Just for the record, I am not against fusion, hybrid or any other new or old style of drumming of any kind. As a matter of fact I am open to it and do it myself to some extent. I see it as a natural evolution of traditional drumming styles as people who have studied traditional percussion forms and world music move and explore out of the dance, drum class and traditional drumming/music scenes and get into more of their own community thing or drum circles, etc.
There is a place for everyone and every style of drumming. That is part of the great beauty of it. And everyone is welcome! Drumming is inclusive.
Drumming is an art form
I believe that drumming is an art form. Like fine art or martial arts for example. Any art form has basic skills, a skill set that in my opinion has to be learned and a frame work to work with in.
If we were talking about fine art you would learn the basics of yellow and blue make green for example. If it is martial arts or boxing you would learn the basics of how to make an effective punch, or how to block a punch. In carpentry you might learn about math, angles or how to swing a hammer or hammer a nail. The basics.
So learning an art is about learning the basics or fundamentals. Learning the basic skill sets. Then you need to learn how to spar, to “play” or use it in context effectively with other people. In fine art you learn the skills to start and finish a composition, to make a painting. It takes time to learn and perfect any art and it does not happen over night. Maybe you already have raw talent but you still have to learn the forms and the technique to make those forms complete and to take it to it’s full fruition.
When you build a house it must be set on a strong foundation. The stronger the foundation the stronger the house. If you make a strong house on a weak foundation it falls in. Everyone knows the story of “The Three Little Pigs”. We want your djembe foundation to be brick!
Learning drumming fundamentals from a solid teacher is building your own solid foundation to work off of for the rest of your drumming life or musical career. The stronger your basics and foundation in the fundamentals of rhythm structure are, the easier your studies and playing will be especially down the road.
It is all about basics or the rudiments and fundamentals. The accompaniment parts or passport parts.
In traditional West African drumming the dununs (aka “djun djun”) are usualy learned first. They are the set of 3 double sided drums played with one stick on the side and a bell on top. They create the melody and bass line as well as the movement that will happen in the arrangement. It is said that if you really want to be a great djembe player you have to learn the dununs first. Any great djembe player also knows and can play the dununs as well. They are also sometimes spelled “doun nouns”.
As we move along in the learning process on djembe we have to learn where and how everything fits together and how the rhythms start and stop and also where they change as well. There are call ins, breaks and all sorts of things that can happen in a traditional piece or arrangement!
Then we need to learn the “feels” and techniques associated with the various rhythms we are learning as well. As we get more advanced and learn or own the rhythms we learn the solo techniques last. Not first.
The solos in any style of drumming be it West African, Afro Cuban or Haitian are played by the more advanced players as they know the whole composition or arrangemnet and where to put the parts.
The soloist weaves in and out of the melody and rhythmic structure. That is why the more advanced players traditionaly speaking play the lead or solo parts. The solo in traditional context plays with and for the dancers. Therefore I prefer to call the solo the lead.
So as you can see there are logical and effective steps that happen in any learning process of any skill or art form.We start from a chaotic or unschooled or unknowing place, that means “no form”, then we learn the skill set and learn to make forms, “the system”, something organized and coherent.
Once you have mastered the form you can either stay with it and further perfect it, add your own unique styling to it, or drop the form perhaps. But you can not drop it until you have it in your possession.
So my suggestion is to simply learn the basics. It can be easy and fun! There are books, videos, downloadable lessons, teachers, study groups and who knows what else?
Fusion and Hybrid drumming
To fuse two items together they both must be strong enough to hold their own weight or force. So before you fuse them you have to make sure both materials you fuse are strong enough that they will not break or fall apart.
If you are fusing traditional drumming with something “new” (or old or different) then both forms of drumming should be well established and strong on both sides. That would mean that the drummer fusing the two styles would need to be established and somewhat advanced in both or any of the styles being “fused”.
In our case that would mean the two styles of drumming (and the drummer fusing) would be both quite developed and advanced before they were fused together. Unfortunately this is almost never the case, at least in my experience anyway.
So please, no offense to anyone but to me the statement “I am a fusion drummer” does not hold a lot of clout with me unless someone has actually studied and is proficient at more then one style.
The problem or challenge I see is that many western “fusion/hybrid” drummers never bother to even learn the most basic forms of traditional drumming. I am not saying all, and I am not trying to pick on anyone, just stating the facts. Some are quick to say they “have their own unique style” and have rejected the traditional teachers and learning process and want to jump past the schooling (McDjembe).
Like everything else in life we all want it now and fast! But any kind of drumming and especially West African drumming and dance might take some time to learn. So please be patient and take your time. Enjoy the process. What’s the hurry?
If there is one thing I have learned as a teacher it is that everyone learns at a different speed and in different ways.
We have to find the way that works best for us to learn. Some people learn well from a vocal method. If you say it you can play it. Some peole need to understand the math. Others are better at assimilating. And we all need to remember that we all will alway be students because if it is coming from a different culture (originally) then you have to respect that and keep a beginners mind. Even when you think you are advanced.
Many people performing and even teaching and leading can not make a basic tone and slap let alone make the drum speak or put together any kind of group arrangement that is inclusive and musical.
They are misrepresenting what the drum is about, the spirit of drumming and the community aspects of the unity of the drum. I walked into a class recently where someone who could barely play or make the sounds himself was teaching a room full of beginners who did not know the difference.
Why is he teaching? What need is he fulfilling when he can not even make the basic sounds and does not know the full arrangement of the piece he is teaching? My student who has only been playing for one year started teaching recently. However, he was still asking me how parts to pieces went before he went to teach his class! I know bad teacher=bad student. I did not condone this, he is doing it on his own. Needs the cash and likes the attention from the cute girls.
Recently I was traveling in another country. I walked into a drum shop and a “master” (that is what his poster on the wall said) was teaching. He could not make a slap and was teaching a nondescript rhythm as my teacher, the late great Simbo (Craig Goodman) used to say.
Wow! The teacher was just trying to make a buck anyway he could. It is interesting when I talked to them very casually later that the students did not know the difference. And they even went so far as to say he was great went on to sing his praises.
I am not trying to be negative here only point out what is going on and that there is a need to further not only our personal education but the publics education as to what drumming is as well.
what’s the rush?
We westerners are in a huge rush to perform and get on stage. No sooner then we buy an instrument then we are out performing. Everyone wants to be the big star. I understand, it’s the Hollywood effect! But I also feel the quality needs to be raised and brought up in the world wide drumming communities.
Unfortunately when you tell the average person in the street you play the djembe their reference is usually “unskilled hippies going wild at a drum circle”.
I recently had to sit some well educated people down and explain to them about West African drumming and the djembe drum in particular. How in traditional West African drumming there are compositions, arrangements and actual pieces that have several different interconnected parts, much like an orchestra or even a pop band with bass, rhythm and melody and that these pieces or arrangements had meaning and intention.
Furthermore, that they were used for celebration, harvest, marriage, coming of age ceremonies and many other reasons in other cultures. They really had a hard time getting it because their only exposure to djembes or drumming had been wild drum circles on the beach! Even though they were meditators they had trouble understanding the concept of drummers actually holding parts, a meditation in and of itself.
Here is another example of what I am talking about in terms of fusion or combining two or more different elements to make a new style of drumming. In India and other places there are Indian master tabla players fusing Indian tabla rhythms to djembe and it is super cool. They are playing their traditional Indian rhythms and advanced super relaxed, super fast hand techniques on the djembe. It is really quite interesting. And the videos and learning material they are producing is quite good as well.
I have seen some awesome videos and also experienced it live on my recent trips to India. It is very impressive if you are looking in from the outside and observing the techniques, speed and finesse. But it is missing something for me. To me the spirit of the drum is not there. I want to hear a real slap, or a tone or a bass note. I want to hear a traditional rhythm mixed in somewhere. I want to hear the combination of Indian and African mixed together. The deep fat groove! Where is it?
For some strange reason none of these great players and teachers bother to learn even the most basic djembe techniques, how to make the correct sounds (slap, bass, tone) or any traditional west african djembe rhythms. In my opinion if they did it would be awesome and there would be true fusion.
A respect for both cultures combined. I am not saying they are disrespectful but it would be great if they studied both systems if they are going to combine both systems. That is my point.
It is my opinion and belief that we all have to learn from each other and from others that know more or different information then we do. So here is my suggestion to players of any style and level of playing or experience. Please drop the ego, get into your zen mind /beginners mind and learn the other form(s) you are resisting! Especially if you want to be a hybrid or fusion specialist!
Learn to make basic sounds and how to play with others first
Many drummers have learned to make sounds but not how to interact in polite, cohesive and harmonious ways. So many times I have been at events where drummers are all playing or soloing at the same time. What is that about? To me it sounds terrible. But that is just my opinion of course. It is competition and ego in my book anyway. Why can’t we take turns one at a time and be patient with each other? It works much better this way!
People have different reasons for drumming and no one reason is right or wrong. We all are expressing ourselves in different ways through music. People always have been and (hopefully) always will in the future. Having said that I still believe we should not be fighting, competing or playing drums to “get the girl” (or guy). I am not interested in being the alpha male or experiencing someone else trying to be the alpha in a class or jam. It is simply not about that. In the traditional drum and dance scene many drummers are trying to emulate some of the younger drumming superstars and instead of picking up all the good habits are sometimes picking up some of the negative ones such as “cow tow to me” or “it’s all about me”.
In West African dance class I have noticed that often there are people playing accompaniment, the “truck driving part” that simply can not hang. They do not have the power, attention, skill..or whatever it takes to complete the task. Why are they there? They are often there because they want to be seen or they want to be part of something. Now this may sound cruel but the truth is if they are not proficient they should not be there. You have to get ready and be ready. It takes training before you show up to play somewhere.
The proper etiquette is to go and watch a class before you try to play for it, no matter who you are. If you are not ready to play then you are actually (or could potentially) be holding the class back. The weakest link in the chain makes the chain break and for drumming despite popular opinion it is not the more the merrier. It is about quality not quantity.Also, If you are playing for a dance class you should know the pieces or material they are playing.
Learn arrangements and how to play in harmony with others
In my opinion, if you are playing with more then one person there needs to be arrangements. Parts different people play. And probably a leader. If there is more then one leader in the the group then please take turns leading! It’s not a power trip and it is not about being the top dog! Arrangements (either traditional or original) help us to play in an organized manner and in harmony with each other. It also helps us to feel the inter connectedness of it all. Drumming is about more then singular self expression the whole time you are hitting the drum. It is about support, groove and connecting with others in an active or interactive way.
The djembe is a musical instrument..treat it as such
Now, back to the djembe itself. Well let’s step away from the djembe and talk about a violin actually. If we were talking about a violin you would definitely learn to play it before you left your house with the instrument and played it on the street. Also you would not just be stroking it any which way.
If someone who knew how to play violin heard you struggling or playing incorrectly and gave you a tip or offered help, you would probably gratefully accept. You probably would not be offended.
I might also assume you would take a lesson on it. Who plays a musical instrument with out taking lessons? Someone that can not afford to or who is not really interested in learning. So why not take lessons on your djembe? What is it about the djembe that is not looked at as “musical” or a musical instrument? Please do not say, “well it’s just a drum”!
I think it is because the drum calls out to us. We are called to play it, it pulls us in. We hear it and we feel something perhaps. For many of us it is the first time we have felt something so deeply! There is a sense of power. The bass resonates within us. The mistake is to think that we are the only ones having this experience. It has taken me years to realize this. It (the ego) can really fool you! So when that little voice say’s “you are on fire” remember that it is “we are on fire”.
Perhaps when some of us hear the drums we are “moved on the inside” or even have a spiritual experience or epithany. When we touch it for the first time it feels good, and we can (or at least think we can) express ourselves immediately. It really does feel great to play for the first time.
I remember my first time as clearly as others remember their first kiss or other great first time experiences. And I was one of those drummers back in the mid 70’s who thought I knew it all.
People were telling me to take lessons that I needed to learn the basics (like I am saying now) and I was asking myself “why are these people so up tight”? Or, “why are they against me”? I really thought they had the problem, not me!
I felt so much when I played to my Santana albums! I thought I really had it. Finally, at a performance with the RISD jazz ensemble a drummer way beyond my skill levels told me, “if you do not listen to people better then you you will never improve”. And this simple comment changed my complete life path.
Of course that is just me and my particular path and why are we getting so serious about everything here and what about just having some good ole’ fun? That’s what playing is about, right?
Playing=fun! Well again, even if you do not want to approach drumming seriously which is fine, you are going to get bored and stop having fun and probably your drum will end up collecting dust ..unless you learn how to play some basic rhythms and how to hit the drum correctly at the bare minimum.
There is just no getting around the fact that no matter what you want to do on the drum be it djembe, dununs (djun djun), congas, bongos, dumbec or whatever, you still have to spend some time learning how to play it correctly.
It is amazing when I go to certain places I travel to every year and the same drummers are there and they have not improved at all and they are playing the same rhythms they have been playing for years and years. And maybe it is just the same rhythm (singular). And god forbid you try to show them something new or different!
And why do people get so offended when a more experienced drummer tries to give them a pointer at a drum circle? What makes us think we know it all already before we have any clue what is really going on? I have had many experiences and there are countless stories I have heard over the years of this situation. Someone tries to help out or show someone a part and the person being shown the parts gets offended. We all need to be open minded. The givers need to be gentle and the receivers need to be open minded.
Here is one of my favorites. I am playing at a jam, or drum circle or drum triangle (the latest thing!). And I am taking a solo. As soon as I start to solo, someone solos at the same time. I stop, he stops, I start he starts. So I explain to him, “hey how about I hold the part down for you and you solo, then you hold the part for me and I solo”. And the guy say’s, “yeah, yeah, yeah”, then goes back to doing the same thing again. Some people don’t get it and never will but that’s O.K., too. We can just laugh it off, right?
unity and community
The djembe is about unity and community. That is the actual meaning of, “djembe” or “djembe bara” meaning “unity of the drum” according to the djembe legend Abdulye Diakate . Djembe is about support. It comes from and out of a system where the drum is interconnected with a dance, a song, a village or place and an intention for the formula I just mentioned. In the west I understand we are remaking the formulas but there is still no getting away from the history of the drum and it helps to understand about it when you play. We are all too caught up in soloing, “being the man” (or woman?) and missing the point of the djembe.
schooling or not?
I understand we have all had too much western schooling. The drum is a way for many people to feel creative freedom, who wants to go back to school? I know I hated school and on top of that I am or can be an especially slow student.
Studying drumming even just a little.. can be fun and interesting. You just need to find the study tools, materials and or methods that work for you and a good , patient teacher as well perhaps.
Thank god Bolokada let me video all my classes so I could go home and break everything down at my own pace. For me recording devices such as audio and video have been key features in my learning process. I am still reviewing my video footage from 2005 in Mali!
Respect yourself, the drum and others
One of the many great things they teach you in traditional drumming is respect. Respect your teacher, respect your drum, your fellow player and respect the rhythms just to name a few. Sometimes this respect seems to be missing in many of the new “styles” that seem to be popping up. Remember that feeling playing the drum gives you, the high..is a high. And sometimes it is the same high as you get when you smoke weed and you think you are playing the coolest stuff ever and when you hear a tape back it is not so great. Anyone experience that? It’s our egos. And some times our egos are going wild. We can get on the drum and really start thinking “I am the man, it’s all about me”. But there is no “we” in “I”. And please do not be fooled the djembe is a “we”drum. It always come’s back to this. Community, group, groove and togetherness vs ego, singularity and chaos.
So I suggest we all continue to share our views, keep it positive and share the knowledge together. I think we need to check our egos. All of us no matter who we are or who we think we are. We can all learn something from each other. The African people can learn many things from us and we can learn many things from them of course. It is not a one way street by any means. And I do not pretend to know it all or have all the answers. I have just been around a while and I am sharing my observations, experiences and of course opinions and beliefs.
Be open to learning new things and also be open to taking the time to learn old things as well. And to sum it up, whatever instrument you are playing be it drum or guitar or whatever, you owe it to yourself and to the instrument to learn to play it on some level . This is respect for the instrument and in our case as djembe drummers possibly the culture it came from as well.
Summing it up and adding a bit more, too
Please do not get caught in the beleif system that drumming is soley about self expression. It is about group. Self expression in drumming happens as part of a group experience or playing with other people and is part of the yin yang experience.
Furthermore we need to get that playing a repetitive, supportive drum part can be as fun, deep, creative and powerful as soloing .
So at the risk of sounding redundant I will repeat my suggestion which is that we all leave our egos at the door so to speak, and when we open that door to playing drums we approach it with open minds.
And please remember you can learn from anyone, anywhere at anytime. Even if you are more advanced then them. I learn from my students all the time, every time! There is always a lesson to be learned. You can learn from your friends, your teachers and people you don’t know.
However, if you do not like how somone is treating you or talking to you, that is something that needs to be addressed. It does happen. The bottom line is we all need to be polite and compassionate with each other.
Being good or great at playing an instrument does not mean anything other then you are good or great at that instrument. It does not give any person the right to boss anyone else around, to be disrespectful of anyone or to expect special services from us. You do not have to kiss anyone’s bottom to learn how to play drums. Unless you want to!
Please learn the basics of any instrument you choose to pick up. It may be hard at first but if you stick with it you will always get it in the end. And by studying the instrument you will not only have a fuller, more enjoyable and interesting experience but you will help others to have more fun as well. Because the better you sound and play the better those around you will sound and play as well. It rubs off on each other!
Don’t be scared to ask others for help or to show you something. You will be surprised how easy it is and how friendly and supportive your fellow drummers can be!