African Drum Rhythms: Chp 1 (excerpt)

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When people talk about African drums today, they often mean the Djembe. From its traditional home in West African countries like Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Gambia, the djembe is now spreading all over the world more rapidly than any other African hand drum.

Its deep bass and distinct slaps and tones reach deep down into our inner being, and whether we are drumming, dancing or just listening, we cannot escape being affected by the pulsating rhythm. Maybe something within us all is brought to life – the need for rhythm and movement to feel complete. A feeling that connects us with our origin, whatever that may be.

In all societies known to man rhythm has played a very significant part, with its magical and healing qualities. Whether you believe it´s the drum spirit or body endorphins that cause the healing, it is a fact that drum rhythms affect us physically.

Why the djembe?

There may be a number of reasons why the djembe of all hand drums has become so popular. It might be the very sound of the djembe that appeals to us, but it may also be the African rhythms that are played on the djembe that entice us. Maybe it is the discovery that just a few drums are enough to make the dance floor really cook? Or perhaps it´s because you can make music with it right from the start, and yet continue to develop your drumming skills indefinitely?

Whatever the answer is, the fact is that the djembe seems to be just as enticing for men and women, for young and old, for Africans and non-Africans. Listening to a group of drummers playing African rhythms is an experience that leaves nobody unmoved!

But to call what is performed by a group of djembe players "African drum rhythms" is like describing an organ piece by Bach as "European keyboard music". It´s not untrue, but it certainly does not say that much about the music nor the instrument.

African drums come in all conceivable shapes, with or without various kinds of skin – drums with no skin may have long slits in the trunk instead. There are drums with one, two, three or more tones, which are played with large or small sticks, hands, or both. There are drums which are put together in a cluster, each having a different pitch. There are even drums whose pitch can be modified while being played!

As we become more familiar with the vast range of African drums we will have to be more specific when we talk about them. For the time being, however, the concept African drums will probably continue to be synonymous with the drums of the West African djembe tradition to many people.

Linguistic confusion

Since there is no written language in the West African tradition, the language usage regarding drums, rhythms, dances and songs can be very confusing – to say the least.

To begin with, the same kind of drum may have different names in different parts of West Africa. The spelling and pronunciation of a name may also vary depending on who is writing or pronouncing it. As for the rhythms, it gets even more complicated. The same rhythm can not only have different names in different regions, but different rhythms can also have the same name!

This may cause problems when communicating with someone who has been taught a different name, a different pronunciation or a different spelling than you. You should therefore keep in mind that the names and spellings used in this book are definitely not the only ones used in African drum communities.

New traditions

This book deals with the kind of African drumming taking place at African drum and dance courses around the Western world, i.e. ensemble drumming with predominantly djembes, traditional bass drums and bells.

This is of course by no means representative of the drumming occurring all around the African continent, but could rather be described as a simplified version of a drumming tradition that is continuously being developed in the larger cities of West Africa.

At the cutting edge of this development are the drummers of the West African national dance companies, often considered to be the most skilled drummers of each country. Together with the most skilled dancers of each country they make up a number of drum and dance companies, which not only preserve but also renew a kind of tradition that can be found in all parts of Africa – a tradition that is known by the name "ngoma" in many African languages.

This word means drums, dance and song – as something inseparable. The three are simply not regarded as separate, but rather as one unified activity.

You can read more about African culture and tradition in the chapter Ngoma in the Drum Culture section of this book.

A drummer´s ABC

What is dealt with in this book is of course limited to what is possible to pass on in writing. In the realm of rhythm there are no boundaries and the deeper you delve into it, the more there is to learn.

The advanced art of drumming including solos, improvisation, creative phrasing and microtiming is better taught personally by a master drummer. Certain things are so subtle that you learn them best by just being around to experience them. To accompany a master drummer is one of the most beneficial things you can do to develop your own ability as a djembe player!

As a beginner, however, you may be satisfied by just learning the basics of African drumming. And that is where this book comes in handy. It can be regarded as a drummer´s ABC, since it deals with the rhythmic basics not only of African drum rhythms, but also of many other kinds of rhythms.

The presentation of the African drum rhythms in the rhythm section of this book is arranged in a way that will make it easy for the reader to observe similarities and differences between various parts, to facillitate a better understanding of how they are structured.

For those who would rather use the book as an ordinary drum course in which you go through a number of parts that are intended to be played together, there is a Rhythm Index at the end of the book. An even better alternative is to use the set of Practice CDs that is also presented in a subsection of its own.

The rhythms in this book are intended for djembes, bass drums and iron bells, but may of course also be played on other percussion instruments. The single toned rhythms may be played on any percussion instrument – you can even use handclaps for those rhythms. The two toned rhythms require a two toned instrument – or two single toned instruments with different pitches. The three toned rhythms are the only ones actually requiring you to have a djembe – or some other three-toned percussion instrument.

The three enclosed Examples CDs contain sound tracks of all examples and exercises in the book. By each example in book there is a CD number (1-3) and a track number (1-99) for convenient matching of the book and the CDs. Correspondingly, each CD sleeve has a reference to the sections, chapters and subsections involved.

Most of the parts in the Drum Rhythms section of the book are played at learning tempo on the Examples CDs; i.e. about half the normal tempo.

The book is purposely printed with relatively large fonts to make it possible to read it at some distance while playing a part on your drum at the same time.



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