Traditional drumming part one West Africa
What is traditional drumming?
Traditional African drumming usually refers to drumming that has been handed down from generation to generation and comes from a time long ago.
Traditional drumming is organized and systematized drumming or drumming that is part of a musical piece or composition that is used for a specific purpose or occasion in almost every culture if you look back far enough.
In the first part of this article I would like to discuss the music and drumming from the African diaspora that I have been studying over the last 30 years.
In West African African related drumming, (particularly djembe related drumming from Guinea and Mali), the drumming can be part of a ceremony or party, used for wedding or celebration or any number of events or purposes. The main factor I would like to discuss is that it is organized. People have parts. it is not a free form expressive jam. To a casual onlooker it can appear so, but this is almost never the case.
Most of the time the music or drumming arrangements or rhythms have been handed down from father to son, from teacher to student over many, many years. Hence “traditional”.
Often there are Griots or musical “carriers of the tradition” whose job it is to retain the culture and history of the villages families as well. They are always from a family of griots and therefore come from a long line of griots. They train on musical instruments and also historical information.
What is the organization of parts and system of traditional drumming?
In West African, Afro Cuban, Afro Haitian and Brasilian drumming there is a similar system of organization of drum parts. There are support parts which hold steady beats and one person, usually the leader or “lead” player solos.
There is almost never anyone soloing at the same time on lead drums. There can be multiple players but if so, they would take turns. This system creates a fluidity and very musical form that is un chaotic.
I have noticed in drum circles that novices get excited when they hear a good player play lead. They will try and play at the same time. When I talk to these people after the session they inevitably say something to the effect of, “I was responding to you” or “I was playing off of your energy”. In my opinion it is usually too chaotic for players to express them selves at the same time and it does not sound good.
Everyone loves to play the djembe but in fact it is the dununba family of three double sided drums that make the melody and create the form which the djembe plays off of.
The best players in Africa all know this, and any great player will have trained extensively on the “dununs” or dununba as they are called and he will have to know the melody of each rhythm on the dununs 100% before he solos on that rhythm on djembe.
The name Dununba refers to a family of three drums as well as the name of the largest drum and also the name of a family of drum patterns and dances used traditionally in West Africa, Dununba is also the name of a party where Dununba is played and dancers come out and solo, or dance one at a time.
In Guinea Mali and Senegal, there are usually two to three dununs which create a melodic line or something seemingly simple which could be compared to a bass line in western funk music for example.
In the Dununba family there are three double sided drums played sideways (traditionally).The Kinkini is the highest double sided drum struck one side with a stick and also on the top where a bell is mounted. Like the basic accompaniment djembe parts in any west african traditional arrangement, the kinking always plays his or her part repetitively without any changes to the pattern. This is the mantra or meditative part of drumming. Repetition of a simple melodic beat.
“old masters” djembe music of Mali recording session in Mali
The Sangban or middle toned drum can have changes that react with and respond to the Dununba or lowest drum which has movements as well. The Sangban also has a bell on the top of it as does the Dununba or lowest pitched drum.
The Dununs also interact with the dancers which are always part of the equation as well. Durring the eshauffamn (“to heat up”) when the dancer is at his or her peak, the Dununs respond with specific calls and movements.
The Dundunba party is a community event where everyone gathers to enjoy and express themselves. Traditionaly in the past it was also used a s a way for people to work out their problems and even have dues or actual fights.
So as you can see, there is a combination of purpose or “intent”, (an event, a celebration or in the past even a fight), there is a formula or structure using the rhythm and there is interaction and communication between drummer and dancer sharing communal knowledge that has been passed down and expanded on by the current generation of musicians and dancers as well.
Another component can also be song or chants which further unites the drumming, dance and intention or purpose and makes the music a more holistic or 3 dimensional experience.
This is why the tradition has survived. It is a working formula that serves a purpose with in the community. As students of a traditional drum form we strive to learn correctly and fully to help carry on this tradition correctly as it has been taught to us.