Soloing on any drum especially djembe can be daunting at first. Everyone wants to do it but how do we start? First of all, what is a solo or “lead” as we also say in the drumming world?
Traditionally speaking a solo in West African music, specifically music from Guinee and Mali is a phrase or group of phrases chained together that interact and accent the dance choreography or dancers movements. The solo inspires and pushes the dancers as well.
Soloing can be done by several different players at a session, but they always take turns and never play at the same time, unless it is a unison bread for example.
Some of the solo phrases are actually language from the Melenke people of West Africa as well. One of my favorite Mendiani rhythm and dance phrases actually calls out and say’s someone’s name for example.
The solo drum parts or lead drum is traditionally played by the master or lead drummer. This drummer is usually the person who is most knowledgable (but not always). This is because, logically speaking to play a part that weaves through all the various holes and pushes a rhythm the lead or solo player must first know the rhythm he or she is playing inside out. Knowledge is everything and I can not recommend this enough!
When I teach solo techniques I urge people to first learn the rhythm structure on the the dununs (set of three double sided drums that create the bass line and melody of West African djembe music). It is highly recommended that you learn each and every part of any rhythm you want to solo in if you are playing traditional West African djembe music. This will also give you a strong foundation for playing other stiles of world drumming and world music as well. Make your foundation strong by learning as much as you possibly can about
the music you are playing and you will not regret it later on down the road. That is my experience anyway!
If you do not first learn the bass line and melodic structure of a piece you want to solo to then you can solo over the top of the rhythm, around it..but your solo will lack depth. I compare this to western music. You would not sing a song in a band that you did not know the words to. You can hum the melody (if you know it) or you can make up words on the spot.
But it is not the same as knowing the song.
When looked at from a western thinkers perspective soloing could be said to cut through the rhythm and to push and pull time. As I have mentioned in other articles here, pushing, pulling and playing on or off the beat are ways to alter the feel of a rhythm and moreover, are used in soloing and what some people call “solo techniques” as well.
Solo techniques to some people are known as the traditional phrase put together vs phrases maybe someone from modern times has put together. Personaly, I like to refer to all phrases in soloing as techniques or useful hand patterns that give you a map where to jump to.
In Afro Cuban soloing on the quinto, (the highest pitched conga drum) we call the solo technique, “quinto lock”, because the notes lock in between other drum parts much like a key fits in a lock to open a door. Interestingly enough the first time I was ever “locked in” playing the quinto lock I had the same feeling in my body of “lock”.
In west africna djembe playing there is certain language and phrasing that is used. The language can be specific to a certain rhythm, such as “Mendiani solo technique”, a family of rhythms (such as dununba rhythms of which there are over 20 rhythms) and also non specific language. But there is definately a language, a group of phrases commonly played and therefore something anyone wanting to be proficient in West African music and drumming should learn.
These phrases, groups of phrases or “chains” can be learned by listening to the music you are studying over and over again. To start your studies listen to a class tape, a CD or music from your favourite teacher or group. Pick out one or two phrases you really like and listen over and over again. Practice along to those phrases until you have the feel and sound. Once you have mastered that, move on to another phrase.
Or, you can buy a DVD on “how to play djembe”. There are many good ones out there. I suggest Bolokada Conde’s instructional DVD or Mamday Keita has many, many as well.
In part two of this series I will discuss how to develop your own personal soloing style.