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This is where you
can read about my personal
views and thoughts - especially on rhythmical
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Ever since I
first started playing the djembe in the early 90s I´ve
been drumming for African dance classes, performing with
local drum and dance groups and teaching a lot.
Rhythm and Dance have always been like two sides of
the same coin to me.
In the West African djembe tradition I find this unity perfectly
I was dancing before I started playing the djembe, and the
only agony I feel
about drumming and dancing is that I cannot do both at the
I´ve been working professionally with computer
networks, DTP and programming since 1985, and I am currently
involved in a number of internet projects (not drum related).
Computers are great tools, but they can also drive you
crazy from time to time.
Here´s my favourite video clip: "Bad
Day at the Office" (may take a while to open,
but it´s worth it!)
classes and playing for dance classes takes up most of my
time right now.
This means that all my pending web projects have been put
on hold for a while:
The notation project I´ve been working on recently
is to replace not only the "SHARE" site and the
"Notation Playback Rhythm Exchange", but also
the "Notation Playback" software itself.
It will include features like multiple parts playback with
CD-quality sound at any desirable tempo, easy-to-follow
animated handing instructions
and online notation interactivity.
You will probably see the first appearance of this before
long, as it will gradually take over the above mentioned
resources, one by one.
On the Origin of the Rhythms
It is always
useful and interesting to know the origin and context of
the African rhythms you play. However, in my books and CDs
I refrain from stating this for the following reasons:
- The tradition differs
from village to village, just as in any other kind of folk
music. Every villager will of course claim that their way
is the right way. When I get the context of a rhythm from
one source, there may be different contexts just as valid
from other sources that I don´t know about. Publishing
just one would be misleading.
- The traditional rhythms
are continously being "updated" by influential drummers;
they make variations of the traditional rhythms which are
then used in their performances and teachings. I´ve
been told "Yes, but we don´t play it like that nowadays",
when discussing the right way to play a certain traditional
rhythm with a couple of acknowledged West African teachers.
- My books and CDs are
made by a Westerner for other Westerners about playing the
djembe in the West. I find it more appropriate to leave
the deeper cultural and traditional aspects to West African
On the Use of Rhythm Notation
The African drum
tradition has always been passed on from master to student
without the use of a written language. Any use of rhythm
notation is therefore a violation of this tradition.
This does not mean that the traditional way of learning
is the only way or even the best way. But it is definitely
the only traditional way.
In my djembe classes over the years I have noticed that
there are at least three ways of learning. Some learn by
listening to the rhythm, some learn by doing the actual
movements, and some learn by watching the movements of the
teacher, visualising the rhythm or noting it down.
Most people seem to use a combination of these three, although
one of them is often the predominant and preferred way of
Rhythm notation is a great aid for anyone who is inclined
to learn visually (while it may be of very little use for
others). It also relieves your memory and helps you get
the rhythm right the next time you play. Notation can never
replace a good drum teacher, but it sure can replace a bad
On the use of Western Notation for West African Drum Rhythms
is used to describe Western musical traditions in writing.
It has evolved over the centuries to become the system that
is used today. Whatever we may think of it, it is in fact
the notation standard of our time.
One of the main features of Western notation is the bar,
which is always constituted of a strong (accented) part
and a weak (unaccented) part. This is also the main flaw
when using Western notation to describe African drum rhythms.
African drum rhythms are not put together in this way. Our
concept of bars simply does not apply. In fact, using Western
notation here would be highly misleading, because it implies
that the rhythm is supposed to be perceived and played with
the traditional Western accents.
I quote from professor Simha Arom´s book African
Polyphony and Polyrhythm:
"Let us have the courage to admit that our method of numbering
measures is a masterpiece of absurdity. It cannot be logically
defended, ... and its only explanation is to be found...
in the historical stages of its derivation."
"Western music has made do with this method as best
it could. But when a system of this kind is forced on African
music, the result can only be nonsense."
Professor Arom has spent more that 30 years of rhythm
research in Central Africa.
He found that:
In Central African music, the periodicity constitutes
the basis of temporal organisation. Each period is characterized
by an equal number of isochronous pulsations, which are
therefore essential for defining the boundaries of the period.
The polyphonic and polyrhythmic music of this region is
so structured that its component parts are usually assigned
different periodicities, which nevertheless always stand
in simple ratios to one another.
Under these conditions, the pulsation becomes more than
a mere marker. It takes on the role of temporal reference
unit, a common regulator which syncronises all parts and
consequently coordinates the superposition of their periods.
Professor Arom introduces the concept "minimal operational
value" as the shortest distinctive duration resulting
from a subdivision; all durations that are not identical
vith this value are necessarily multiples of it.
This minimal operational value is reflected in all box notation
systems, as well as in the Djembe Font notation system that
I use on this website and in my educational material.
However, as soon as we add a Western time signature to the
notation, we imply a Western perception of the rhythm that
will probably keep us from perceiving its true nature.
On Handing Instructions
I am sometimes
asked what handing to use for a particular djembe part.
The answer is always the same: It all depends on the tempo!
If you are playing at a high tempo (>150 bpm), you will
have to use the most efficient handing just to be able to
manage it, i.e. a handing that will involve the least possible
If you are playing at a low tempo (<80 bpm), you may
feel the need for some physical timing support in order
to be able to play it steadily, i.e. you may do better if
you play all the "ghost strokes" or "taps" to produce a
Between these two extremes there may be a traditional handing
that goes with the part that will make you play it with
the correct "feel".
The problem is that the handing itself won´t make you
play it correct - it can only be of
assistance to any "feel" you manage to grasp. Instead, you
should make sure that you are familiar with all the different
handings that are possible to use for each part.
My general view is that if you can make it sound right no
matter what handing you use,
you´re on the right track! Therefore,
I very rarely include any handing instructions along with
the notation of rhythms.
I would finally
like to acknowledge my drum teachers over the years (chronologically):
Poe Jatta, Lamine "Dibo" Camara, N´Fanly "Alya"
Camara, Miguel Camara, Mamadou Lamine Sow, Stefan Sorey
Holm, Sal Dibba, Inger Olevik, Ayi Solomon, Sayo Bangura,
Ousmane Sylla, Soriba Touré, John Jatta, Theodore
Awuletey, Arafan Touré, Badi Bangoura, Alasan Camara,
Amadou Kienou and Mamadou Kienou.