In all my years playing, studying and teaching West African rhythms and percussion I have always come across an interesting and challenging situation. It is really hard to find people, that is to say djembe players, other fellow percussionists or drum students who want to learn the dunun patterns, individual traditional dunun parts and or ballet arrangements on 2 or 3 dununs or more. dununs are also known as djun djuns, doun douns or doun nouns.
If you do not know what dununs are I will tell you about them now. They are the double sided drums hit with a stick on one side. The top of the drum has a bell and you hit that with your second striker, stick or “dinger” as some people call it. They are played in a set of three in Guinee and 2 (or 3) in Mali and Senegal as well.
There are three dununs in the dunun family. The kinkini (konkoni in Mali) which is the smallest and highest pitched drum. The sangban is the middle drum, slightly larger and lower in tone and the dununba is the lowest and the “mother drum” if you will.
The kinikini always plays the same part through out the drum piece with out changing. It is the metronome or mantra that repeats with out change.
The Dununba and sangban can hold their parts steady but they can also converse with each other which means that their parts actual move or have movements.
The dununs set up the foundation for the arrangement in west african djembe music. They set up the base line and melody as well. Many times in west african drumming music the accompaniment parts or the “passport part”s (basic djembe hand patterns) play a part that does not change through out the entirety of the piece.
But the dunun parts and arrangements are always different. Therefore, it is the dunun parts and arrangements that differentiate the pieces from one an other and give each different piece or drum arrangement it’s unique character and flavor.
With out the dunun arrangement you do not have a musical piece. It’s like a funk band with out the bass and key board. You have guitarist soling and maybe rhythm but it would be awful! So you can see that playing the dununs are an important part of west african drumming and djembe music.
So the dununs set up the melody and rhythm for the djembes. The djembes also hold steady parts with out change. This formation or structure creates a beautiful melody and arrangement for singers, dancers and the soloist as well. It is a less is more type of situation where there is space left over for the soloist to weave around, to play on top of and to accentuate the dancers steps, which is the job of the soloist in traditional djembe music.
So what is a drum or djembe solo in traditional west african drumming music? I will tell you by first telling you what it is not. It is not someone going wild, hands flailing and just playing anything they want randomly, even though it may appear like that to the untrained ear or eye at first.
A djembe solo can also more acurately be called “the lead” and is played by the “lead drummer” in a traditional drumming ensemble. This holds true in any west african derived drumming music be it djembe or drumming music from other parts of west africa such as Nigerian Bata or traditional Ewe music from Ghana for example.
The lead is based on traditional phrases or drum language. Traditionaly the solo language actually came from the Melinke language from west africa. The “talking drum” so to speak. Each djembe piece or drum arrangement has different traditional solo phrases or djembe solo “techniques” which are the themes based on groups of phrases or patterns. The lead player interacts with the dancer acenting steps and also weaves in and out of the arrangement, pushing and pulling time. The lead player also adds his or her own creativity into the mix as well.
The soloist must know all the dunun parts and all the djembe parts to the piece he is playing lead or solo. So therefore, the soloist or lead drummer needs to be the most knowledgable person in the group. That is not to say that the other people should not try soloing or that in your group only the teacher should play solo. Everybody can try at any level.
But you need to learn to crawl before you walk, walk before you run. So learn the complete rhythm first before worrying about soloing or playing the lead. And when you are holding the basic djembe accompaniment parts pay attention to the dununs and other players. Look at the other players and watch the dununs as well if you can.
If you find yourself getting bored and do not know why, often it is because you are simply not paying attention to the other players or parts. Always keep you focus and eyesite inward rather then away from the other drummers.
If you study and know or at least can hear the other parts you will never get bored. Drumming takes surrender, so forget about your need to solo or express yourself and let the part you are playing support the whole or the team. The rhythm is only as strong as the weakest drummer.
And if you are playing traditional arrangements even playing the most basic parts correctly can be gratifying, enriching, supportive and challenging because of all the push and pull involved in the interaction of the basic parts. If you surrender and leave your ego at the door you can have a great time simply holding basic parts! I know I do.
When I used to play for west african dance class in San Francisco there was drummer who would come to class and always say, ” I want to play”, or complain, “I didn’t get a chance to play”. But what she was referring to was soloing or playing the lead. She equated “playing” with playing the solo djembe parts. I always explained that she was “playing” while she was holding the parts but she never got it.
If you do not feel the groove while you play basic parts on djembe or dununs and get into the music while you are learning how to play west african djembe music you will never learn how to play the solo parts correctly. It is all based and built on each other like a pyramid or stone wall , one brick on top of another.
I think that people are first attracted to the djembe after seeing someone solo on it. It is powerful and provocative and we all feel that and are attracted to that! And it is really fun to play and solo on. Soloing means being creative. But it is not playing whatever you want with out rhyme or reason.
Here is an example of Ballet style dununs (Sangban and Dunun played up right with the kinkni on a stand sideways). Click on the brown link below to watch the video:
Learn to play the dunun parts first or at the same time you study and learn basic djembe drumming. Please volunteer to play the basic djembe parts as well. By learning basics you will be building a strong foundation for your own playing and you will also be supporting the music as a whole.