Fundamentals: West African hand drumming and specifically speaking, “traditional djembe drumming” is based on a system of fundamentals or “basics” just like any other type or form of drumming be it Indian, Afro Cuban, Brazilian or even the western drum set. There are rudiments or “basic fundamentals” of djembe playing that can be similar to drum set rudiments but also have some other important factors that are often missed in the learning process of many djembe players of all different levels. And what are djembe rudiments? They can consist of techinque, basic rhythm structure concepts, composition (how pieces are formed and go together), “the feel”, learning the basic djembe hand patterns and learning the dunun. It is also important to learn about the history of the music you are playing and the meaning of the pieces as well. I will discuss some of these items now.
Playing technique: It is interesting we say hit or strike the drum because another way to look at is “to pull the sound out of the drum”. Because really you are allowing the drum to speak. It does not have to be about striking, hitting and aggressive energy. Of course this sounds miner, but how you conceive of yourself making sounds is very important. Just like a professional athlete pictures himself making contact with the ball and the ball going over the fence, it is important to see yourself playing with ease and not struggling or tense. We have enough tension in our lives already! I always tell my students it is the follow through and therefore the rebound (what happens after your hand makes contact on the skin) that is important. Let you hand bounce naturally. The djembe has several ways to make it sound correctly, different ways to make the tones full and clear, to muff the sound, to make the bass notes deep and rich and to make various types of slap or “pops”. All of these sounds takes years to master. It does not come over night. And it takes diigent practice over a period of time as well. Finding a teacher to show you how to do it is the best way to learn but if you do not have one many people use videos.
Feels: After you learn to make tones correctly on the drum you start learning the feels… that is to say what each individual rhythm, basic hand patterns or parts of the rhythms feels like in your body. The hand parterres for playing traditional west african djembe arrangements may at first seem very basic but they are more then stagnant parts. They can swing, push or even pull the rhythm and when you see a really good accompaniment player play you can really see , hear and feel the difference! First work on getting the feel when you play it alone and then when you play it with the other parts that consist in a traditional or non traditional composition. The beauty of playing djembe is in the feels. Every rhythm is different. Although one rhythm may sound similar to another, they all have slight and sometimes large or subtle differences. You want to look for the small things and not overlook the slight differences when learning. Really watch, listen and learn!
Many people choose to overlook this and go after the individual notes and math approach to djembe playing and west african music. They try to understand it first through numbers and or notation rather then to hear it, feel it and play it. And many players can definitely play and learn their parts very quickly by this method of understanding rhythm structures mathematically which is fine. But if they do not balance this methodology with learning the feel and just go after the notes as numbers, they will never get this music on a deepr level and the magic and the soul will never be there.
Having said that it is very important to know where the one is, (the first beat or starting point of any and all of the individual parts) and also where your part fits against the pulse or main beat of the rhythm. I am not against notation by the way. I am all for it for remembering what you are playing or referencing but not for learning from. I am also interested in seeing how the parts or notes line up and where notes hit against the pulse. But don’t ever think that is all there is to it. It’s not. The rhythms are alive and breathe and pulse! So buyer beware. Don’t forget the feel.
The feel can not be broken down or written out, This is the magic of it. There are a million sets of notations on the internet but the joke is, you can not learn the correct feel from something you read. It has to be passed on from one person to another, or heard and experienced and beware of anyone who tells you differently. Yes, you can get the feel from listening to audio, watching a DVD over and over or best yet going to the place the music was created, eating the food, breathing the air and living the lifestyle of the people that created it by going to Africa, Cuba or Brazil for example. That’s the best way of course. But the next best is a good teacher and a good set of learning materials to listen to and or watch.
If you can not go on a trip and you really want to learn this music no matter if you have a teacher or not you need to listen to the music everyday. One of my first teachers taught me this. “If you really want to learn the drumming and you are not from the culture of the music you are studying from you need to immerse yourself in that culture”. And if you can not do that then simply listen to the music every day. Put it on at work in your car or in your home. This is a huge key to getting the feel. Try it, you’ll like it! It is simple easy and effective. The feel is the hardest thing to get and to learn and may not come naturally to many of us as it is something foreign that most of us did not grow up with. And getting the feel is different for everyone. This is why it is so important to learn the dunun (aka dounoun, djun djun) parts first when you are studying traditional west african music from Guinee, Mali and Senegal.
Dununs: The dunun parts are the set of 2 or 3 double sided drums played with sticks that give all the pieces in djembe music and drumming the melody and bass lines. By learning these parts first you can gain the feel and poetry of the music. You can also hear the individual djembe parts from another vantage point and you can feel how the lead interacts with all the parts. Different vantage points means listening to the same pieces from playing different parts or even by not playing and just listening to players better or more advanced then you. This is vital to the learning process of any new or even established player. This is why dunun players make such great lead players in my opinion, they really understand the compositions and arrangements from a musical standpoint.
Learning the interaction of the individual parts that happen in the piece between the other players and also learning about the purpose (meaning) of the piece you are playing is also very important. But again to me, the most important part of playing djembe is learning the dunun parts!
Djembe Masters: To master the djembe takes a lifetime and speaking of true masters, there are not as many as we are led to believe. Just because someone can play very loud, strong and fast does not make them a master drummer. I am not saying that there are not great players out there, there are. When I went to Africa both times I saw children that I will never play as well as. But that does not mean they are masters. Most people even drummers from other styles such as my Afro Cuban drum teachers think that djembe is “heavy handed” and simplistic. Because when they see a performance it is often one certain style, “fast, loud and furious”.
Dynamics: As a musician first when I am playing or listening to others drumming and especially listening to young or gifted soloists or lead players I have often asked “where is the space”? I understand that this can be a stylistic preference of the music. This means how it is done in it’s cultural context. But I beg to differ. If you watch a master drummer play such as Mamady Keita or Bolokada Conde you will notice no matter how fast they play that they are “phrasing”.
Phrasing means using sentences or statements linked together in a series that builds and peaks to speak on the drum. You can hear groups of notes and feels or patterns being played that are put together and mapped out, they take you on a musical journey. And their is space between the groups. Space or leaving space in between your groups of sentences or phrases are as important musically as the notes you are playing! I am here today to tell you from my own experience traveling and living in africa and spending much time with west african drum teachers and even the late, great grande master Aruna Sidibe in Mali, Guinee’s Bolokada Conde and many, many others that the djembe drum and music goes much deeper then drummers drumming as fast, loud and furious as they can. I admire the speed, technical skills and dextrerity but djembe playing in my humble opinion goes way beyond that. And there are all different tempos, dynamics and feels to the drum music of west africa.
There are many many different styles of djembe based music in west africa such as the Didadee music of Mali that are so mellow and sweet, have fantastically beautiful chants and also include djembe interludes as well. These styles include musical dynamics such as changes of tempo, time and volume increases and decreases. When someone is singing the drum volume drops so everyone can hear the singer. This is so very,very simple and almost always overlooked in most drumming situations I have witnessed. When someone sings, drop your playing volume. And even between one school one village or one family rhythms can have subtle differences or changes. So there is no one right way or only way to play or learn djembe.
Djembe Business: To me, a big problem I have always witnessed in the traditional african diqaspora hand drumming communities I have been involved in is westerners wanting to perform, to show off and be a big star before they have even mastered or simply gotten good at playing the basic parts. We all play drums for different reasons. But everyone wants to be a star. For some reason when a westerner get’s on a djembe their ego often takes over and all sense of politeness goes out the window. Maybe they learned it or are emulating one of the younger african star players whose egos are completely out of control. I say this with all the respect I can, but a fact remains a fact. And just because someone plays great does not mean anything other then they play great. It does not mean we must subjugate ourselves to them! Many people see someone else play and get inspired. Maybe they see another person they know shinning brightly on stage or playing drums in a dance class and they to want to be up there or emulate that person. And that is great! We all need inspiration in our lives. But the problem is we in the west are not patient.
Everyone wants to play for an audience but many people do not want to practice what it really takes to get the music on a deeper level. We want enlightenment in a day, fast food and fast drum mastery. So you get a lot of people out there misrepresenting, playing poorly and sounding like crap. You also have teachers teaching that do not know the rhythms correctly or people trying to make business out of the music form before they are ready. Many a dance class has been ruined or compromised by players that are not ready to perform yet playing in class and messing up their parts. The rhythm is only as strong as it’s weakest link.
Take your time to listen, watch and learn from other players. Sit back and relax. Many of the west african teachers do not impose rules and regulations on a longer development period for beginners because of finances. Most teachers that are from other countries are here in the West or Europe and have to survive. If they were to teach how they were taught, which is over a long period of time and in very different (often harsh,unfriendly) circumstances they would not have any students. One great player and teacher I know let’s his beginning students come to a professional dance class to play because the student pays many of his bills. Everyone suffers because of this but the teacher plays so great he just plays over the top of it all!
Meanwhile, It is easy to get caught up in ones own ego (believe me I know I am talking about myself here) thinking we sound great and many times we don’t. In our demeaning constricted western society, most westerners have a healthy need to “be creative”, to experiment and this is fine. But the need to “be the man” needs to be dropped. We need to leave our egos at the door and realize we are all students, no matter how good we are or how good people tell us we are. If we are humble or at least try to be then we can be a bed for receiving this music and magic and help spread the groove.
The djembe solo: Another misguided concept in djembe playing is soloing. Soloing implies playing by oneself or “solo”. But you are not flying a one man airplane. There is a team here. So many people call it “playing the lead” which is much more appropriate. To lead one should be able to follow and that means that the leader knows the pieces they are playing the lead on. Many players and good soloists but do not know the compositions they are playing. So they play on top of the rhythm instead of in between the notes or parts. To me this causes disjointed energy and it never sounds as good as when the leader knows the music he or she is playing on.
Almost every djembe piece or rhythm arrangement from Guinee, Mali and Senegal has a djembe solo/lead language or djembe solo phrases (groups of notes, patterns or sub patterns) that can be played for that individual rhythm. And there is also djembe language or “solos” that can be applied to a variety of different rhythms as well. This is called djembe language and also is sometimes known as “djembe solo techniques”.
My sincere suggestion to you is to learn as much of this language as is possible by listening to DVD’s, videos, CD’s (music sources), your teachers and or any other sources and include these “techniques” in your lead/solo playing experience. And remember to use dynamics and space when you play your lead parts. Space is your friend! Don’t get caught up in trying to be flashy and doing tricks on the djembe, leave that for the professionals! You can always add that later. Most of all remember to have fun. After all, it is “playing”! Although this all sounds very serious, it does not have to be. In the end you will have more fun and a deeper experience by considering and following some or all of these suggestions and tips.