My first trip to Africa was to Mali ,West Africa. I was always scared to go to Africa even though all my friends and students had already gone and the reports were always very positive. I was scared of getting sick. I had also heard a few of the horror stories of people getting sick there, the poor hospitals, bad conditions and everything else. But in the back of my mind since I first started playing in the 70’s I knew I would go, I knew I had to go. I was just waiting for the right timing and finally it came.
My friend Paul Chandler was living there in Bamako. We were writing to each other a lot and I was always threatening to come and visit him. After much questioning I went. It was now or never and something about it just felt right. Paul was a music producer and guitar player I had met on Maui and he now lived in Mali full time. I was in Europe at the end of a music tour with a small music ensemble and had some free time on my hands. I was looking at tickets to Africa and found out the trip was relatively short from France (well, easier then from the USA anyway) so I called Paul and he said, “come on down, I’ll introduce you to everyone”. So just like that I went and got my shots, some meds for preventing malaria, my tickets and I was off and running!
After I arrived he took me the next morning to the local community center where his close friends lived, worked and played. We had to drive through a very crowded market place to get to the community center. There were people everywhere and so much going on around us outside it was hard to take it all in. As the taxi moved into the thick sea of people they all looked into the car to see what was going on. I shrank down in the seat.
Shortly thereafter, I was introduced to Paul’s very warm and friendly teachers Aruna and Brulye. We clicked immediately and made arrangements for me to start lessons the next day. Aruna was well over 80, had several wives, countless children and always had a large warm smile. He was a wealth of information and had a unique and poweful “high flying hands” playing style. I was always shocked at his energy and sound!
Brulye, who had lost site in one eye was a former “all Bamako djembe champ”. I never actually found out what that championship was about or how it worked, but Brulye was a force to be reckoned with none the less! He had fantastic technique and was sharp and clear. It was amazing watching just the two of them play together. You can check them out in my Youtube videos. There are several of just the two of them as well as ensemble videos and with dancers, too.
Brulye would also attend many of the weekend and other events outside of the community center as well and was in two of the music CD’s I made there as well. He was an expert on playing with the dancers. When he played with the dancers he would play simple phrases at first and would interact perfectly with their steps using call and response phrases , calls and breaks. But just when you thought you were getting or understood exactly what he was playing he would get avante garde and play some very outside type of phrases, just like old school jazz licks it seemed.
The 2 teachers ended up giving me drum lessons 6 days out of the week over the next 3 months. If it was up to them it would have been 7 but I definately needed a break one day a week that was for sure! They never held back and there were no “trips” or weirdness of any kind ever with either of them. It was straight ahead drum talk!
When I first arrived to Mali by myself it was quite a shock getting off the plane. There were absolutely no white people accept for me and I of course stood out like a sore thumb. I had been to Brazil and Cuba twice, but nothing can prepare you for the airport exit in Mali and Guinea as well. It’s wild and crazy to say the least! Everyone is trying to help you with your bag, give you a taxi ride or get something from you or for you! . I was in no danger of any kind it was just a lot of commotion and attention I did not want. I am the self conscious type so it was a little rough at first. Luckily Paul was right there waiting. We got in his old jeep and we were off!
We lived in a compound near an english school Paul was teaching in. The roads were all packed dirt. When I first started walking around the neighborhood I was amazed at how much attention I was getting. People just stared at me like I was some kind of strange being. After a couple of weeks I gradually got used to it but it was a hard adjustment period for me. There was no hiding. At first we were staying in a compound with some french friends of Paul’s. They were very kind and knew all the ropes, the do’s and don’ts so that was quite helpful for me being an absolute beginner there.
After I learned my way around I bought a cheap chinese motorcycle so I could ride to my classes everyday with out having to depend on taxis which were very good but started to get expensive. I just liked having the complete independence. And it was so much fun as well. The first day I bought the motorcycle and brought it to drum class someone asked to borrow it during my lesson. I hesitated and reluctantly agreed. But I was worried and distracted. Was I being taken advantage of? Would everything be O.K.? I simply was not used to it.
In West Africa I learned that everything is communal. It is actually being accepted as part of the community when someone borrows your things. Everything is shared by numerous people and that was very different and unnerving for me being a somewhat materialistic westerner who lives alone and does not share my bike, car or musical instruments with others. Like everything else there, I eventually got used to it. It was a great lesson and I learned a lot about myself and my own hangups from it. I ended up enjoying sharing but it took me a while.
All you can do there is surrender and let go. Not to sound “new agey” but there really is no other choice. You cannot control your surroundings or what is going to happen once you leave your room and go out for the day. After class I would often be invited to various events or places to play or watch some event. Because I did not speak French or Bamakan, it was always confusing where we were going or what we were doing. Sometimes there were long waits with nothing going on. I quickly learned to pass out and take naps anywhere and everywhere. This was a very helpful technique I highly recomend you develop if you are traveling to Africa. I would sleep in charis on benches, tables..anywhere! N one seemed to mid and others did the same thing.
We would shop in the wonderful huge open air market for all sorts of fresh veggies, fish, chicken and other food items and we hired a cook. She had no idea about how to make any kind of western food (we found out after she tried to fry cheese!) so after a few failed attempts on her part we just stuck to her cooking the local cuisine style. It turned out to be a great relationship and she really took care of us as well. The place was always clean and tidy and what a treat to have someone wash your clothes for you as well!
I would also ride my motorcycle to a local supermarket or an Italian restaraunt for a change of pace. There was also an internet shop with very slow connection speed but it did the trick in between power outages and blackouts. At some point people got used to seeing me and stopped paying attention or maybe I stopped caring or maybe a combo of both. I got into a nice groove where I would do my yoga in the morning have a hearty breakfast, go to drum class, take a dance class and try to come back to the house for lunch. Then I would watch the video tape from my drum class. I liked to watch it the same day and again at night so I was fresh the next day. Often I would spend the afternoon notating the drum class the best I could. In the evenings I would take a guitar lesson or informal class from another friend or teacher or go to one of the many music clubs like the “djembe club”.
The djembe club was a partial open air bar that had live music. It was so nice to sit under the stars and also have partial coverage if you needed it as well. The music ensembles performing usually consisted of a drum set player playing a very basic kit, one and only one djembe player, a talking drum player and or a dunun player, bass, 2 guitars and a singer. It was almost always multiple singers but they would take turns singing one at a time in an organized fashion. I thought it was very interesting that there was never 2 djembe players and never 2 dunun players. The music was never too loud and it was just wonderfulto watch and experienced. I also loved going to Toumani Diabate’s bar. His band would play before he came out and then at 1:00 AM in the morning he would come out and they would play all night long! Hence the naps durring the day sometimes.
My drum classes consisted of my two teachers and myself and sometimes one other student, an African man visiting from Guinea as well. I was surprised someone was there in Mali from Guinea studying Mali music. I asked him why and he said, “to learn”! Aruna was right handed and Brulye was left handed. So when they would show me something (the same part) it was always slightly different. Often during my morning class, all the drummers from the local troupe would come and watch me struggling to learn what they already new. There was almost always an audience. As we were at a community center there was no privacy or keeping people out. Maybe there was not much else going on, but people of all ages drummers and non musicians would wander by.
When I was learning a part or playing something I remembered or new it was fine and fun to have the audience. But when I could not get a part, (which did happen often) and everyone was watching it became hellacious for me. Sometimes someone other then my teacher would try and show me the part I could not get. Or maybe even someone who could not drum. No one stopped them from trying. I tried to keep my game face but I remember a few times just dropping my head on the drum!
My teachers started my lessons by showing me a part or a rhythm and when I got that they would show me another. But never too many things. As a matter of fact, each day started with a review of the prior day or days. So after a few months my classes got longer and longer as all the material (or at least an attempt at
most of it) was always reviewed. Sometimes I would ask for something new, just to have a mental break from the repetition, but they were relentless. Now that some time has passed I am glad that I learned this method from them and some things really stuck in there but I am also very happy that I video taped all my classes (using a rock as tripod) as even 6 years after the fact I am still going back to the tapes for reference and learning as well. I brought two cameras with me to Africa. One very small and one larger semi professional camera. I know this is expensive for most people and also cumbersome but I highly recommend a backup camera for any serious student traveling to West Africa to study African drumming ro African dance. If you are going to pay for that ticket and everything else save up for 2 cameras as well. I met so many people whose cameras had died and had no way to record their classes. I had a few problems here and there and was so glad I had a back up!
I went back to Mali a year later with a friend and brought recording equipment to record my teachers and lucked out and was also able to record 3 different groups of village drummers including to Bob groups and one Didadee group. The 4 CDs are on earthcds.com. Just go to their site and click on the Mali music link and you will see my CD’s there. Old Masters is Brulye and Aruna. Aruna passed away about a year ago he was well over 80 and was still drumming to the end! I am really glad I had the opportunity to meet him, study with him and record a CD of music featuring him as this is the only CD of the grand master Aruna ever made! Young Guns features Siaka Doumbia a young master in his own right as well. I also was able to take classes with Siaka and on the weekends he organized all the drummers to play at the various weddings and events all around Bamako, Mali. I was given the opportunity to play at these events as much or as little as I liked which I was very grateful for. It is one thing to take classes and another to perform the music in context so it was a great opportunity for me.