Overwhelmed trying to learn to play west african drums?
We live in a day in age where we have so much information available to us via internet, youtube,facebook, books, cds, etc. that it is easy to get overwhelmed and not learn anything. For some people it is hard to focus on only one thing. They acquire all the data but never even look at it. Gathering too much material can be expensive and also be a waste. West African drumming,learning to play traditional djembe can seem to be overwhelming at first unless you come up with a program and stick to it. Now I would like to share mine.
One step at a time program
Keep it simple and simplify your learning process. In my personal experience as a teacher and also as a long time student I found that it is important to focus on learning only one rhythm arrangement at a time when we are learning new material. But where do we start with so much to learn?
Start at the beginning. Pick one rhythm arrangement. I suggest focusing on only that rhythm arrangement for a period of time. It is about repetition. Playing it over and over it. You are wiring it into your system. Burning and creating new pathways in your brain! Good stuff! Your brain capacity is going to grow and you are exercising your brain as well.
So we pick a rhythm arrangement. And when learning west african djembe music I suggest learning all the traditional dunun parts first, one at a time starting with the kinkini part. Learn to come into each part, where to start playing from the call in or “break”. The opening call or break will always lead to and show you where “the one” is, the the start and connecting beat for all rhythms.
Its important to note that the rhythm you are going to play may not start on the one (it can start in a variety of places) but the call will always show you where “the one is”. So you always want to know, to find out or ask what and where the call goes. That is your first mission.
The dunun, (set of three double sided drums played sideways with a bell on top or held in the hand) are the heart and soul of west african based djembe music. They create the melody, bass lines and foundation of the rhythm. Any great djembe player is also a great or at least very solid dunun player. There is no way around it and this is a fact. If you have avoided playing dunun for some reason now is the time to start. For some reason in the west the dunun is often neglected. This is a grave error. With out the dunun you ar employing one dimensionally. With the dunun you are playing 3 day or “holistically”. The dunun are more important then the djembe in traditional west african music.
Because of the publicity and excitement and theatrics of ballet style djembe soling and playing the djembe has mistakenly been chosen as the instrument of choice for this elf us who want to express ourselves creatively, but with out the dunun there is no djembe solo.
We must also learn to exit the rhythm correctly as well from the call out or break. Where do we enter in and where do exit. If you do not own dunun you can practice on pots and pans if you have to. Don’t make excuses not to practice! Sometimes I will play parts on conga drums turned sideways.
Don’t move on to the Sangban or next part until you have memorized the kinkini/konkoni. Then on to the dununba the lowest drum. Dunun movements can and should be learned later on.
Learn all the accompaniment parts
Learn all the accompaniment parts on the djembe drum. Figure out, find out and practice with others if you can. Practicing with other people is of utmost importance as west african music is about the “group”. You can also use a drum program on your computer, iPad , smarty pants phone or an actual drum machine.
When you practice with other like minded people please be sure that the intent is to construct the rhythm correctly and accurately at first rather then creating a free for all jam session. The urge for me is always to jam so i understand this. However, you will have a much bigger payback if you take turns playing each individual part. Switch up on who plays what.
Even if you are the best player there you should take a turn playing the kinkini or basic parts vs soloing or improvising. In the village no one person is more important then any other person. Everyone is equally important and has a role. It is the same rhythmically. Dunun is not a penalty. Playing does not mean soloing only.
By playing each individual part and only by playing each individual part can you get a different perspective of the rhythm composition in it’s entirety. It’s going to sound different every time you play a different part. These different angles and looks or routes into the rhythm are what helps to build different creative ideas later on as well. Playing all the different parts lets you experience the rhythm holistically.
You need to understand how all the djembe parts connect , interact and also their relationship to the 3 or 2 dunun parts being played simultaneously. Always listen, look see and feel where there are connecting or reference points to what you are playing. More often then not we miss these points. These connecting or reference points are like hidden tools. When we connect to these reference points or “connect to the connectors” we deepen our experience and lock to the rhythm as well.
Don’t worry if you do not get it the first few times. It all comes in time. All you have to do is stay with it, pay attention. Ask questions and simplify things. Keep your process simple!
If you think of a key going into a door and turning it is similar. We call this locking into the rhythm.
You want to find the locks or keys to lock in your part to the other parts. To click together.
So hopefully you can now see learning west african djembe/dunun music is more about the composition, the whole, the entity. How do we fit things to gather? What the whole composition is about, how do make the whole thing click together rather then a few people hold the rhythm and someone else solos on top of it.
Once you have memorized the basic accompaniment parts then learn the intro and outro arrangements if the rhythm arrangement or piece you are playing has them.
The solo technique comes last.
After you have learned and memorized all this (the full arrangement) you can start to learn the solo techniques that go to the rhythm arrangement. Keep in mind that a good solo weaves through the rhythm not just on top of it. That is why you want to know the rhythm inside and out. How can you solo to something you do not know?
So learn and memorize all the parts first before you begin the solo. Please also keep in mind that when you practice, whatever you are practice try to play at different speeds then your natural speed.
By learning and memorizing parts and pieces in an orderly fashion such as this you can learn several pieces thoroughly over time rather then bits and pieces to several pieces. Many of us have found this system to be very useful over the years.
When you first begin to solo find, pick and learn one simple solo phrase at a time. Just one. We use the same concept used in learning the rhythm arrangement. Master the phrase, the placement, the accenting. Play it until you forget you ar employing it and it plays itself. Then add the next or a longer phrase or sequence and do the same. Slowly build up your phrase sequences over time. You want to memorize and get them into your muscle memory so that you can play them at will, they pop out when necessary and you don’t have to think about it.
This concept is very important in drumming in my humble opinion. Learn, practice, repeat, repeat repeat. Then, forget about it and just let it happen. Sit back and let it come through you when the time is right.
What you are gong to see is that other phrases and variations are going to also pop out of you when you do this. It is because you have developed the channel. You have dug out the cannel for the creative energy to flow through by practicing these sequences. Watch them come out of you and enjoy!
To me it is not about how many solo phrases you know, how fast you can play or how powerful or strong you are. And all that competitive stuff is bullshit. It is about feel, groove and placement. And most importantly, “does it make your listener smile? When I see a soloist in dance class, performance or in a session I ask myself later, “did he or she impress me or did they make me smile”? It is easy to be impressed. But I am looking for the smile!
Please try this experiment yourself when watching others play or even Youtube videos. Are you impressed or did it make you smile? Maybe it’s one or the other or both or somewhere in between.
At some point, sooner or later you will need a notation system. Develop some kind of system of notation as an aid, not a crutch. We don’t depend on it we use it to enhance or situation.
I like graph paper or boxes some people like real numeration. It’s about whatever works for you. For many people writing out rhythms helps to demystify rhythms and gives a picture in the mind as an additional aid. I have found that it is a very small percentage of people who can retain information completely on their own over the long term.
Learn to write out your rhythms. Notation is only an aid. You can not learn from notes if you have not experienced the rhythm first hand personally as notation can not give you the feel of a rhythm no matter how much you break it down or explain it in words.
I like to record all my classes either audio and or video. If the teacher does not allow video, then video yourself outside the class room after class. Do it at once before you forget the parts. I often see dancers doing this after dance class. If a teacher is against then they might not be the best teacher for you. I understand no videoing of them at the class but in my book videoing yourself after class outside of the class is or should be fine. The point is to learn the info.
Start your solo simply.
Some people teachers say there is no specific solo technique and play what you feel but i beg to differ. I have found that there is indeed 4 different possibilities in solo styles such as 1. traditional/original (rhythm specific phrases that go with dance moves). 2. Djembe language… or phrases that are used in a variety of rhythms, 3. math or the western approach and 4. free form, hybrid, fusion or “your own thing”. All valid, all useful especially in combinations and formulas together.
When learning solo techniques please approach the learning process in the same manner. Different teachers are going to have different solo phrases and chains of events or links of phrases that go together. Pick and learn the simplest possible solo technique(s) to start with, not the hardest or longest.
I like to combine various solo techniques from different teachers. I do this in a pyramid fashion. That is to say, i play the simpler techniques from one teacher first building up to the harder and longer techniques or chains.
When soloing we want to practice and learn at home and then get out of our heads in public. When we stay or play in our heads, our timing can’t be there properly and the feel is off. Drumming is not a recital, it is grooves and feeling.
It takes time to learn and nothing is going to happen over night. If you listen to what I have said here and flow the steps you will be well on your way to a fun and interesting time learning west african drumming. Of course you will need a god teacher and if you don’t have that you may have to find other methods to start you process such as field aids like dvd’s, cd’s, youtube video’s/ Even so, you will eventually have to study with an actual person if you really want to learn.