I love to play djembes and I also love to study the music we make with djembes. Djembe soloing is a very small part of djembe music as a whole. The djembe is a communal drum and is about community and unity. We all (myself included) get caught up in being the soloist as it is so much fun! But keep in mind that it is about a whole group of people, musicians,dancers and others, too!
Djembe soloing is fascinating as it is so varied and dynamic. In a traditional west african setting or class the solos or self expression that the lead drummer makes is actually the drum speaking a specific language. A drum language if you will. Sometimes it is actually speaking Melenke, for example Bolokada taught me a solo technique (group of phrases chained together) for the rhythm Mendiani, calling a woman out by name to dance. In my studies of West African djembe related music I have found that there are basically 4 types of solos.
First of all, what is a djembe solo and what is it used for?
In West African music, every piece or rhythm composition traditionally (historically in the village or place it came from) has a meaning that comes from it’s useage. Many rhythms have a dance, song, composition, a call in or break (start and finish) and an intention. Maybe it is a full moon celebration, or a wedding celebration or a mask dance. It may or may not have deep significance. But it is used for something and related to a service, probably a group event and has a meaning.
In Mali at the weddings I went to a griot (singer in charge and bearer of historical knowledge) would sing, build up the energy and then the dancer would pop out and the drums would respond accordingly. In Guinea at the Dununba parties and celebrations there was no singing but there was a friendly competition between the dance solists and the lead drummer. In this so called competition, dancer and djembe lead drummer or soloist, inspire each other and work together as a team.
When the dancer comes out to solo the phrases actually interact with the dancers footsteps in different ways. Although many people unfamiliar with traditional djembe drumming may think of a djembe solo as a loud rukus or someone going wild, there is a lot of structure to a djembe solo.
Before I talk about the djmebe solo and djembe drum we must also remember the most important part of djembe music is not the djembe it is the dununs (the set of two ro three double sided drums hit with a stick on the side and bell on top).
The dununs set the melody and base line for your solo by creating the song. The kinkini (the smallest dunun) is the drum you should learn first. After that comes the sangban (middle drum) and the dununba (largest lowest pitched drum). The dununba and sangban often have phrases that interact with each other or “speak” as well, and these phrases or movements as I like to call them also can interact with the lead drummer or djembe soloist. It is very important to know the dunun parts yourself before trying to solo on the djembe to the piece as the lead is going to not only refer to these parts when he or she plays, but also is going to weave in and around the dununs.
I will start by describing the first type of solo I always suggest people try to learn when they are first starting to solo on the djembe drum., the “traditional” solo pattern for the specific rhythm.
Since almost every traditional west african drum piece has a purpose for beingg, a meaning and useage there are specific solos that corrospond as well.
The first type of djembe solo is the tradiotional solo or a “traditional solo technique” that sticks mainly to phrases or groups of phrases tied
together in a string that are played specifically and usually only for that specific rhythm. For example Soli has a set of solos that are specific to it. You will actually here these phrases played in different regions and even different countries sometimes. I heard many of the same pharses played in Guinea for Soli when I went to Mali and studied Suku (which has a similar rhymic structure). It was not exactly the same but some patterns were very close and it was cool to see the connection.
Of course if you are playing the traditional solo techniques in the rhythm composition for over a few minutes you are going to have to improvise at some point or work off of or around the traditional phrases or else you would just be repeating yourself, which beings us to the second type of soloing I call traditional language with “crossover” potential. That is a fancy way of saying that you use traditional phrases but they are not unique or only used in one rhythm and sometimes not only one time signature. Sometimes in Soko you will start to pull the time into or towards 4/4 and in doing so there are 4/4 solo phrases that you can bend to fit. Anyway, by using the djembe language and non specific phrases you still are working with in the traditional framework and you are also being creative.
Which leads us to our third type of soloing which is creative but using traditional rhythm concepts. How is “concepts” different then “language”. In concepts we are using the structure of the language. For example we can look at how groups of phrases are repeated in a series two or three times, how groups of phrases build or subtract.
Then we can insert other phrases or language into that structure. Or we can look at how we play a 4/4 feel over a 6/8 rhythm, or vica versa.
By learning the traditonal way first, then the language you learn how to speak. Once you know how to speak and copy the structure you have a foundation which you can jump off of which brings us to our 4th type of soloing.
If you have been studying with a teacher for a while, watching Youtube videos or perhaps your master players “How to Play” DVD’s you have a lot of great resources to check out and check in with!
Now that you have an understanding of the foundation, the way solo structures are put together, the spacing, the feels and have learned phrasing, you can satrt to develop your own unique and creative solos. One concept I would like to see and hear more of in solos is “air space”, (space between phrases). What you do not play can be as important as what you do play.
Most of us at one point or another in our playing careers try and feel our way through a solo by playing too many notes and filling all the spaces.
I noticed in some situations in Africa and even here in the states or Asia there is very little space in between groups of phrases during some of the soloists djsmebe solos. For the Africans the reason is that if they leave space, someone else will “drop in”. Dropping in is exactly like surfing when another surfer cuts in front of you and takes your wave. In Africa this is simply the way it is. everyone does it and it is an excepted method between piers although to a westerner it can be quite annoying and seem inpolite!
If you are playing in drum circles or a band, maybe only some of this is useful or none at all, but I like to present the whole package so you have a choice where you would like to go with developing your own unique djembe soloing style and playing techiniques as well.
Of course you can just play whatever you want and disregard this whole article or even parts of it. But I find most people that do not learn how I am suggesting get repetitive in their playing and bored as well as boring to listen to as well. With out a strong foundation the house is going to eventually cave in. So check out the traditional stuff first!