The Djembe Solo Demystified:
What is a djembe solo? For me, (depending on the scenario and situation), a djembe solo is a story we..or someone tells. Like any good story It has a beginning a climax (or climaxes) and an ending. There is a build and their is space.
But how do we tell this story and what are the elements that make up a djembe solo?
In my explorations and studies in West African drumming which features the djembe, I have found that there are four major categories of soloing. If we want to take a look at it it goes as follows: The first is creative, or what I like to call kaos. It’s doing whatever you want. Completely free form. The second is “traditional” or rhythm specific. Some people call it “original”.
There is a phrase or group of phrases that are played specifically in context with the specific piece which may also relate to dance steps. You can learn it here, go to West Africa and play it there and everyone recognizes it. The third is “djembe language” which uses common or unique phrases that can be played in a specific rhythm or a variety of rhythms. The fourth is “math” or the use of analyzation principles. Using western thinking or a western approach. For example we are going to do 3 stroke rolls, four stroke rolls, flam exercises, etc.
All of these categories can cross over and/or be part of each other. Even when there is a very specific rhythm context, for example playing at a ceremony and specific phrases are played there is also always creative involved. The math/analytical category can lap over into any of the categories as well.
There are several sub categories or tools to access soloing in these major categories as well. For example many rhythms in Mali music use solo rides. When someone rides a horse properly the horse goes up and the rider goes up, the horse goes down and the rider goes down simultaneously. The horse also is kept under control, it is not going at a variety of hap hazard speeds. The rider is on it, but not stuck to it.
A ride is a rhythmic structure that we work from, move away from but we also stay glued to it. If you fall off the horse it hurts. If the horse goes up and you go down it hurts. If the horse lurches you can be thrown off of it. So you ride it in rhythm. A ride can be found in specific traditional rhythm soloing as well as all the other categories. Usng rides is a fun way to explore soloing safely and in increments with out crashing the rhythm when you play with others.
It is a rhythm structure with in the rhythm pattern. Think M.C. Esher.
When we look further into soloing we see other common tools being used in all of the categories.
An anchor is a note or multiple notes that are repeated at the beginning of the solo phrase or the end of the solo phrase. It might just be an open tone hitting on “the one” in the rhythm Mendiani. The note is hit one time…a phrase is played and the drummer comes back and hits that one note again. It sounds simple yet it is very effective. It gives both the listener and the player something to ground to.
A Chain of events
A chain of events is a group of phrases that can build in a pyramidical fashion and are usually separated by space yet liked together, just like a bicycle chain. The phrases are the links. You can put these together yourself, or learn them from a teacher. One of my favourites is “the fifty dollar break” for Kuku taught to us by Mohamed Camara formerly of Percussions of Guinea. It uses traditional phrases linked one after another with a build and an ending.
One of the problems learning djembe solos is that in order to learn a solo most people have to have it shown to them slowly. So most teachers teach it slowly. The feel and sound of any rhythm you play changes as it goes faster. The faster you play, the closer the notes are. Therefore, most of the solo techniques being taught are not useful at actual playing speeds unless you practice them at those speeds.
So, make sure you also learn, record and have your teacher play whatever you are learning at both fast and slow speeds.
Soloing from the basic accompaniment part.
This is your easiest and best bet for starting out if you have not tried to solo before. I suggest to beginners when they begin to solo to use slight variations on basic accompaniment parts as a first step to exploring the creative aspects of traditional drumming. You move ever so slightly from the basic accompaniment part you are playing. Move in increments, one note at a time. You can add in pyramidal fashion, or subtract notes.
Most people when they are first starting out trying to solo on djembe stop playing accompaniment and suddenly try to “make a move” when it is their turn to solo. I suggest to avoid this tendency and if you have not studied any of the above principles, move in small increments away from and back to the basic accompaniment part you started from. In this example, you use the accompaniment part as an anchor. Be sure not to loose the anchor. It is more important to reference and return to the anchor then to move away from it when you are first starting out.
Themes can be a phrase or group of notes that are planted into the rhythm arrangement and built off of and returned to much like a ride. The difference being that a ride is usually a specific shorter structure where as theme tends to be melodic and longer. A theme can also be based on an emotion you are having, a feeling or a creative notion. Some teachers speak of thinking about something outside of drumming that excites you and bringing that in to your solo.
Soloing for the dancer.
Soloing for the dancer is also known as “playing the lead”. When you play for the dancer if it is a ballet style situation, (dance class/performance) you are going to be calling breaks for choreography, for moves to change. You may have to play completely different then you have trained as a matter of fact. There is much less emphasis on being creative in the “solo” concept and more accenting on the dancers moves. Learning to solo for the dancer is a study and art within itself and is very different then soloing when there is no dancer. There is math involved, (for example you might be throwing the break after every 4th or 6th movement in warm for dance class depending on the teacher), and you really have to pay attention to someone else while soloing.
If you can say it you can play it. Use your voice!
You can make up your own melodic solos based on any of the categories.
To me, drumming, drum rhythms and patterns are melodies. The dunun are bass lines, the phrasing is short verses, putting them together you can make a song. I often hear or choose to hear rhythm segments as jingles. Try repeating phrases you are studying or heard or even make up phrases by singing them.
Using your voice to recall, create or learn rhythms uses and enables and brings into play different parts of your brain then when you are simply trying to remember or recite. It adds further dimensionality and depth to your playing and solos as well.
Call and response. Yin and Yang. Point Counter Point.
When you look at West African based traditional rhythms in context, that means when they are played in the village or wherever they are from you see the following. There is a song, a dance, an intention. The rhythm is counter point to the dance, the dance and rhythm are counter point to the song. With in the rhythm the individual parts often are set up in an interactive counter point fashion.
A solo is counter point to the rhythm. The solo itself can be counter point to itself. That means you can play call and response with the dancer, you play something and they respond, you can play call and response to the rhythm, and you can play call and response to yourself with in the solo.
Call and response, point counterpoint can also be looked at as “question and answer”. For example, one of the basic solo rides for Diansa asks a question, “go do pa ta”? And you answer it “go do pa ta pa”. It is also tension and release.
Space, the final frontier
I have noticed that in certain scenarios in Guinea… for example when I was at Dununba party’s, the soloists can not leave space in their solos. If they do, if they take any kind of break, someone else “drops in”. If we are playing in situations where we are able to leave space, the use of space is a fantastic use of point counterpoint as well. With out space, there is no phrase or phrasing. Space creates the invisible walls or divisions that “frame”our phrases. When we use space, we ar listening to the rhythm. If we do not use space, we are talking with out listening.
Realizing. looking at and practicing all these relationships and using these principles helps to build wonderful solos that are interactive, meaningful and useful as well. Obviously, your solo or lead playing will vary depending on the situation you are in. If you are performing you might have a long solo you take or if you are with a group of people maybe it is shorter.