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About West African Drumming:

Here's an article about West African drumming I wrote for my students some years ago:

About West African Drumming

The djembe* has become one of the most widely played and appreciated hand drums worldwide, appearing in everything from North American folk and rock, jazz worldwide, and 'world beat'. Traditionally, it is a drum of the Malinke people (also sometimes called Mandinka or Mandingue), who dominated the area of eastern Guinea, southern Mali and other bordering regions from about the 9th to the 16th centuries. The djembe is traditionally played as part of an ensemble along with the dununs-bass drums struck with sticks and typically featuring a bell attached to the side which is played simultaneously. A typical ensemble may feature two djembe players, each playing different patterns, a lead djembe player, who plays the signals and is the soloist, and three dunun players, playing the three dununs with their bells: kenkeni, sangban and dununba (ordered from highest to lowest tone). Early village forms may have featured only one dunun, one support djembe and a lead/soloist. Modern forms have been created through the so-called "National Ballet" troupes, which formed in Guinea and other West African countries after their liberation from France, and these often feature many djembe players (though usually only playing two support patterns) and a single 'composite' dunun player who plays all three dununs together in an upright position (rather than the traditional horizontal position) which allows the bell to be played simultaneously. The ballet schools have often taken the traditional rhythms and changed them somewhat for performance purposes, especially since they tend to play at lightning speed (as the dancers are highly athletic), instead of the slower village style, which permits everyone in the village, young and old, to participate.

The role of djeli, or master drummer, was highly respected in Mandinke life. Music, singing and dance forms a part of virtually every activity in their culture from common work routines of planting and harvesting, hunting, and fishing, to yearly festivals and special rituals, including marriage, circumcision and so forth. There are many who may call themselves "master drummer" today, but a traditional master drummer is one who knows all the village's rhythms on all instruments, the particular purpose and time that they should be played, the dances which accompany them, and any other rituals and tales surrounding them, as well as their history. Today, there are only six master drummers recognized in Guinea, the best known of which are Mamady Keita and Famadou Konate.

This music is polyrhythmic (or polymetric), meaning that each drum in the ensemble will be playing a different rhythmic pattern, and the interweaving of those patterns creates a complex overall sound that is highly engaging. Note that in the most complex varieties of this music, the metrical structure will blend bimetric (two beat count) and trimetric (three beat count) patterns, and vary (or 'swing') their "feel" in such a fashion that it is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately portray them through written notation. By no means is all this music so complex, but the quality of this polymetric "feel" has been highly influential to jazz music in the modern world.

So how did this music and its instruments, particularly the djembe, make its way into North America? The answer starts with the slave trade, which brought huge numbers of African peoples, many of them Malinke, into the new world from West Africa. In North America, their culture was largely suppressed, though you cannot remove music from the human heart without destroying it. Thus, it survived only in greatly simplified form, as blues and roots music, with its later offshoots in jazz, rock-and-roll, soul and so forth. For example, the well-known blues 'shuffle' is a direct descendant of certain varieties of West African music, incorporating the "two against three feel" mentioned above. In South and Central America and the Caribbean, being held as colonies by the Catholic countries of Spain and Portugal, the music was not suppressed so strongly, inasmuch as they sought to convert the people and saw this as a means of facilitating their acceptance of Christianity. As a result there are numerous musical forms from these regions that maintain much more strongly their West African roots: Afro-Cuban music, Samba from Brazil, and Cumbia from Colombia as examples, all of which frequently feature that very strong off-beat feel and polyrhythmic complexity.

The first person to bring the traditional form of West African percussion back into North America, and so to the world, was Babatunde Olatunji. He grew up in a small village in Nigeria, and was sent in 1950 to study political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia-Martin Luther King's alma mater. There he met many African Americans who, in the heady days of the civil rights movement, were keen on learning about their heritage. He taught them the techniques and rhythms of his village, and in 1959 recorded his first album: "Drums of Passion." So different was this music from anything recorded at the time, that it became a huge hit and influenced an entire generation of musicians, especially in the genre of jazz. Time magazine, in their end-of-the-20th-century issue chose this one album as the most influential music of the century. From this, and the many students and protégés of Baba, a burgeoning fascination with West African music was born that now encircles the globe from Australia to Canada to Belgiun and Japan.

Today, there are many teachers of this musical style, premiere among them Mamady and Famadou, who are strong proponents of the traditional style and have made a mission of bringing it in its purest form, along with the traditional knowledge, into the world at large. It is worth a word of warning that not all teachers are so knowledgeable and a good deal of alteration, through ignorance or simply the permutations that occur through successive passings-on of the rhythms and dances, have occurred, and few but the true master drummers can claim certain knowledge of the tradition. This is not to say that others cannot, or should not, teach and learn, but that it is best if they are clear on their understandings, limitations and sources. After all, the music is intended to bring together the people in happiness and harmony, and everyone can find something of this in the process of learning about and playing this wonderful and exciting music.


* Since West Africa was colonized by the French and had no written form of the indigenous languages, many of the words are transliterated into French spellings (orthography). Hence the 'd' in djembe. Also, variant spellings are common, as in 'jembe,' 'dounoun,' and 'doundoun,' which reflect different people doing the transliteration as well as the fact that they may have taken the words from different ethnic or cultural groups. Djembe is pronounced with the 'd' silent and the final 'e' is the syllable 'ey.' In dunun and its variants, the 'u' (or 'ou') is 'oo' as in 'boot.'

© 2004, Daniel A. Brock







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