One thing I have noticed in my many, many moons of drumming is that although someone may be trained in west african drumming music, djembe or dununs and technically be a great or at least a knowledgable djembe player or even drum teacher, it does not mean they know how or can play djembe solo or more accurately lead djembe for a dance class.
Many of us have found this out in the most painful way so my goal here is to explain about dance classes, dancers and how it works with the drummers so you can learn from my and others previous mistakes!
Playing lead djembe for west african dancers or a dance class is a fine art unto itself and something that needs to be learned in addition to learning parts, rhythms and playing techniques
Playing for the dancers is something that is almost never taught or even discussed (at least in any drum class I have been to in the last 25 years). But is definately something that needs to be taught and learned by anyone that wants to play for dancers.
Most of us apprentice, that means to find some one to study under . I like to go to west african dance classes with my teacher and check out how differently he plays for dancers then when he plays for a drum class for example.
It is great to carefully watch a master drummer who has spent time in the ballets or at least whoever is playing the lead. The interaction between a knowledgable drummer and dancer can be absolute magic!
Even if someone is experienced playing for a dance class can always be challenging and a learning experience. Often a dance teacher will come up to even the best drummer and tell him where they want the break to go for example. So don’t feel bad if you do not know something in a dance class and above all, don’t be afraid to ask!
Many people know extensive solo techniques, how to speak on the djembe and everything about the djembe and have been to all the classes and master drumming workshops. But unless you learn how to play for the dancer in front of you , none of that will help you. So, how do you play for the dancer if it is your chance to play lead djembe or djembe solo for west african dancers or dance class?
Well the first thing you can do is to actually take the dance class you are playing for. This is the number one best thing you can do. Then you can feel in your body where the breaks (call in and call out) get put. It gives you yet another vantage point to listen,see, feel not only how the music goes together but how it fits together with the dance alchemically.
Even if you are a great drummer don’t be scared or embarressed to take a dance class even if you only make it through the warm up section. Anyone that really knows will agree with me and tell you that it is the one most important thing you can do to understand the realationship of drum and dancer.
And if you do not get a chance or are not ready to play lead djembe for a dance class be happy to play accompaniment, the basic hand patterns for your class. Playing djembe accompaniment is also a fine art. It is a balance of being strong and pushing the rhythms at the right time with out pushing too far ahead.
The keys to playing good djembe accompaniment is being in the pocket, being present and not playing to loud. Make sure you can hear the other players and dununs.
I like to tune into the dununs (aka dounoun or djun djun) and dundun player more then the lead player and really lock in with him. Really pay attention to his parts. Of course you do not ignore the lead player it is just about “locking in”. The more you lock the better the rhythm feels!
When you play djembe accompaniment try to focus your energy on the other drummers as well, while still paying attention to the dance rather then the opposite. Often we play so loud we drown out the other players. If everyone would play loud enough to hear each other we would all be much better off.
It is really easy to get caught up or lazy when you are playing for a long period. So remember, the rhythms is only as strong as it’s weakest link in the chain. When the rhythm speeds up and get’s more intense a trick to relaxing is to drop slightly in volume which relaxes your drumming muscles. Then once you are in the pocket you can bring your volume back up if you have to. Notice how calm it is when the rhythm really locks in at speed.
West african music and drumming come from a wholistic situation. The west african rhythms and dances come originally out of a village context where there was a rhythm, song, dance and intention (meaning or purpose). For example the rhythms songs and dances were meant and are used for a ceremony or celebration.
So the more you can put this experience back together again (learning the songs, dance ,rhythm, meaning) the fuller your experience is going to be as a drummer and dancer. It all fits together like pieces of a puzzle! I like to call it alchemy, because when all the pieces are there and the spirit hits it is like magic!
Most of the dances we are learning are from teachers that have been in ballet’s or companies that have taken those moves and rhythms and adapted them to modern times and for performance reasons. A hybrid if you will. This is the nature of modern traditional west african dance. It is not to often when you meet or take a class with someone straight out of the village. Even in Africa.
Much of the time the rhythms and many of the dances have been changed to all different degrees depending on the teacher and circumstances. My experience in Guinee and Mali is that you generally do not see extensive choreography when someone is dancing in a village setting per se. Of course when you see performances from the ballets there (the performing groups) there is beautiful choreography.
There are generally three main sections to most west african dance classes. The first is the warm up section, the second is the choreography (and or “lines” across the floor) and the third is the dancers individual dance solos at the very end of class.
Sometimes there is no choreography and just “lines”. The “lines” section will have some short choreography with in it as well. I love playing djembe lead or solo for the lines section as it opens up your opportunities to play a little more creatively as less choreography is happening.
But remember the key is to not get carried away and to always play for the dancer. You need to look for and find accent points. An accent point is the place in the dancers movement that is exemplified or that is the peak of their movement.
For example when the dancers arm swings up at the end of a movement you can hit their crescendo with a slap. This would be accent point. The thing about accent points is that once you choose one you also need to stick with it for a while. Consistency is important. Again knowing the dance or at least familiarity with the piece really helps.
In west african dance class the first section , or the warmup as it is called is generally the easiest to play for. This is because generally speaking you will throw a break or call every 4 cycles of the dancers moves.
That means the dancers go to one side 1-2-3-4, then the other side 1-2-3-4, then back again 1-2-3-4, then you start the call on “the one” which goes through their next cycle (1-2-3-4) and hits “the one” (first beat of the rhythm) and starts the next series of movements. Sometimes it is 6 cycles instead of 4.
If the teacher wants it longer he or she will tell you but the thing to know is that it will almost always be in cycles of 4, 6 or 8 for warm ups in Guinee style dance classes any way. So a little bit of math goes a long way in understanding where you are going to fit into the picture in terms of throwing breaks!
The other reason it is great for you to take the dance class is so that you can recognize and spot the moves. This means to “differentiate” the moves from one and other. To a casual observer or non dancer dance moves can look similar and it is easy to get confused where one move starts and another begins. So if you take the dance class or learn the moves you will have it in your body and recognize what is going to happen next.
The next section of most or many west african dance classes is the choreography section. This is where groups or sets of moves or strung together. Each set of moves changes with a call or break that starts before “the one” and leads to or ends on “the one”. These breaks or call ins are always taught whenever you learn a rhythm or arrangement from a qualified drum or djembe teacher. These string of moves are repeated in sets of two times or four times or even six. The groups or sets of moves happen evenly.
Usually the choreography is taught after the warm up, step by step and sometimes even in slow motion for dificult dance moves or dance steps and with out the drums playing.
If you do not know the dance and have not taken the dance class and you are playing the lead drum for the class (and even if you are not) it is very important for you to stay in the classroom while the choreography is being taught with out the drums playing. In this case it is important to watch the choreography being taught and really pay attention.
Some times in addition to choreography or instead of choreography an african dance instructor will do “lines”. Lines are even groups of dancers moving across the floor (in evenly spaced lines) towards the drummers and usually only doing one or two moves. The dancers come forwards and always stay orderly in their respective lines. As I mentioned, it is generally easier to play for lines as their is less choreography to learn.
When playing djembe for west african dance class please remember in a dance class you are there for support of the dancer. This means you are playing for the dancer not for the other drummers or an audience. it is not a djembe solo recital of what you have learned or cool licks. Less is more. For choreography sections of any dance class the main goal is to hit the breaks in the right spots, leading into the set of moves and out of and into the next set of moves.
You will find that many of your coolest djembe licks and solo chops do not work in dance class. Playing for dancers is a completely seperate art form. So you need to watch better or more experienced players and watch and listen to how they accent the dance and where the breaks get thrown.
It is definately a mentor situation, unless you take dance classes like I mentioned prior it is better to watch someone experienced do it for a while and also ask questions to experienced players about it as well. There is no shame in not knowing.
The solo section always happens at the end of the dance class. This is where dancers come out by themselves and try some moves from the class. It is quite energetic and exciting. Fred Simpson a long time drummer and drum teacher say’s that he plays and puts out 80% energy durring class and leaves 20% for the very end of class.
Don’t blow your load at the beginning of dance class. Like a long distance runner, you have to pace yourself and try and relax when you play be it accompaniment or the lead. The music happens through you so don’t force it. You have to breath. You want to play at your full potential but it is a fine balance of energy output, space and trying to remain calm.
Also, you have to save energy after your djembe solo to go back to playing accompaniment djembe for the next soloist. Many djembe players play great solos or leads then pitter patter when they play accompaniment for the next soloist. This is not how it works! Save energy during your solo time to play accompaniment. This may mean that you stop your lead time earlier then you might want to if you are sharing the lead with others. THe point is that if you want someone else to be strong for you and play solid accompaniment for you while you are soloing or playing the lead djembe then you also have to be strong for them!
Furthermore, please remember if your solo is fading or starting to loose energy, you are running out of ideas or you are tired, abandon ship! Do not take the ship (rhythm) down with you! Surrender the lead (and your ego) and it is better for everyone including yourself.
You may have noticed that many of the young hot African drummers “drop in” on each other. That means they cut each other off if there is even a slight pause in each others solo while still in the action during a dance class (never in performances).
Unfortunately because they cut each other off so much, many excellent drummers become protective of their solos. When they are playing they stop leaving space(s) in their solos. With out the use of space for me it can be quite unmusical. Despite super fast chops, incredible volume, to me it stops becoming phrases or “speaking” if there is no space.
I have noticed the older, established players such as my teachers do not do this, they pass each other the lead respectfully. Although there is competition it seems to me to be in the spirit of fun and is always good natured.
Although “dropping in” by the hot younger african players is totally accepted behavior between them I am not personaly a proponent of us, our “student body” so to speak, doing this to each other. I have witnessed really good players trying to leave space in their solos and others dropping in on them like they have seen their teachers do and it just does not feel or sound right to me.
When we copy this as students it just plain feels rude. I propose that we “pass the lead” to each other when we are done playing our solo or lead time realizing that there are others that want to play as well. The more we can drop our egos and realize that it is about community spirit the better!
Because when drummers and dancers come together it is a celebration of spirit and community that happens even if the premise is a dance class. And using the correct formula, the study of how it all goes together helps making any dance class a special event.
Remember playing the west african drums is all about unity!