Here are some tips on soloing on the djembe drum. Please do not be afraid to express yourself when the time is appropriate (your turn) to solo on djembe. Every chance you get is a good chance to play and improve your playing. I’ll be the first to admit I have thought about throwing my drum in the fire after hearing a child in Africa drum circles around me.
Sometimes when someone solos before us and it is very powerful or “great” we all sometimes get intimidated to expresses our selves when it is our turn to solo. Just because you think or feel someone is better then you, or stronger then you is not a reason to not solo on djembe.
Learn to use this feeling instead as an inspiration to step out. Here are a few keys to soloing on djembe that can help you through many situations.
In situations where you are going to solo, do not try and imitate someone that plays right before you unless it is a class where the teacher wants you to repeat his phrases. Each and all of us have different styles and ways of expressing. It is easy to get into a pissing match of who can play faster, who can play longer rolls and who can play louder. If someone inspires you to play something, if they remind you of something that is fine, But it is always important to play your own style or what you have been practicing and learning.
A boxer or martial artist trains and trains so when they get in the ring, they perform automatically. Sometimes a fighter gets pulled into some ones els’s game, and forgets there own. He does not stick to his game plan. Stick to your own game plan and do not let your ego get pulled in to comparisons or competition.
And what should your game plan be? Here is what I suggest.
If you are at an outdoor session, jam or drum circle, get warmed up before you play. Do stretches right before you play or simply play the rhythm that is going around with out soloing to start. For many of us it is much healthier to get warmed up and comfortable, to get the blood flowing before going to physical extremes an soloing as hard as we can.
I have watched the incredible djembe master Mohamed Diabe play at the start of dance class many, many times. He always starts off very softly. So softly it will fool you into believing he is not going to play loud or that something is not going to happen. Then he gradually builds up and explodes!
Learn to phrase and leave space in your playing when you solo. Space is your friend. Sometimes what you don’t hear is as important as what you play. Remember that less is more. It really is amazing how much better your solos will sound if you put space in and stop playing in between phrases.
Many of us need to play many notes or pacers notes when we are playing or soloing to feel our way through the rhythm. I suggest learning to leave out as many of these pacer notes as possible and concentrate on phrasing. Phrases are groups of notes,”beats”, rhythms or traditional Melenke (or other) language that has been transmuted into drum language.
Phrases or phrasing has also become known as “solo techniques”. Most teachers spend a lot of time teaching these and they can be found on how to play dvd’s, Youtube videos and the internet as well as CD’s and other common music sources.
Take some time to learn these solo techniques. You can play them note for note and you can also try to experiment with them after you have mastered playing them at many different speeds. Almost every traditional rhythm be it one from Guine, Mali, Senegal (or other places in West Africa), have solo techniques or phrases that go with the particular rhythm you are playing. Often these phrases go with particular dance steps for the dancers, another important reason to learn them.
Practice as often as you can to CD’s (or whatever format you listen to music in) and play along with the solo on the recording. Repeat back when you hear something you like. DO this as often as possible.
In Africa, especially in Guinea West Africa no matter how good the drumming or drummer is there is very little space in between phrases during the soloing at the dununba drum and dance parties. This is because there are so many great drummers waiting to play that if someone leaves any space at all, some one else will drop in on them. Drumming is undoubtedly a competition amongst the younger drummers. There is no question about that. But, that is one aspect of drumming we do not need to import to the west!
I did not notice this in Mali at the wedding celebrations and any of the other sessions I went to interestingly enough. However, in the USA I notice many people, both westerners and africans alike drop in on each other during dance classes. I am not saying Mali is better then Guinee, just noting observations I made while visiting both countries.
“Dropping in” is like a surfer cutting in on another surfer trying to catch the same wave, or a car cutting in front of you to get into a parking space. It is part of the culture in Guinee. I suggest this is one aspect that we do not copy in our quest to learn african drumming in the west. Allow others to leave space and do not drop in on them. This makes any situation more musical. “Space, the final frontier”!
When you are soloing and you run out of ideas, get tired or notice you have lost the feel, give up the solo spot to someone else. There is nothing more annoying then someone whose ship is sinking and will not jump off the boat. it happens to all of us at every level so do not feel ashamed or embarrassed to hand over the lead.
I have a friend who plays well but he always dies out and has too much ego to hand over the drums so we all have to listen to him fall off at the end of his solo like one of the villains in Austin Powers Gold Member who has been put in the death pit but won’t die. He is screaming for help and Gold Member and the other villains are trying to pretend they do not here him asking for help and moaning.
Harmonize with the other players. What does this mean? play with the other players. Fit in and make sure you are connecting, even if they are not! Check your volume when you solo and when you ar employing in general. I find that most of us are playing much louder then we need to at many points in our playing experiences.
Check in with the dununs. the dunun player is not there soley for your enjoyment, or to simply back you. There are breaks and phrases that are played in unison with the dunun player. Give him (or her) some juice when you play. Make contact with the dununs, play with them to them and around them.
Don’t hurt yourself or play too hard. A very common mistake is to play too loud, to get too excited and to blow out your hands. When you are soloing remember most of all to relax, to breath (naturally) to leave space and most of all, have fun. I have these words taped to the inside of my Kasankasank (Cesse..the little fins that go on the djembe). And remember you are “playing” the drum! Try to avoid competing and competition when you play. This can really spoil it some times. Leave your ego at home and go out and have some fun!