That the essence of this drum music is in the roots of rhythm. In the basic structures and foundation.
If we can get out of our egos and play for a purpose, for community and play together as one with space, funk and heart connecting with other players and musicians we have really achieved something greater then, “look at me, look at me” attitude and star mentality that our western future promotes so strongly.
I would love to hear YOU play! I want to hear your soul speak out in your solo, in your music and not a recital of memorized licks and technical moves. This is not about young vs. old, speed vs slow. This is about finding and expressing our own groove. About changing one’s focus from ego to love, from me to we.