Learning music and dance from the African diaspora can be fun but also challenging at times. If you did not grow up listening, drumming or dancing to this music then it may take some time to learn. There are different ways we all learn. Some people learn best by math or numbers. Understanding how rhythms and rhythm structures are formed and divided. I call this “math”. Others learn by feeling, or copying and repeateating. Some people call this “repetition”. Others learn by absorbtion over a period of time.
Absorption happens naturally over time by living in another culture, listening to the music for long periods when you are working or relaxing and just being around the music you want to learn.
So learning is different for each individual. Some people learn quickly, others slowly. For all types of students and those in-between, I highly recommend using video cameras and/or audio recording devices. When I employ a device such as a video camera and can watch the video later in a no-stress environment, I am amazed at how much ‘information’ is there. When I watch the class, process the information and break it down bit by bit, I am surprised at how simple many of the parts shown to me are. During the class, I just don’t get it.
Ultimately, the best way to learn is from immersion. That is, go and live in the culture of the music or dance you are studying. I spend considerable time overseas in places such as Brazil, Cuba, Mali and Guinea, West Africa to learn and study traditional drumming from the masters. Visiting the villages and towns, eating the food, breathing the air, walking in the neighborhoods, for examples – they offer a multi-dimensional experience which helps to elevate your technique or dance to a much higher level. It’s true. When you live in the place where the music originates, if you practice diligently, you improve dramatically, play with confidence and feel enriched to your soul.
It’s vital that I take my video cameras and lightweight recording gear on these journeys so I don’t miss or forget the valuable knowledge transmitted in class. I consistently refer to my tapes and discs to rediscover or review parts or rhythms.
It is very important that your gear be lightweight and reliable as well. Being deep in the bush or in the middle of nowhere with faulty equipment is disheartening. So, do your homework: if you have the means, be sure you have the right video camera and hand-held recorder. I even record my drum classes and lessons at home as well.
I have had to re-learn how to learn. I needed to develop methods to retain information, feel it in my body, lock the rhythms in and make them my own. Make friends with the rhythms, so to speak. Sometimes it is a fight, a battle, a tough grind to absorb and learn. The deeper you delve into West African drumming, the more challenging it is.
To reiterate, the key is to have a device, a recorder or a video camera, to film lessons and performances. Filming my lessons is an invaluable aid. Much of what is taught during a group or private lesson can be forgotten or lost. Personally, I take in or access only small amounts of information. The recording devices also allow you to film parties, weddings, choreography and the every day culture, which make these trips so special.
After extensive research – reading and testing many different cameras – I chose the Canon HF S -21. I like the Canon because it works so smoothly with my Macintosh laptop. Some of the others don’t. I am not a techie, but I know this camera is outstanding. When I need to, I leave it on automatic and the camera does all the work. At times, I use an external microphone, as well. There are easy written instructions for fine quality manual recording.[amazon_link id=”B00322OP40″ target=”_blank” ]Canon HF-S21 HD digital camcorder[/amazon_link]
I have had professional video cameras that were much larger and bulkier, but I like the size of this small camera. Slipped in its case, it’s ready to travel in the side of my djembe bag. The camera records to a huge 64 gb memory, available for about eight hours of recording. It also has two slots to put in a memory card of up to 32 gb each. Furthermore, it can be automatically set to change from one card to the next using a feature called relay recording. With the additional added cards, you have substantial time available.
What I love most about this camcorder is its size and weight. For all its features, it is very small and light. The zoom is perfect for my needs and effective in low light as well. You can manually control the camera if you know how. There are many controls to do so, just like with a good quality digital still camera. The still photos it takes are pretty good, although I do not often use this camera for that.
There are no moving parts on the camera so, if it gets bumped or dropped, it is unlikely the camera will brake or be disabled. That’s comforting for a guy (me) who is always bumping into and dropping things. Although I have dropped the camera (in its case) twice and it fell off my desk twice, it is still working faithfully!
After I shoot a sequence, I simply plug the camera into my laptop where it appears on my I Movies. The files load relatively quickly and it’s simple to edit.
It also works reliably with Final Cut as well, but I am one of the few people who has trouble using FCP so I stick with the basic IMovie. The files load relatively quickly and it’s simple to edit.
When traveling, you must plug in the power cord of your camcorder in order to download files to your computer. Be advised: It will not work unless the power cord is plugged in.
I have added a Canon wide angle lens to my camera that I simply screw on when I want to film a group of drummers in a small space and include them all in the frame. It works really well. It is a bit heavy but if you are shooting with a tripod it is no problem.
I had the previous generation of this camera but upgraded for the additional storage capacity and the improved low-light sensitivity. The image stabilizer is better on this one, too. That results in less shaking in the picture when you view or play it back.
If whoever is showing or teaching you something does not want to be filmed, the next best solution is to use a recording device. I like the Edirol R-09 HR.[amazon_link id=”B0016MLUKU” target=”_blank” ]Edirol R-09HR[/amazon_link] Quite small, it looks like a toy or gadget, but the R-09 is a quality, semi-professional recorder. I say semi -pro because the sound is very good. There are no XLR inputs so you would have to use adaptors if you wanted professional microphones. I have used a high quality Senheiser microphone with a stereo cable adaptor and it worked quite nicely. It captures live music at a 24-bit resolution with your choice of 44.1 or 48kHz sample rates. You can record and play back in MP3 format as well. Once recorded, your files can be monitored through the R-09’s headphone jack and/or exported to a computer via USB. I have a little combo stand /case which goes everywhere with me. I curse myself when I forget to bring it! It uses two AA batteries and the microphones on board are competent. It travels in a hard shell aluminum case. I bring it to classes, jams and recording sessions where it works surprisingly well. Press the POWER button on the side, then record to put it on PAUSE. One more tap on the RECORD button and you’re ready for action. I plug in the USB cable to my Mac laptop and it automatically shows up as individual pieces on my Itunes. It comes up as numbers so you must rename it, but the files are easy to find and access .