Friday, August 27, 2004

Don't Tell the Master to Wipe Your Ass

Never judge a person before you know them. I have heard so many incredible stories from Abdoulaye regarding embarrassing incidents where people have misjudged a person before knowing them. I have seen for myself students within the djembe community disregarding and disrespecting other students whom they have predetermined do not know anything. This is a very dangerous mistake. Always give a stranger complete respect and acknowledgement. You never know who that stranger may be. The stranger can know more than you. The stranger may be your teacher.

GOOD NEWS! You'll Never Know the Djembe!

Absolutely. It is nice to know that our studies of this drum and African culture have no end. This means that if you are having fun now in your studies, the fun will just increase forever as you get better and better, little by little. This truly is good news.

Some students get discouraged when they discover that learning the djembe is not going to be an overnight process. The djembe is just like any other musical instrument – like the piano, drum kit or the violin. It is extremely complicated and there is A LOT to learn. I can’t understand why people will approach an instrument like the guitar as a serious study which will require years of daily hourly practice exercises and studying but cannot consider that the djembe could deserve that same amount of attention. The djembe is a complex musical instrument on a par with any other. The more I study, the more I realize this. But rather than being discouraged by this fact, I am excited. I am excited because I am having fun now and look forward to having more and more fun as I grow older and wiser through the djembe.

1 Drummer, 2 Drummers, 3 Drummers MORE?

How many drummers make a good ensemble? 3 djembes and 2 dunun players? Hmmm… How about 4 Djembe accompaniments and 1 soloist and one dunun player who can play really well?

Determining how many drummers can play in a dance class can be a difficult issue. Some people prefer that beginners do not play and only the advanced drummers can play. They set an upper limit of djembe players, say 3 or 4 maximum. This can work at the expense of trampling on the ambitions and desires of the novice drummers.

My teacher once told me that he can play with a large group of drummers at all mixed levels. He can have 4 or 5 beginners playing accompaniment and 1 advanced student playing accompaniment. He said that he would only pay attention to the clean accompaniment, even if he had only one. He would play with that accompaniment and completely ignore the quieter out of synch accompaniments of the beginners. He said that way the beginners get the chance to have the experience drumming with the advance students which can inspire them in their studies. He told me that a master needs to have this skill – selective hearing. All he needs is one good accompaniment and the ability to tune out the rest. Like in Zen Buddhism, the Buddha can be in a peaceful state of meditation in the middle of downtown Manhattan. It is important for the djembe player to transcend and not be bothered by “the small stuff”.

Is It My Turn to Solo Yet?

My teacher always emphasizes the value of good accompaniment. Accompaniment is number one. If a djembe player cannot play really good accompaniment solo is not possible. All good soloists have exceptionally good sounding accompaniments. Theoretically one should be able to recognize a Master djembe player from the sound of his accompaniment only. One should temper ones soloing ambitions on a rhythm if one doesn’t have the accompaniment clean yet.

So many people these days are so eager to play solo that they want to skip accompaniment. I have played with people so many times where they played a weak and cheap accompaniment just so they could save their energy to solo. When you play accompaniment you should put your heart and soul into it. If you do this the soloist will have the support he needs to play well. If you give the soloist this respect he will give you the respect of a good accompaniment when it is your turn to solo. We should all be supporting each other and not be so anxious to solo. We cannot be like the man who wants so badly to run that he cannot tie his shoes. Do not be jealous of another djembe players soloing. If someone is soloing well, be happy and enjoy it – that’s what it’s all about.

Abdoulaye has told me that if someone really can’t control themselves and they just want to solo, he lets them go. This is his chance to relax and enjoy playing a sweet accompaniment. When they are finished they will come back down to earth and then he can have a chance to solo himself. A master will never fight for the chance to solo because he simply has nothing to prove. Bitter competition and jealously has no place with the djembe. Masters do not compete, they joke and have fun with each other.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

The Djembe is My Religion

Why not? Everything that I have learned from the Religions of the world I have found within the djembe. Treat people kindly – the djembe taught me this. Respect others as you would yourself – the djembe taught me this. Though shall not kill – the djembe taught me this. Respect your elders and your family – the djembe taught me this. Don’t abuse or poison your body – the djembe taught me this. Be honest with people – the djembe taught me this. If I choose to follow the path of the djembe, I am in a sense choosing to follow a religious/spiritual path. There is no doubt about this.

The djembe draws one to evolve spiritually just as any Religion does. Isn’t it great that the drum we all love and enjoy to play keeps us on the spiritual path by its very nature?

There is only one Mande

Many people in the djembe community are talking about “Guinea Style”, “Mali Style”, “Senegalese Style”, etc. It seems that separation has arisen in our community through an overemphasis on regional differences. We need to remember that this music is “Mande Style” in the end. Everything came from Mande. Guinea, Mali and Senegal were all part of Mande. My teacher, Abdoulaye Diakite, has been emphasizing this point lately because of a growing division in the community based on what country style you study.

Djembe is one. Differences in rhythms result from the traveling of peoples and cultures. Each rhythm has its own history and place of origin. It is important to discover the complete story of each rhythm and understand how it has evolved through its different travels and different tribal integrations. This stuff can seem pretty complicated at times, but it is important for us to remain calmly on the path continuously open minded and forever learning.

The djembe is the drum of unity. Its purpose is to unite people in happiness and harmonious community. This is why it’s old Bamana name is “Jebebara”- “Unity Drum”. Division has no place inside the djembe. The djembe welcomes all.

The Difference between Soko, Sogo, Sojo and Soho

There is a lot of confusion in the djembe community surrounding rhythms called by slightly different names or rhythms with the same name with a slightly different rhythmic structure. There are a lot of different dynamics contributing to this issue.

Firstly, some name differences are on account of different tribal accents. For example, the Malinke say, “Soboninkun” whereas the Bamana say, “Sogoninkun”. This is the same rhythm just a different accent. The confusion arises when people conclude that the rhythms are different because of the name difference.

There are also many variations of the same rhythm under the same name across different areas of West Africa and across different ethnic groups. This does not mean that the rhythm is “different” in an "all or nothing" sense. It simply means that the different tribe or area has placed their own accent or style on the rhythm. The fundamental rhythmic essence should remain.

In the West, we tend to take a reductionistic approach to everything we encounter. We break down the rhythms to their intricate details while losing sight of the gestault whole. Africans tend to see gestault connectivities between rhythms and cultures where as we tend to point out and get confused over the differences in the details. In general, I believe it is better to try to focus on the commonalities between the same rhythms played in various areas or by various tribes rather than having our understanding blocked by perceived discrepancies. When in doubt as to whether a rhythm played in a slightly different way or called by a slightly different name is the same, often times the dance step will help to determine similarity of origin.

Djembe Friends are My Best Friends

My best friends have come through associations within my studies of the djembe. I have met so many wonderful people since I have started drumming. It seems to me that the type of person drawn to the djembe usually has a lot in common with me in many other ways and in many other interests. Often times, if I and one of my djembe friends reflect on our past interests there tends to be a huge overlap. I hear the same list of interests over and over again. Here is a sample of some of the interests that tend to be common to those interested in djembe drumming or dancing: Eastern Religion/Spirituality, Herbal Medicine, Astrology, World Music, New Wave/Punk/Hardcore Music (interest from past), skateboarding (from the past), didgeridoo, liberal politics and this list can go on and on. It really tells me that a particular type of open minded person tends to be interested in the djembe and its culture.

My teacher told me that all the djembe players in Tambacounda used to hang out together. Most of the time they hung out at my teacher’s compound. Anytime my teacher’s teacher was looking for a drummer for a ceremony or event he could usually find them all hanging out with Abdoulaye at his compound. Abdoulaye told me many nights they would all sleep on the floor in one room. They would just hang out until they were too tired and then simply crash on the floor together. This is the power of comradery that the djembe brings.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The “Other Dimension” of the Djembe

The djembe has the power to transport people to other dimensions, or at least that’s what it seems to me. I have played many times with my teacher and his soloing and the sound of the combined rhythmic structure took me to another place. This is, in a sense, the reason I am so interested in the djembe. It’s these experiences that keep me coming back for more and more.

The sound of the djembe itself is so powerful and mystic. I really don’t know how to explain fully. The sound of a master’s hand on the drum can uplift one’s spirits and transport one to a magical place that only the djembe can bring. I often consider the significance of this. Why does this drum have this power? What is so special about the djembe? I know from the sound of the djembe that there must be something deeper behind it. The djembe’s sound is truly a spirit sound. It conjures up feelings of knowledge, power, spirit, God, other realities, ancient times, lightening, thunder and a multitude of other thoughts and feelings that are difficult for me to put into words.

The djembe sound is similar to the Islamic “call to prayer”. The sound is so beautiful, deep and amazing that everyone is drawn to it with the unique feeling that something incredible must be behind it.

The “Ripping” and “Shredding” of Traditional Djembe

People play djembe for a variety of reasons. Some play for fun. Some play because they want to show off. Some play to attract a mate. Some play because they just love the sound. The fact is, the djembe is a very powerful drum with a deep and mysterious history. Many people are hitting the djembe these days but very few are actually playing.

The masters talk about the difference between speaking with the djembe and just making noise. Anybody can get excited upon hearing the powerful arrangement an ensemble of djembe accompaniments with dunun can make. Many will release this excitement in a wild solo without any clear direction. People often describe these type of soloists as “rippers” or “shredders”. This type of soloing is in direct contrast with the tradition of djembe playing. This “shredding” solo style has arisen out of the many ballets and performance groups as they tried to impress non-African audiences.

Africans themselves, especially older generation Africans, are more impressed by soloing that actually “speaks”. What does this mean? Well, in some cases it actually means that the soloist is actually knowledgeable enough to actually be speaking specific Bamana sentences with the particular solo phrasing. Other times, “speaking” simply means that the soloist is communicating and talking with the rhythm. In other words, the soloist is placing his/her solo in certain prescribed locations dictated by the structure of the rhythm being played. This is what Africans mean by “traditional soloing”.

Many Westerners claim to be learning traditional solo by simply glueing rigidly structured phrases one after another or at will when they want to show that they know some traditional solos. This cut and paste approach to traditional djembe soloing always fails. It is awkward and doesn’t have any flow to it. Each rhythm has its own language and linguistics. It is important for the serious student to explore this concept and try to learn the unique language of each djembe rhythm. Only then can the solo be complete and whole.

The Need for Speed

In the past, speed was only one skill or facet of being a good djembe player. Today it has become one of the most important criteria for judgment of a djembe player. Most rhythms today are played much faster than they were in the past. Traditionally, all drumming begins with singing first. The drummers slowly blend into the rhythmic structure of the singing. Little by little the spirit of the rhythm builds until the rhythm picks up tempo and the dancing begins.

Today, especially in the West, we begin rhythms with a “break” and immediately begin drumming at an accelerated tempo. This does not allow for the building of mood or feel - spirit. This is why many times the drumming can only go so far. My teacher told me that with the djembe you must always “knock at the door” first before entering into a rhythm. No one likes when a stranger barges into your home without knocking. The same is true for the djembe. It is important to build the spirit through a gradual progression from song, to slow drumming and then to a higher tempo.

Speed and strength have become the new code words defining a good djembe drummer. I believe much of this has come from the “wow factor” that makes so much money in a Western world of excess. It is hard to shock a Western audience these days. National Ballets and Dance companies from West Africa were forced to play harder and faster. This is what Western audiences wanted – this is what made money. Talent and musicality had taken a back seat to speed and muscles. Thus began the Diaspora of the djembe into the Western world. This was our model and the model for future djembe teachers going to America and Europe in search of money for their families.

Djembe too has become yet another commodity in a modern world of ever increasing commodities and goods for sale. In the business world, quality is not the issue, the bottom line is what sells. If we are willing to eat shit, there will always be someone ready to sell it to us.

Humility - #1 Criterion for Djembe Master

A true djembe master is humble. I have never met a master drummer who was not humble. I have met good drummers who were arrogant but never a master. To get to the level of being a djembe master you have to be humble, kind and respectful to everyone. A master has to open his heart to all people and life. This is a very important piece of information for anyone on the spiritual path of djembe drumming. You cannot play the djembe well without opening your heart. All of the masters will acknowledge this fact. Some people may feel this is a nice idea but in reality it all comes down to raw talent and how many hours you put into the practice of the drum. I beg to differ here.

I have never met a djembe player with a bad attitude who I can consider to be a master drummer. I truly believe this to be an impossibility. The djembe is a “clean” drum. The spirit of the djembe is clean. One cannot play djembe well without the spirit. The spirit will never come into a dirty vessel. If you are truly a good person and you are kind with everyone – you have a chance to be a master djembe player. All that is left is that you dig for the truth, study and practice a lot. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is. God made different colors because variety is beautiful – look at the rainbow. The djembe is a drum of Unity not separation. It brings people together in friendship, happiness and healing. This is the power of the djembe that truly attracts people.

Masters are humble. People should all recognize this fact. It is not just a “nice” quality of a djembe player, it is a requirement. Negativity and bad feelings have no place inside the djembe. My teacher always tells us that if you have some sadness or anger about something, you must always drop that when you sit down to drum or stand up to dance. After you are done drumming you can go back again to your problems. Don’t disrespect the djembe by bringing your negativity inside a drum which is by nature clean and peaceful.

How Much Money Does Wisdom Cost?

How much money do you have to pay a master to teach djembe? If you paid the master $100 for an hour long private class should you get more than if you paid him $30? Can knowledge of the djembe be bought?

Djembe knowledge can only be passed from Master to student through respect. The Master respects the student who respects him. Master djembe players can see what a students real intentions are and they also observe how their students treat others. A Master will purposely hold information from a student who in not clean.

Abdoulaye told me about a French djembe student who came to Tambacounda, Senegal to study with “Abdoulaye Diakite”. He came up to Abdoulaye and threw a wad of Sefa’s (Senegalese money) at Abdoulaye and told him he wanted private classes. Abdoulaye told him he didn’t want his money and he is not teaching. It is not about the money. It is about respect. Real Masters are looking for students who have open hearts and respect other people. They are looking for long term students, not short term ones looking for “some new licks”.

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