Wednesday, August 25, 2004

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.

I agree. In Africa, it seems that the tempo of the music is always set with the dancer in mind. The music slows down or speeds up based on the individual who is dancing, not because the spectators need more stimulation. It seems that more of an emphasis needs to be placed on learning how to relax while playing the Jembe, with relaxation comes speed and endurance. Relaxing, breathing, and good posture while playing Jembe needs to be learnt before trying to develop hand speed and strength. The funny thing is that those same westerners who are not easily stimulated have the opposite problem of not being able to relax, in turn they sometimes injure themselves and also suffer from poor performance. All of the African drum masters I know seem very relaxed while playing, but they can’t seem to give any good advise on how to relax.
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