Let’s face the facts. Until Mamady Keita arrived in the USA we were playing djembe ass backwards. For example, Mandiani was more often then not being played backwards as Soli, (Donba in Senegal) or visa versa. We were doing the best we could at the time as there was very limited resources available in the late 70’s and very few instructors as well. It was prior to the internet and consumer cmcorders were still years off. All we had was cassette recorders.
We westerners needed to be shown and taught “the one”, *(the starting beat or first “pulse” as we call the 4 beat that goes through all of west african drumming and djembe music). We were hearing the music wrong and needed to be shown correctly. It was as simple of that. If you are not from the culture and did not grow up with it then you have to learn it if you want to play it.
You can always get “the one” or first beat which shows you where the pulse goes from the djembe starting call, (opening break), but you need to have some knowledge of the rhythm first or some rhythmic backround to really be sure 100%.
When Mamady came he was not only an awsome performer but a great teacher as well. A rare combination especially in those days. He was wearing jingles or bells on his foot and he was showing not only the call in but also where the beat was in each and every rhythm he taught.
He effectively communicated the spirit and depth of African drumming and also bridged the huge missing gap between east and west with his unique and amazingly well structured teaching style. knowledge and love . Thank god!
Understandably (and thankfully), Mamady’s style and body of knowledge became the “gold reference standard” of west african djembe drumming. Wherever you go around the world there are djembe and west african drumming devotees who study his videos and emulate his style and play his licks, too. Many have studied with him intensly, gone to Africa with him, received teaching certificates and are carrying on the knowledge and lienage he has taught.
I applaud these dedicted people and students as well! Great job you are all doing. Much respect! The Mamdy Keita franchise and school systems can be found all across the globe from Asia to USA.
And as in all aspects of life, other great teachers and performers have emerged and come from different regions of Africa including Guinee, Mali, Senegal and other countries who also have very good equally valid teaching abilities, credentials and different playing styles and compositions as West Africa is a huge place with an amazing amount of cultural diversity and ethnic groups and expressions.
Bolokada Conde from the Sankaran region of Guinee West Africa is one of those rare teachers who is a fantastic performer and teacher for example. He does not give out certificates but he is a wonderful gifted drum instructor and also just a great person to hangout with and his playing and style is quite magical. You can see him on the M’Bemba Fakoli DVD available on Amazon.
There are thousands of variations and hundreds and hundreds of African drumming rhythms! Of course in West Africa there are some that are very similar or nearly the same as in several nearby or bordering countries as well. But that does not make one from Guinee better then a similar one from Mali. This is very important to remember! There is no one way and all the different styles from different places to me or equally valid, especially if you can learn about them and learn their tradition.
I have been at West African dance camps where teachers or performers from different countries in West Africa started arguing over whose Sunu was the original Sunu or whose was more pure or “better”.
And despite what some people will tell you, it is impossible to know whose came first. Moreover Guinee, Senegal and Mali were all the Great Mali Empire originaly, that means one big country.
As I have written about before there is also a wide variety of playing styles. In Mali I studied at a school that had four different generations of players. A grand master, a master, his student and his student. They were all fantastic players. And they all played different styles. They played the same arrangements but they were all slightly different if you listened closely.
Furthermore, there hand techniques for hitting the drum also varied quite abit which really surprised me. I though people in Mali hit the djembe drum one way and people in Guinea hit the djembe in another way. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Now almost all the time a teacher teaching a large group class was only taught to hit it one way and one way only one way. However, being a musician he is going to learn from his friends other tricks of the trade and as he travels or plays with others he is also going to see and learn other styles. But when he teaches he is only going to show you the one original way he learned, because if he is teaching a big class it has to be standardized.
More often then not the teacher can’t say “this is the traditional way I learned it, but in the next village next to mine they play it like this, except for the old men who play it like that.” because it is too confusing to students, or maybe the teacher does not have that kind of mastery over the english language which is also often the case as well..
The standardization is also true with the rhythms many teachers teach. For example they are often taught with only two djembe accompaniment parts and perhaps traditionally this is the way it was back in the day or in the village.
However, when you go to Africa you may not see only 2 accompaniment parts being played. You may see 3 or 4. Or maybe you will see 3 people playing the same part. Are you going to tell them they are wrong? That they are always supposed to play 2 accompaniment parts because that is the traditional way?
Two American students of a famous djembe masters who are “teachers” of a famous djembe fola (master drummer) were telling a very experienced female Griot dance teacher who was born and raised in Africa (from a family of musicians where the heritage and lineage are carried down and handed down from father to child from generation to generation without exception) that she was playing or dancing to the rhythm Lamban incorrectly.
To me this is the epitome of what I am talking about. How can we as american or non african students, call ourselves teachers and moreover, tell someone from Africa that they are playing their own music wrong?
To me this is absurd. We need to think outside of the box, be open minded and intelligent about the process of learning music, dance and culture from others. Too much ego!
If it is the old guys or djembe folas playing in Mali (such as my teachers on the Mali traditional Music Old Mastersmusic CD), or the young guns playing djembes there are sometimes “interchangeable” parts being played. And if there are only two parts being played there are optional parts that can be played that are not being played for various reasons. I do not profess to know the reasons, all I can do is report what I have experienced personally. Music of Mali, \”Old Masters\” Cd featuring Aruna Sidibay
The West African drumming and djembe/dunun music is a form, it has structure of course but it is not a rigid set of rules locked in stone. We want this as westerners, we want to know, we want to define it, classify it ,write it out in notation and say , “here it is I have it”! We want to feel like we understand it 100%, so this is how it is sometimes given to us, but my personal experience being in Africa with a variety of teachers is much different. And in Cuba and Brasil as well.
When I went to these places and studied, listened, istened more and played I was surprised and overwhelmed how the rhythms I thought I really knew, sounded completely different. Talk to anyone that has done some serious studying and traveling there and they will tell you the same.
The rhythms breath and have a life of their own. I am not trying to mystify african drumming, just the opposite. To demystify. But it is not science or math or groups of numbers like some people would like you to believe. Those systems are fine for trying remember how things go after the fact (playing or a class) and I use them myself.
We just have to step back, take a breath and take our huge western egos out of the situation, stop thinking we “know” this music completely and be much more humble in the process of learning and teaching African drumming. Yes I teach drumming. But to me it is sharing my experiences and what I am learning and I will always be a student.
In Guinea, when you go to a Dununba event or party the downbeat “PA TI PA” (aka “passport” basic djembe hand pattern or part) is almost never played on the djembe. When you go to Hamanah where the Dununba dance and rhythm are said to have originated you will find the same thing.
Watch the players in the videos from there. Instead, an off beat PA TI PA part is always played as is a bass or low djembe part (aka a “part #3”). Now you could say it is not traditional, and I believe you. But it is how it is being played so it must be learned as well. That part is simply too hard to teach to beginners. No one will get it and then you can not teach the rhythm (or learn it). I am not saying that “PA TI PA” is not the traditional part, just that it is not the only part and also there are other possibilities not being shown sometimes.
So how can a teacher teach this to a group class? For practicality, he can not. So the rhythms and or how they are taught often have to be standardized or homogenized for certain group settings.
Also, many teachers teach the bass drums, the dununs or dununba drum parts as static parts with out changes. But again when you go to Africa you will see the dunun parts, the sangban and dununba rarely playing the same part repetitively.
The kinkini always holds a constant beat but the sangban and dununba are usually in converstaion with each other. That means the parts are moving and not static. Because music and drumming is a language. The drums speak to each other and speak to us as well.
How can you teach this in a beginning class? From my personal experience trying to do so or being in a drum class where some one does try, you simply can’t. So it is simplified, standardized and broken down to it’s simplest elements. Please do not get me wrong. I am not criticizing the teachers I just want you the reader to understand what you are getting, what you are learning may be different then what you think. Just don’t think that when you are playing this part statically that you are playing the rhythm in it’s entirety. That you “have it” or “own it”.
A western friend of mine who is a teacher always say’s you have to own the rhythm, make it your own. I have never agreed with this. I say you have to make friends with the rhythms. And as I mentioned the arrangemnts in West African drumming often vary slightly or greatly. It can be frustrating as a student to know or learn what is the “actual” or “original” traditional part some times.
For understanding this please think of drum music as rock music for a moment. Everyone knows the beatles tune “twist and shout”. No two bands playing it will ever play it the same and everyone wants to do a version of it with their own flare. There are salsa versions of it and blues versions of it. Fast and slow versions of it. Punk versions.
The older traditional musicians try to keep it pure perhaps and try to copy and make it sound just like the Beatles original music copying it note for note. The younger players in the cities tend to speed up the rhythms to make them faster, showier and more exciting. People naturally tend to innovate their own music as well. I think this holds true with many of the african rhythmic structures as well.
No matter the speed, the innovations or creative changes, everyone still knows the song is “Twist and shout”.
It is my opinion that this happens with the drumming and folk music in West Africa as well. There is not just one and only one way to play that is it and only it.
And I have even seen the teachers that say there is only opne way (there way) to play rhythm arrangements change the parts over time slightly as well!
Is one way more correct or better then another? That is hard to tell and I am not here to state this but please don’t let anyone tell you there is only one way to play a traditional rhythm.. It may take some of us a trip to Africa to understand this.
Many, many students have s and lived and studied in Africa as well. Living in Africa you can see for yourself how the music goes and flows and moreover, that there are many different ways rhythms are not only played from village to village but also many different cultural contexts the rhythms are played in . For example some rhythms are used in weddings, celebrations, etc. and have multi purposes and some have only one purpose.
There are many great teachers out there and many teachers are dedicated to teaching the traditional Mendingue ways of djembe, dununs and West African drumming and dance and are dedicated to passing on the tradition in a form and way that is as pure as possible as well.
So do not get too caught up in the “this is the way, there is only one way” or “this is the only way” thinking. Because if you buy into this line of thinking you are setting yourself up for a hard fall.
And if you really want to experience the music fully, go to an African dance camp and if you can, plan a trip or study tour to Africa. I did it twice and it is an experience that will be with you for the rest of you life!