There are many different ways to hit the djembe, to play it, to make it speak or have it speak through you. And, there are different styles with in the tradition and cultural context to play the djembe as well.
When I was in Mali and Guinea on both of my trips I was amazed that with in the same compound or area of drummers everyone played a different technique when they hit the drum. There was no “one way” to hit the drum. In Mali there were four generations of drummers there which made it even more interesting to see the grandmaster, master, young master and his student(s).
They could all play harmoniously together (as you can see in my Youtube videos), and they all had their own separate or different groups as well. All valid, all different. Sometimes meeting sometimes apart.
What struck me the most at first was that there were such different ways the younger people and older people played the same rhythms, or rhythms from the same family. The very same rhythm might sound very different played by a younger group then an older group. But it was most definitely not the same.
They would play the same intro perhaps, and outro, but most often with a different swing to it or they would add their own signature or flavour to it.
It did not make sense to me at first until I thought about music in our own country.Think of a Beatles song (if you go back that far) or a MIchael Jackson song. My father, myself and my son might all know it and perform it. But my father would do it as a jazz piece, I might do it as a latin piece putting in a montuno and maybe my son would do it as independent rock piece. A folk song in our country might be interpreted in a variety of ways as well, as folk, rock or even country.
Most importantly what I would like to point out for those who have read this far and are still interested is that what most of us see represented as “the best” djembe playing on Youtube and in posts on Facebook is the “fantastic”. The “wow” and amazing younger generation of players, playing a ballet style very fast, with super fast rolls and spicy flavour. Shredding it up!I love it, its great stuff and I post it as well. I admit that sometimes it is so fast I don’t know what they are playing even though later on I might find out it was some piece (I thought) I knew very well.
There is also another style of playing which is more of the village or traditional style of playing where the pieces and arrangements can change from slow to fast, where there is dynamics of soft to loud and back and there is more space in the arrangement as a whole. This does not happen in the super fast styles of playing because there are many dununs playing many notes and the soloist is soloing all out.. It is a difference that should be noticed and notated by all students of this sweet science.
In my posts of teachers and friends playing and people who I admire and study I notice when I post a super shredder there are huge responses and when I post the country or simpler styles there are about 1/3rd to 1/4 of the responses (likes). So I thought I would write a little on the subject!
The traditional or village style drumming seems to me to be about the group, the unity, the community. The feel and the sound of the individual drums linked together as a whole, the composition and intention rather then the focus being on who is soloing and the “wow factor”. Or impressing the audience. Which is totally valid in my book. Just different intentions.
The “wow” factor is great, but we have to be careful not to miss the subtle, intricate and sometimes less obvious pushes, pulls and unification of the traditional styles of playing. It is a study and my personal experience is that the more you study or listen to the sound of the village music being played the more incredible it becomes each time. It is like a djembe lesson.
When listening and studying traditional village or country style you can learn simply by listening. But it is really hard to learn when the rhythms are going so fast you have no chance of hearing it let alone finding “the one”, the pulse or beginning of the rhythm. If you can find that or hear that then it is hard to hear how the arrangement goes and then it starts to sound like a machine.
The phrasing for me as a student of the art is much more obvious and discernible because of the use of space around the phrases in the village style. Space frames notes, just like walls in the house define space. With out either a wall or the space you don’t have anything! The notes are walls.
In traditional or village style drumming and music the djembes are tuned lower and are more resonant. I would venture to say “musical” in that the notes on a lower tied/tuned/roped djembe last longer and have more depth then the shorter bursts on a high pitched djembe.
If you listen to older djembe albums, (which i highly suggest) from way back such as Africa Djole, there is actually natural reverb or sustain that you can here when the drum is hit. Lower drums have a fuller sound and the one slap and base can have several wonderful over tones as well. Another wonderful CD is “The Art Of Djembe” from Mali.
Instead of several quick notes being produces for an effect one long note can be used. More notes might give you a particular sensation as a listener that is different then one note where your ear is focusing on the sound quality because you have time to hear it when there is space which happens when there are less rolls and ore phrasing going on.
The higher the djembe is tuned, the tighter..the easier it is to make rolls on and play faster. That is why the faster the styles get in the last 10-15 years you will also notice the drums are all higher pitched as well.
The traditional or village style is a very musical style and especially in the Mali style you can see and feel how and where the blues in our country probably came from.
The ballet style was created for performance, to be dramatic and showy and to impress people. And it does, and again I love it. And the traditional style impresses me even more in a subtle holistic way. That just my preference.
In China, a while back, a new “non traditional”style of martial art was created in China called Wu Shu.
As far as my Kung Fu teacher explained it, many styles were taken from around China and elements of each style were combined to make one style. In a sense it was a hybrid or fusion. It became popular quickly as the government pushed it and it became internationally popular because of the flare and visuals. It like traditional drumming from the country side was brought to the city and was also sped up and made more dramatic for performing. It’s quite beautiful to watch.
To me, ballet style is very dramatic and exciting. It contains mixed styles and components much like Wu Shu does. With in it you can find many beautiful and wonderful elements. It is like gymnastics, there are a lot of flips and sequences that are wonderful to watch but almost none of us are ever going to be able to do.
I am not proposing there is a competition or one style is better then another. I am only trying to bring to view that there are indeed different valid approaches, ways and styles to playing djembe. It has taken me many years to get clear on this and what indeed they are. Most or many people think that “djembe is djembe” .
Again, I love all the different styles of playing be it ‘citified’ or the country styles, the fast, the funky or the fury its all great. And whatever style you like that is your choice. Research all the different masters and styles and you see there is an incredibly huge range of ways to play the drums, arrangements, techniques and styles. It does not have to be about playing as hard and fast as you can all the time. That is simply one style and one dynamic.
Here is a resource to two amazing recordings that I highly recommend:
The CD “The Art of Jenbe Drumming: The Mali
Tradition, Vol 2” has appeared these days.
This CD follows up “The Art of Jenbe Drumming:
The Mali Tradition” which I first edited in 1996
and re-released with bibiafrica-records in 2006.
Three masters of traditional jenbe celebration
drumming from Bamako: Jeli Madi Kuyate, Drissa Kone, Jaraba Jakite
play duet versions (1 jenbe, 1 dunun)
of classical rhythms such as dansa, suku (soli),
sunun, sanja (jeli-dòn), garanke, kirin
(wasulunka), manjanin (mendiani), and others.
Complete transcriptions of all the pieces are
available in The Jenbe Realbook, vol. 2, a book
of music notation directly corresponding to this CD