Sunday, December 23, 2007

Another RI drum circle

The place I have been dropping in for classes also offers a drum circle on the 4th Saturday of the month.

Last night I checked it out.

Drum circles, in general, are a completely different vibe from classes. It is a sort of free flowing thing where someone starts a rhythm and as you feel drawn to, you jump in. At Free Spirit, in Warren, the atmosphere is very subdued. The lights are dim, there is a ton of incense. The space is intimate and quiet, with candles set up in a sort of altar in the middle of the floor. There is a good selection of drums to borrow, but of course, I brought mine.

I would say, at this point, that there are definitely things I like about playing in a drum circle. It is wonderful practice to just relax and let myself find a rhythm. I worked several of my African rhythms in and it was a lot of fun to see how they could fit into someone else's starting point. It was great to play for long periods, too. At one point the rhythm was very fast and hard and I was playing fast and hard, too, for quite a long time. It was good and sweaty. This morning, in fact, I woke up sore! I also liked that at one point I felt comfortable trying a little solo action and I think it worked just fine. I also tried playing one of the Sounou parts on the duns and that was a fun (and very different) experience.

What I don't like about drumming circles is that there seems to be very little interaction between the players. Especially at the one last night, everyone pretty much spaces out to their own thing. Their eyes are closed and they are off in their own worlds. The sounds played together, but there was no interaction between us, which is a HUGE contrast to what it is like to play in a class with my African teacher. In Africa, the drums are all about bringing people together. With Sidy, we are smiling and nodding and grooving together in the class and totally having a ball with each other. I admit that I really missed that aspect of playing last night. I felt very solitary, even in a room with 9 or 10 other people. I wonder if it is partly because I am new to the group?

In any case, at the end of the evening, I was glad I got a chance to play and will likely go back next month.

The details:

Check out the website for more info-

Free Spirit

4th Saturday of the month
8pm to 1am
Warren RI.

See you there!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A good teacher

Here's the thing about playing with a great djembe player. It forces you to play better than you would otherwise. I have noticed, lately, that while practicing I am not able to hold the rhythm as well as when I play in class or with my teacher. Something happens when playing with others that sort of forces me to hold up my end of the djembe conversation.

I think part of it is that my teacher uses my rhythm to create a structure for his solos. He plays in and out and around my accompaniment. He is good enough that he could do this even if I completely bomb. But when I don't bomb, it is incredibly thrilling to play together in that way.

It has helped to record myself playing. Then I can hear just how wobbly I sound and work to correct it. But that still doesn't substitute for playing with a good teacher.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Snow! Sleet! Rain!

I had a previous engagement today, so I was going to have to miss going to Warren and sitting in on the class there. But, YES! The party got postponed. But NO. The class got canceled too.

Sigh. I am such a drumming junky I was willing to drive through horrendous winter weather in order to sit with fellow skin addicts and play for an hour and a half.

As it is, I have found a fun little program for practicing. Audacity is a freeware audio program that lets you record and edit separate tracks. Since I am using a set of headphones with a mic attached, I can record layers of tracks on top of one another. Which means I can lay down an accompaniment rhythm and then solo over it and hear what it sounds like. This is GREAT fun.

Perhaps I'll work on some today and upload it for your listening pleasure. Scared? You should be!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

When I play my drum

the smell of the goatskin gets stronger. Afterwards, my hands smell like the skin. I love that.

I found out that Famoudou Konate will be teaching a workshop in Boston this coming June. I think I will sign up. It will be a bit intense having to commute from RI since the class gets out at 10pm.... but I think it will be amazing to work with him. And fun to be in a class with people who are all better than me!

I miss my classes today.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Plays well with others

Yesterday I went to a drumming class with my friend Vera. She has been going for several months to a class in Warren, RI. The teacher is an American. There were 5 of us students. It was a very different vibe from what I am used to with Sidy.

First, the pace was very laid back. The class is scheduled for an hour and a half, but apparently usually goes on for much longer. We spent lots of time just sitting between playing. Chilling, I think, would be the technical term. The structure of the class was that we worked on a single piece and learned the parts for djembe 1 and 2, plus the dunun and bell. Then, when we were able to keep that going for awhile, the teacher played some solo phrases.

For me, it was a good challenge because it is normally hard for me to pick up a new rhythm the first time I try it. Since these were accompaniment parts,they were simpler than what I usually do with Sidy... so within a few minutes I was able to play them. At one point, I was playing the djembe 2 part on my own, while the teacher played the duns and the other students played djembe 1. I was excited that I could get back on track when I messed it up a couple of times. I just picked it right back up.

I even tried the dunun at one point... but chickened out when it came to actually holding the rhythm for the whole class. I just didn't feel comfortable with it yet. Maybe next time!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Dansa Rhythms

For folks taking Sidy's class, I thought I would try and upload the Dansa rhythms. This is a very low quality recording done on an Olympus digital recorder. But it will help you remember the rhythms! This is Sidy playing.

Calling Mali 101

So, lets say you want to call your drumming teacher in Bamako to tell him all about your tones and slaps, but don't want to spend the $4.50 per minute it usually costs? What do you do?

You download Skype and call from your computer for about .27 per minute.

Over on the Djembefola forum, James turned me on to Skype and I have to say, it rocks. I tried it this morning and it worked perfectly.

I told my husband about it and he was very skeptical because the last time he was in Vietnam, the internet phone service was patchy and had a pronounced delay, which made conversations awkward. But today, calling Sidy, it sounded great. No delay and very little noise on the line. The download is free and the calls to other Skype members are free too. To call other phones varies depending on where you are calling... but to call Mali today was about $2.75 for 10 minutes.

I'll try it with Vietnam next and report back!

OK. Back to practicing my tones and slaps.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

News from Bamako

Got a brief call from Sidy today. He arrived safely after 2 days of travel and is home with the family. It sounds like all is well. I was happy to hear from him!

I have been working on my tones and slaps for the Sounou accompaniment. I can definitely play them differently... the trick is to teach my hands to do it without having to overthink it too much. The minute I focus in, I get lost in the midst of it and screw it up. I think, as I learn new pieces, I will try and play the slaps and tones right from the beginning, rather than just playing the generic 'non-bass' edge hits. It will be harder in the beginning, but in the long run, much better.

On Sunday evening we are having an informal drum circle at Grace church. I am looking forward to it. I am already going through major withdrawals and I haven't even officially missed a class yet.

Speaking of Grace, if you are in RI, come to one of our Wednesday evening services. They are beautiful. We sing and pray in candlelight and then share the Lord's supper together. The service starts at 6:30 and goes for about 45 minutes. Corner of Matthewson and Westminster in Providence. Look for the priest standing outside. He'll invite you in!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

I don't want to work

I don't want to work
I want to bang on the drum all day
I don't want to play
I just want to bang on the drum all day

Todd Rundgren

I confessed to my friend Kathie that I am having a hard time motivating myself to work, lately. All I want to do is play my drum, take drum classes, play my drum some more. And maybe write about it all on my blog. She called me today and said that the Todd Rundgren tune was her ear worm for the day because she was thinking about me.

I added it up. Between the classes at Black Rep and Grace and my private lessons, I am taking 10 classes a month with Sidy. Add my practice time to that and no wonder the house looks like a herd of elephants traipsed through the living room. Dishes? Huh? You mean I am supposed to wash those?

So, am I obsessed? I think, uh, yeah.

The other day I showed my hands to my teacher. The bases and tips of all my fingers are completely calloused. I have dead skin flaking off. I stopped wearing my wedding ring months ago because I was afraid I'd lose it if I had to keep taking it off all the time. He laughed and said I am getting drummer's hands. Good thing I am not a hand model. I'd have to quit my job.

But I wouldn't mind because

I don't want to work. I want to bang on my drum all day.

Monday, December 3, 2007

And so it begins

My month off from drumming lessons.

I feel a little sad.

And even though it is 10:39 pm and my kids are asleep, I want to play.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Sidy has a new website

I am delighted to share my teacher's new site... created by yours truly with a little help from Yahoo!

Check it regularly for class schedules, performance information and anything else we can think to add.

In other news: Spent most of my lesson yesterday working on the breaks and pickups for the Sounou solo parts. Plus I learned a new part which I have been working on today. At some point I am going to figure out how to add sound to my blog so I can torment you all with my drumming. Ha!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

I can't keep my hands off

my drum today. The Sounou rhythms are coming together. I am figuring out the pickup on the accompaniment. The handing is making sense. I am hearing the rhythms in my head, which is a huge step to being able to play them. Some of the rhythms that seemed so incredibly complex when I first tried them are beginning to get easier. I can almost feel my neurons firing in new patterns.

And, oh, the drum. It talks to me. It whispers little nuances in my ear. It says

"no, that is supposed to be a slap. Try it as a slap." And because I haven't written these patterns down, I try it and it sounds better and I practice making a slap instead of a tone.

I got so excited about all this I called my teacher and left him a goofy voice mail about how in love I am with my drum and thank you thank you thank you for choosing it for me.

I can't stop playing today.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Want to buy a drum?

I want to mention that Sidy is bringing an order of drums back from Mali and will have some available for sale. If the one I have is any indication, these will be wonderful drums. If you are interested in purchasing one, feel free to email me at rachelnguyen(at) for more information. Shipping in the US would be no problem. Worldwide shipping will be higher. The drums will be available in January and I can post or email photos once they are in.

Bounce and bang

It sounds slightly naughty, but no. While I was practicing today the neighborhood kids and my sons were out bouncing to the rhythm on the trampoline.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


I notice that while it is still very difficult for me to wrap my head around a new rhythm, the time it takes to 'get it' is getting shorter and shorter.

Last night I learned a new Sounou part and I was fumbling all over the place. It is almost as if I can't learn it while my teacher is sitting there. Rather, I need to write down the handing, tape it, then sit with it privately for awhile. The rhythm that so confounded me last night is well within my grasp today. When my teacher comes back for my lesson on Friday, I'll be ready.

Another thing I notice is that the handing and the rhythm pattern are, for me, separate endeavors. First I must learn the basic movements. Then I am ready to give those movements life.

I have read that one shouldn't 'grind in' one's mistakes. But I haven't found that to be a problem. Even if I am practicing something incorrectly from memory, it still seems to help when I meet up with it again. I may have gotten the details wrong, but something of the essence of a part has seeped through and seems to make it easier to grasp when I learn the correct way.

I'd love to hear how others tackle a new part. What is your process?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The last week

My teacher heads off to Mali next week and I am acutely aware that I am going to have to go for a whole month without any lessons.

My survival tool kit:

Practice every day. Listen to the recordings and play through all the pieces every day.

Get together with my fellow students for a drumming circle a couple of times in December.

Pull out my 'Learning the Djembe' book and CD and see if I can pick up a new rhythm or two.


Tonight at my church, the priest asked us if we would play at a big bonfire event our church is holding on December 21st. Of course we said yes! Any chance to play is wonderful. So getting ready for that will be fun, too.

I just want to be a sponge over the next week, and soak up as much as I can.

What do YOU do when your teacher is out of town?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

They're back!

I picked my drums up from Sidy on Wednesday and really didn't get a chance to play until yesterday. But, oh, was it wonderful. Even with some interruptions, I was able to practice for about an hour. I worked on one of the Dansa rhythms (as well as I can remember it) and the Sounou stuff. Then just went through the Sidiyasa parts because I am afraid I will forget them if I don't keep playing them.

Sidy is supposed to swing by this afternoon for our lesson, and then drumming class tomorrow and Monday. I am loading up before his trip to Africa. Is it possible to play too much?


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Jones

Searching the house for stuff to bang on.

Must. get. drums. back.

I am dying here. What am I going to do in Vietnam? I think I will bring the little drum with me when we go in February.

The last Dansa rhythm we learned is bouncing around in my head. I am going to the garage to see if we have a 5 gallon pail.


On Sunday, Sidy called to ask about borrowing my drums for a school program this week.

"Of course!" I said.

I dropped them off to him, and as I was handing over my djembes, I realized that this meant three or 4 days without practicing. Without the smell of goatskin in my house, or on my hands. Without the feel of the backbone skin under my fingers.

It is amazing how much a part of my day to day life my drum has become.

I was happy to see it again at class last night.

We played through the Dansa rhythms and I noticed, for the first time, a little shift in the timing of one of the parts. I could hear it when Sidy played it, but was having a tough time figuring out how to do it. The beginners might not have even heard it, to be honest. As we were playing, I worked on shifting my hands a little to get the timing right. It felt different when I finally got it. I got it.

And Sidy could hear it. He looked up from what he was doing and smiled at me, nodding. Not a word. But we both knew that I got it.

These tiny successes are amazing. Each one is such a treasure. I never imagined that something as subtle a tiny hesitation of one hand could bring me so much joy.

I can't wait to get my drums back.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Who do you say you are?

On a warm Monday evening in July, about a month after I began taking lessons, Lucia, Sidy and I were standing outside Black Rep waiting to go in. We were chatting about the class. At one point I said that I had always wanted to be a musician.

"Now you are." Sidy replied.

I laughed it off. How can someone who has been playing for a month call themselves a musician?

"Maybe someday." I said. "Maybe someday."

But when I looked at him, I realized that he was serious.

To him, it was simple: I play drums. Even if I suck at it, I am still a musician. A bad one. Yes. A new one. Yes. But a musician nonetheless.

I think, in that moment, something shifted. I allowed myself to see the possibility of what I could be, rather than stay stuck in what I have been. I started to think of myself differently.

Later, he said that he wanted us to get good enough so we could play out with him. Which of course scared the crap out of me. But it also gave me something to work towards. A musician plays out. I started to practice more.

Why does it matter what we say about ourselves?

I don't know. But it does.

I am a musician.

Who do you say you are?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

If you can say it, you can play it

Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olantunji said that if you can speak a rhythm, you will be able to play it. I have found this to be true.

When I first learn a new rhythm, at this early stage in my education, it often feels like I am trying to learn a foreign language. At first it seems incomprehensible. I see my teacher's hands moving across the drum head. I know that there are only a few possible positions. But like trying to speak German or Italian... even with the same letters, how they are put together makes all the difference.

Early on in a new rhythm, I am just trying to wrap my head around the pattern. With the accompaniment for Sounou, for example, I knew that there was a single bass stroke on the left and a double on the right. I knew that there were 5 edge hits: slap tone tone slap slap. But the piece I missed was that the transition from tone to slap happens with the same hand. Because I missed that, I spent a week trying to work the handing out and couldn't figure out why it didn't sound right. Yesterday, when Sidy showed me what I was doing wrong, it was like the fog lifted.

This morning, at 6am, I woke up with the accompaniment for Sounou in my head. I know that when I can hear it inside, I will be able to play it.

When I was first learning the parts of Sidiyasa, I would sing them in the car on the way home from class. It was like I was trying to capture them in my head so they wouldn't escape. At first, I would forget them and not be able to remember them until the following week in class. But after playing them for awhile, I could hear them in my head. I would sing them to myself when I was driving or walking. I would hear them rattling around in there while doing the dishes or taking a shower. Sometimes the simplest ones are the hardest. There is a tiny pause here or a little shift there that makes a huge difference in the sound. If I could hear it in my head, I would be able to play it.

Sidy can sing every rhythm he knows. But when he sings them for me, it sounds like he is speaking Russian or Greek. I can't understand. I need to learn to sing his language because when I do, I will play.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Yup. I started to play the Sounou rhythms today. I have been practicing them this week and feel like I am beginning to make some progress. I still get tripped up when Sidy solos when we are playing alone.

Private lessons are much more demanding because I can't rely on my fellow students to keep me on track. So I mess up more. Get frazzled and make mistakes. But I also know that I am working harder, which is going to pay off.

I was so excited I couldn't wait to play the new rhythms for my husband when he got home from work.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Blackstone River Theatre Drumming Circle

I went to my first drumming circle tonight. It was three hours long, although there were plenty of breaks between jams.

When I first got there, I felt a little awkward, but after a little while, I loosened up and started to get into it.

How this works is that someone starts a rhythm and everyone just begins to fill in with their own rhythms. It is quite unstructured. There is a huge range of skills, from folks who have never taken a drumming class in their lives to people who are really proficient.

I think I managed to keep a pretty steady rhythm, even when we played for as much as 20 or 30 minutes at a time.

It was good practice for me to play in front of people, and to loosen up and try new things. When one guy asked me to start a rhythm I went for one of the Sidiyasa ones and I think it threw people that it wasn't a basic 4/4. Later I did one of the Dansa rhythms and that seemed to work better.

And boy is my drum loud. Maybe too loud for something like this. But people were very interested in it. A couple guys asked to play it. In fact, I swapped drums with one guy for a little while. He had a brand spanking new Malian djembe from the Guitar Center and it sounded great.

The next one of these is in January. I am going to try and make it back.

The particulars:

Blackstone River Theatre
549 Broad Street
Cumberland RI
Third Thursday of the month
7-10pm. Drop in at any point and stay as long as you like.

It won't meet in December, but will resume in January.

Dun duns...

are the big bass drums that accompany West African music. There are three sizes. Yesterday I told Sidy I would like to learn to play them.

He said if I learn to play the duns, he'll invite me to play out with him, because that is usually what he needs for his performances.

Oh boy.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A question about practicing

For you, dear readers, who practice on your djembes.- How long do you play each day? What do you practice? Do you play as hard alone as in a group?

Here's more or less what I am doing every day:

First, I go through whatever rhythms I am working on. This week it has been bits of Dansa and the Sounou parts that I am doing in my private lessons. With Sounou, I am just working on getting the hand positions. For one of the parts, I know that my rhythm is way off, but I figure I can work that out in class.

Then I work on my tone and slaps by playing a new piece of Sidiyasa, which is basically TTSSSS over and over again. I try and make distinctive sounds without moving my hands around on the drumhead too much.

Finally, I just play. Fast, furious, anything I feel like. No rhythm, even, just working to get my muscles stronger so I can play longer. Rolls and stuff.

I leave my drum sitting in the living room, so throughout the day I grab it on my way by and sit for a few minutes. Altogether I might be playing for about 20 or 30 minutes or so.

How about you guys? What's your drill? Leave a comment if you care to. Inquiring minds (and hands) want to know.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sidy Maïga

I thought it would be helpful to post a bio of Sidy for people considering taking a class.

Here's the one we include on his brochures:

Sidy Maïga is a percussionist from Bamako, Mali, West Africa and is drummer in residence at the Providence Black Repertory Company. For 15 years, Sidy has been performing and teaching traditional African drumming. Since moving to the United States 2 years ago, he has been using his music to spread awareness about African culture. This year he was the headline performer for the Heritage Day Festival in Providence, RI. He has performed with the Jamal Jackson Dance Company in New York, the Brown University Festival of Dance in Providence and with Troupe Baden'ya in Boston. He has performed in Chicago and Cleveland and is a regular performer here in RI at Black Rep’s Afro-Sonic and the Neon Soul Cabaret. Sidy has conducted drumming workshops at the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and at other schools. He currently teaches drumming in schools, groups, and privately.

My personal addition: Regular readers already know that I am completely in awe of this man. He is one of the best teachers I have ever met. He is a very gifted drummer and a genuinely nice guy. We are fortunate to have Sidy here in RI.

Photo courtesy of The Providence Black Repertory Company.

It matters

Which hand you use to play makes a difference in the sound. Sidy showed us this last night.

"Listen" he said. "when you play the bass with the left hand, it sounds different than when you play it with the right."

He demonstrated and, amazingly, I could hear the difference.

And the extra beat in one of the Dansa rhythms. That is so the dancer has time to shift from one arm to the other.

These are things you can't learn from a book or cd. These are things you might not be able to learn from an American teacher, even. This is why I am so grateful to have found my teacher.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Part two

Yes, two posts in one day.

White sports tape on my fingers kept them from splitting apart tonight at class. It was good to be able to bang away without worrying about doing more damage.

Class was the bomb. We had 10 people at Black Rep tonight and continued to work on Dansa.

Here's the thing: I am getting better. I can feel it. I was able to keep a steady rhythm going, even with a whole room full of newcomers that were all over the place. Even when my teacher was playing the djun djuns. Even though these were all new rhythms, I could keep it going. I was so excited about it I told my friend Jen, who came with me tonight, that drumming is sometimes better than sex. Well, maybe not really. But right up there.

Blood, Sweat and Tears...

Last night while playing, my finger split open and I bled on the edge of my drum.

And yes sweat.

And tears of joy.

We had our first drumming class at Grace last night and my 7 year old, Emmett, sat in. He played great! He picked up the rhythms easily and followed along and sped up when Sidy sped up and slowed down when Sidy slowed down. We were working on a completely new set of rhythms from Dansa.

The class was fantastic! There were ten of us and we had a great time. We learned three parts. Even the complete newbies were able to play along. One of the great matriarchs of the church came with her husband and it was wonderful watching them play.

This morning, I asked Emmett if he could remember any of the rhythms we learned. He picked up a drum and started playing them.

I nearly choked on my coffee.

From now on I must try and bring him to class, if only so he can remind me of what to practice later.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

How can it be?

The goat has long since been eaten,

The tree hewn, sawn, burned or carved.

How can a drum,

Which is built of dead things

Be so


Friday, November 9, 2007

A butt kickin'

I took the plunge and asked Sidy if he would give me private lessons. Today was the first one. I think we both agreed that I should work on some new material. Mostly because I don't want my friend Lucia to feel like I have an unfair advantage on the stuff we are doing in class, LOL.

Today, three new rhythms. I honestly can't remember the name of the piece, but I can tell you that it was a serious stretch for my beginner skills. They were hard!

I wish I could describe what happens in my brain when faced with a complex rhythm. It is such a dance between understanding it cerebrally, and feeling it physically, seeing it in my mind, on the drum head, and seeing it in real life when my hands hit the skin. For much of the lesson I found myself staring off into space, unable to look at my hands, or Sidy's, without going blank and losing my place.

For awhile, I got it. I was playing along while Sidy soloed next to me. That was amazing. There were moments when I actually felt like we were playing together. And then, pop, it was gone. I'd get lost and forget what I was doing. I am not sure whether I will be able to figure these rhythms out to practice this week, even with a recording.

So, yeah. My drum kicked my butt today.

And it was great.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Children's Drumming Classes

I am delighted to announce that Sidy Maiga, my wonderful drumming teacher, will be teaching a children's class at Black Rep starting in January. The class will meet from 6pm to 6:45 on Monday evenings and runs for 4 weeks. Cost is $60 and includes a drum for the class. Sidy will also have kid-sized djembes for sale if you would prefer to buy one.

Class dates:

Mondays, January 7th through the 28th, 2008
6 to 6:45 pm
Providence Black Repertory Company
276 Westminster Street
Providence, RI 02903
Phone: 401-351-0353

For more information, or to register, please email me at

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Meet the press

There was a wonderful article in the Providence Journal this morning about Sidy's day at Norwood Elementary School.

Check it out!

Also, if you didn't catch it, here's my take on it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

I get high...

When I play with other people. Always, always, I leave my drumming class feeling like I could climb mount Everest, or sing an aria, or dance in the streets. I never want it to end.

Last night, for the first time, I played distinct tones and slaps. It was a repeating pattern of tone tone slap slap slap slap. I could hear it, and more importantly, my teacher could. I could see the look on his face when he realized that I was playing them. Big smile. Big encouragement. 6 months later and finally, I can play something other than 'non-bass'.

New callouses. Strangely, I have two perfect red lines at the base of my middle fingers. They are some sort of blood blister, I think. Like drummer's stigmata. It is interesting that there is one on each hand.

And my thumbs are developing big callouses on the outside of the knuckle.

I asked Nguyen if he minded that my hands are getting rough and ugly. Not at all, he said.

For me, there is joy in every bump and bruise and blister.

Monday, November 5, 2007

And another

Beautiful. I especially love track 7. Click the album cover to go to Amazon and have a listen.


As is often the case when I get obsessed with something, I want to explore. I have been hitting Youtube for djembe videos, and one thing led to another and I found myself on checking out Malian music cds. (You follow that, right?)

Today a couple finally came in the mail.

You MUST check this out. Rokia Traore is a woman from Mali who has been recording for quite some time. Her newest cd, Bowmboï, is simply incredible. It is haunting stuff. Give it a listen.

Making a joyful noise

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. (Psalm 98:4)

And boy, did we.

Yesterday after the service at Grace Church, we assembled a bunch of drums in the chancel (in front of the altar) and invited people to play in an informal drumming circle. It was fantastic!

The acoustics in Grace are truly remarkable. The sound reverberates off the ceiling and fills the whole, huge, space. So while the parishioners were drinking their coffee and eating snacks, a group of adults and children were improvising on African drums. I started the first rhythm using one Sidiyasa pieces. Gradually, other drums began to fill in. Some of us were playing in unison and others were playing counter beats or other variations. The children picked up very quickly, and were completely enthralled. When their mom tried to pry them away because of another commitment, they begged her to stay longer.

We had 6 djembes and a couple of congas. As we settled into a rhythm, I could see people starting to dance in the back of the church.

Vera started the next rhythm. She, too, chose one from her African drumming class. It was a bit simpler, which made it perfect for a drumming circle. We all had a chance to "solo". The sound was so powerful!

Then we had to swap drums because everyone wanted a chance to play my new djembe. So Lucia took a turn and started a rhythm. Then Vera got to try it. I think they are all in serious drum lust now that they have played it. I can't get over what a beautiful sound it has.

Yesterday, we made a joyful noise, indeed.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Happiness is...

coming home from a long, grueling night at work to find my two boys happily banging away on my drums.

Emmett, 7, is the best, so he gets to use the new drum. Noah, 10, acknowledges that in this, Emmett rules.

My exhaustion dissipates and I pull rank and take the big drum. Emmett gets the medium one and Noah takes the mini.

Then we, all three, start playing one of the rhythms of Sidiyasa.

At one point the older one gets up and starts dancing. It is so hilarious I come up with a challenge: if he can make me laugh hard enough to mess up my rhythm, he wins.

He wins.

We all win.

I love the smell of my new drum. When I come home and open the door, there is a faint goat smell in the house. When I play, my hands smell of it... and the fragrance wafts up as I hit the drumhead. I am building sense memory. I imagine that when I am old and frail and unable to play or do much of anything, I will be able to conjure the smell of this beautiful drum. My first serious instrument. I want to sink in it's smell, sometimes, like when you bury your face in the coat of your dog (or rabbit!). I lean over and lay my cheek on the tight leather and just inhale as deeply as I can.

Then I play.

Then breathe it in.

Then play.

When I was thinking of buying a drum, I told my friend Lucia that I was going to choose by smell. "I want the stinkiest one" I said. I am going to sniff my way through the drums until I find one so smelly I will, like an animal mother, be able to recognize it by the scent.

Nguyen finds this all a little odd. But I bet if we found a drum that smelled of his childhood, he would understand completely. Fish sauce or thousand day old eggs or tea growing in a field or the incense from the monastery at the bottom of the hill.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

West african traditional drumming lesson (Sandya)

This is tricky because it is, for some strange reason, broadcasting sideways... but this is a very cool rhythm! I have been practicing it and can do the beginning part of it. Try it!!! The drummer is Mady Keita.

Drumming at Grace

African Drumming comes to Grace Church!

I had a conversation with Fr. Rich this week and we have invited my fabulous teacher, Sidy Maiga, to start teaching classes at Grace Church in Providence. This is huge! I have updated my class listing in the side bar to include the information. If you are a Rhode Islander, I invite you to check it out.

Two of my very favorite things in one place. Does it get any better than this?


Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tune it up

The Mali weave tuning on my new drum is beautiful. The diamonds are tiny and tight and evenly spaced. The verticals are so taut I can't move them. When my teacher offered to weave another row, I honestly couldn't imagine how it could be done.

Seeing his beautiful weave inspired me to retune my Toca. I pulled out all the diamonds I had made, which were uneven and irregular, and reworked the first row all the way around. And I have to say, not only does it look better, but it sounds much better too. I have managed to tune it up closer to the African drum.

This morning I showed my husband the difference between the two drums.

The Malian drum is hand carved. The inside of the trumpet and the bowl are both smooth and shaped to allow the sound to move through. The rings are tight and close to the bowl, so there is no gap between the ring and the wood. The trumpet is about 3/4 of an inch thick. There are no knots or cracks in the wood. The head is a thinner skin, hand shaved, African goat.

The Toca came out of a factory. It was made on a lathe and the interior is completely rough, with no shaping for the sound whatsoever. The trumpet is over an inch thick and it is made of cheap, knot filled mahogany. The rings don't fit properly. They are about 1/2 an inch too big all the way around, leaving a big gap between the ring and the drum. The skin is Pakistani, which appears to be much thicker, which offers a duller sound. It has also been processed to within an inch of it's life, so it has no more of the natural shading of the goat it came from. Instead it is bright white.

I will say this, though. With a good tuning, the Toca sounds much better than it did. I am excited that it tuned up so well. If I am going to have an extra drum to lend, at least it can sound good!

Monday, October 29, 2007

She's here!

Sidy wouldn't show me my new drum when I first got to class.

"Is this it?" I asked, pointing to one of the newly headed ones.


"How about this one?"

"I'll tell you after class," he said. "It's a surprise."

So I picked one to play for the class. It was lenge wood, with a spotted goatskin head. The backbone stripe curved around and you can feel that the skin is thicker there. It was tuned WAY tighter than my other drum. I realized that the bass sound was much less pronounced... but oh the tone and slap were sweet. Sharp and metallic, almost. Just like an African drum is supposed to sound.

It smelled fantastic. You can smell the goat and the wood and I just wanted to lay my face on the head and inhale. I grew up on a farm, so the smell of a goat has nothing but wonderful associations for me. Halfway through class I surreptitiously smelled my palms and they, too, smelled like the drum.

I played the borrowed drum through the class and noticed that the head is much bigger than my old drum, which means my legs have to hold it at a different angle. But I adjusted my position and loosened up my hands.

What a sound! Even in the hands of a novice like me, the drum spoke beautifully. It had an expressive voice. It was such a pleasure to play.

And of course, it was my drum.

"I tuned it today," Sidy said. "Do you want it tighter?"

No. It's perfect. It is the perfect drum. It is my drum.

On the way to my car I stopped at Grace Church and sat on the steps and played for a little while, in downtown Providence, on a Monday night, in the cold clear night air, with the sound of this beautiful, goaty smelling drum bouncing off the tall buildings and making a joyful noise unto the Lord.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

An arranged marriage

I get to meet my new drum on Monday, and although I have probably met it before, maybe even played it, I feel a little like it is an arranged marriage. I don't know yet which drum my teacher will choose for me. Will it be the black and white goatskin with the big edge of fur? Or the finely trimmed white one with a big black spot in the middle? Or maybe the grey skin with the shaved edge? I am so excited about it I am having a hard time sleeping!

As I understand it, djembes are traditionally thought of as having female energy. I am sure their goblet shape has something to do with it. Along with the fact that you play into it rather than pull sound out of it like with a more phallic shaped conga, for example. The shape is feminine, and so, apparently, is the skin, which is almost always taken from a female goat. I joked with Nguyen that this is because the males stink too much and no one would want a billy goat smelling drum! (Have you ever smelled a male goat? Not good.)

So I am getting a sister, really, not a spouse. And she is going to be a stranger to me for awhile. But I will learn to chat with her, sing with her, laugh with her and find joy in her. I know she will teach me things about drumming. Maybe someday I can teach her some things too.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Take one African drumming teacher, 60 drums and a gymnasium full of squirmy kids, mix in a bit of rhythm and what do you have?


Today was an unforgettable experience. I had arranged for my drumming teacher to come to my kids' elementary school and teach drumming, over the course of the day, to 240 kids. It was daunting, I will admit. The logistics alone were terrifying. Sidy only owns 20 drums or so, so he spent the last week scrambling around looking to borrow or rent the other 40. Unfortunately his normal resource wasn't able to supply them... so the hunt was on. As recent as a day ago we worried we wouldn't find enough. But desperate calls to a friend in Boston yielded the last 10.

This morning I got to school at 8:00 and started bringing the drums down from the stage and onto the floor. Sidy arrived at 8:15 and I nearly fell over when I saw him. He was wearing a beautiful ankle length blue cotton robe with matching pants. It is clothing from the desert region of Mali and I have to say, it made quite an impression. He had another 10 drums in his car, so we unloaded and started setting up.

I have to be honest here. I know that he is an incredible teacher... but I really wasn't sure how he would be with kids. Kids can be a tough audience sometimes. He began by explaining that his English wasn't very good, but then went on to describe how important drumming was in Africa before the advent of radio, television and cell phones. Then he talked a little about how the drums are constructed, showing the kids the rings, the goatskin and the rope bindings.

And then the magic happened. He started to play. The kids were completely mesmerized. They followed every beat, every nuance. It was hard for them to get the rhythms because it was such a big circle and they really couldn't see his hands... but nonetheless, they got the beat and managed to synchronize very well. I didn't know any of the rhythms, so it was great fun for me to learn along with them. Sidy was acutely aware when the kids began to drift and then he would play with them, speeding up and slowing down.... quiet, quiet, tiny tiny tiny... then BLAM, huge fast beats. The kids were enthralled. Heck, I was too. I LOVED seeing the teachers getting into it! One woman was so good I collared her after and gave her his class information.

Two newspaper reporters showed up- one from the Providence Journal and one from the Warwick Beacon. I think they, too, were blown away at this fantastic drumming pied piper and his 60 awestruck kids. (And one awestruck middle aged redhead, LOL)

Towards the end of the day, my husband Nguyen showed up with his camera and took dozens of photos.

I played one of Sidy's drums for the day and realized then and there that a cheap Indonesian drum with a Pakistani goatskin was not going to fit the bill any longer. It is time for a real djembe. So after the classes, I asked him to choose one of the ones he reheaded this week and I'll buy it from him. He said he would pick one out for me and bring it to class on Monday. I can't wait. (I'll change my picture once I get a photo of it!)

Sidy did 5 sessions today. It was grueling, really. But afterwards, after we hauled 40 drums back up to his 2nd floor apartment, after I came home and collapsed on the sofa, I was still so excited I couldn't eat dinner.

It feels like a miracle that at this stage in my life I would find something that I love so much. It feels like a gift beyond measure. A gift from God.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I smell like a goat

Well, actually, my car does. And I admit, I kinda like it.

We brought 40 drums to my kids' elementary school this afternoon. Congas, djembes, one now broken ceramic doumbek, a few djun djuns. Most of the drums were in Sidy's second floor apartment, in the kitchen, the den, the dining room. Stacked here and there. We hauled them down a tiny back staircase and piled them carefully into my car. The djembes were easy. The congas were a harder because of their shape.

Sidy reheaded 5 of the djembes a couple of days ago and they still smell like wet skin, which is why my car now smells a little like a barn.

Tomorrow we are bringing another 20 or so drums and will spend the day letting the kids in the school play together, 60 at a time.

Holy cow.

No, goat.

Can't wait.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Just whack it with a mallet

My teacher Sidy was playing a different drum tonight. It was a regular djembe, but instead of a goatskin head, it had cowhide. It was thick and looked a little like a rawhide doggy chew.

The sound was deeper and less sharp. At some point, Sidy got up and started looking around the basement. We just kept playing.

Eventually he found what he was looking for: a big mallet with a metal head.

He walked over to the drum and started whacking the rim. I think the rings were wiggling loose and he wanted to push them back down.

What a difference in the sound of the drum!

Next time my drum starts to give me trouble, I am going to try whacking it upside the head.

After the fall

I had my drumming lesson tonight, and I'll admit, I was nervous about seeing my teacher after the debacle that was my public debut last Thursday.

"You weren't as bad as some other first timers" he said.

"You just need to play softer when the music starts to fade."

I wanted to cry with relief.

"Does that mean you'll let me play with you again sometime?"

"Yes, yes, of course!"

At which point I got that doofy grin thing going on. My biggest fear after the disaster was that he would decide that I was not fit to play in public.

It's funny. I used to teach childbirth classes to couples who wanted to have natural births. Every now and then, a couple would end up needing medication during their labor and they would be so ashamed to tell me, like they had somehow failed. But of course they hadn't. One can NEVER predict the nature of a labor, and sometimes intervention is necessary. Plus, I only wanted to reassure them that they did everything they could to prepare for a natural birth, and that I was nothing but proud of their efforts. Sometimes these women would actually weep when I told them I was proud of them.

It is hard when you think you have disappointed your teacher. But as a teacher, I knew that students were always harder on themselves than I ever would be.

I made a lot of mistakes during class tonight, but I still couldn't get that goofy grin off my face.

I love drumming.

Confidential to E.L.: Thank you for calling me the other day. It helped to talk to you about it!

Friday, October 19, 2007

African Women Djembefola

My heroes. Or is that heroines?

Drumming Classes in RI

Here are the classes I know about. Feel free to comment if you know of others. I'll try and keep this post updated. Updated 11/13/07

African Drumming
Sidy Maiga- Teacher
Providence Black Repertory Theater
276 Westminster Street
Providence, Rhode Island 02903
Phone: 401-351-0353
Mondays, 7pm
Currently $10 per class.

Starting on January 7th, Sidy will offer an 8 week class on Mondays at Black Rep. The cost is $120 for the series. Registration is requested, especially if you want to borrow a drum in class.

Drop in students will be welcome. The fee is $20 per class.

Please email me for more information:

Also, I am excited to announce that Grace Church is offering classes with Sidy Maiga also:

Grace Church drumming class
175 Matthewson Street
Providence, RI 02903
Enter the side door in the parking lot on the corner of Snow and Chapel streets
The 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month
6 to 7 pm
$15 per class
Please contact me if you need a drum to borrow for the class.

Up. Down.

Nguyen and I went to Black Rep to see my drumming teacher play last night. We were the first ones in the place, showing up at the seriously uncool hour of 9:30. But we had a drink and found a sofa and chatted while the djs set up their equipment.

Sidy arrived at about 10:00, but didn't start playing until 10:30 or so. By that time Nguyen and I were out of our seats and dancing to the house music that the djs were spinning.

When Sidy started playing is was like an energy bomb was dropped in the place. All of a sudden this booming djun djun was reverberating across the floor. Nguyen and I kicked it up a notch too, totally unembarrassed that we might look like the middle aged dorks that we are. We were having a ball.

And then it happened. The opening scene of my eventual humiliation. Nguyen went to get a beer. I was dancing alone. Sidy's djembe was sitting next to him, unattended. I gravitated over, pulled by the booming beat and the complete lack of common sense.

"Do you want to play?" he asked over the thudety thud thud thud of the drums.

"Really?!?!?" (Picture lamb to slaughter, here)

I sat down and held the drum. I closed my eyes and waited for the groove. I whacked the edge of the drumhead with both hands.


Holy Crap. Sidy's drum is about 4 times louder than mine.

CRACK again. I was having a hard time finding a beat.

Oh crap. I started stumbling around on the drum head, playing no discernible pattern. More or less in rhythm, but mostly a kind of accent beat, which is not what I was supposed to be doing at all.

"Don't play so loud" Sidy whispers.

I soften my tone down.

"Play this" he says, and whispers a beat to me. I can't understand what he is saying. I know he is telling me a rhythm, but it is as if he is speaking a foreign language. Finally, he shows me on his djun djun. My bracelet keeps clacking against the drum head and I am worried it will hurt the goatskin, so I pull it off. Finally, I get into the rhythm, playing the simple pattern that Sidy has shown me. As the song winds down, he says "stop playing" so I do, letting him transition to the next song solo.

One more song and then he announces it is break time.

Thank God.

I find Nguyen and tell him it is time to leave. Hasty goodbye to Sidy and his wife.

I go home and throw up.

My dream, since starting to play drums, has been to play with Sidy sometime. It was NOT, however, to suck while doing it!

This morning on the phone my mom laughs and says that we are always most humiliated when we are taking ourselves way too seriously. Wise woman.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


The rhythm we have been working on in class for the last several months is Sidiyasa. It is a harvest rhythm, which seems appropriate for the season!

There are 6 variations of the rhythm and the way Sidy teaches it, we learn them in a linear way, separated by a played break. Eventually, though, we begin to overlay the rhythms on top of one another. The crazy thing is that all six rhythms can be played at once and they fit together in one incredibly complex polyrhythm. We have just started experimenting with this this week when we had 7 people in the class.

What a sound!

For newbies, it is very difficult to maintain a steady beat, so after a few minutes the whole thing veered off into chaos. But for a few minutes there, you could actually get a sense of what it was going to be like when we all were playing our parts steadily.

Tonight, Nguyen and I are going to the Providence Black Repertory Theater to see Sidy play with Afro-Sonic. It is the first time we have been out to a club in years. I am excited!

I wrote to a friend today and told her that I was playing drums... and what a miracle it is, at 42, to discover you are a musician.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Welcome to the Big Bang!

I decided that I was posting way too much about drumming over on my Jesus Freak blog, The Big Dunk. So I thought I would break off a blog just for djembe. This one, appropriately enough, is called the Big Bang!

To start us off, here is a brief history of drumming in my life:

I am a stay at home mother of 2 little boys, very active in my church and sell kitchen tools at home parties on the side. About 6 months ago, some of the kids from our church went on a mission trip to South Africa. It blew their minds! One of the biggest things that affected them was the music of South Africa. It inspired us to add drumming to our church service one Sunday. I liked it!

Then, on another Sunday morning, a group of folks were drumming on the church steps before the service and I happened by and they had an extra drum. I sat down to play with them and discovered I loved it!

This inspired me to buy a drum. I walked into the Guitar Center here in RI and bought the cheapest goatskinned djembe I could find. It was a Toca. $100 bucks. Mahogany shell. Cheaply made but sounded ok to my virgin ears. (Now I know better, LOL)

I brought the drum home and realized that I would need a teacher to learn to play it, so I googled "djembe teacher RI" and lo and behold there was a listing for a teacher from Mali, right at Black Rep, which is half a block from my church. It said that the classes were drop in, cost $10 and were at 7pm on Monday nights. All good for me: inexpensive, easy to get to, and most important, on a night I don't usually do kitchen tools shows.

So the next Monday, I timidly showed up at Black Rep. My teacher, Sidy Maiga, was very friendly. We met down in the basement. There were three of us students. The other two had clearly been practicing for several weeks because they knew all the rhythms and could play steadily. I was a mess. I simply could NOT make my hands do what they were supposed to. I felt very uncomfortable that I was holding back the other two students. I messed up a lot. I forgot what I was supposed to be doing. I kept using the wrong hand or hitting the wrong area of the drum. I noticed that my drum had a loud overtone ring, which meant it needed tuning. All in all, it was a mortifying experience.

But I was hooked! I loved the sound of the drums together. I couldn't believe what a great player my teacher was. And in the moments when my self consciousness receded, I got hints of what it would be like to actually be able to play this crazy instrument.

All the way home I had one of the many rhythms in my head, so when I got home, I quickly wrote it down so I could practice it.

The following week, I noticed that it was easier. I picked up much faster. I didn't mess up as much. Something seemed to have clicked in my head.

And so it was, that over the course of the summer, I went every week and noticed that I got better and better... and that I loved it. Truly loved it. I managed to talk my friend Lucia into coming to the classes with me. She, too, had a hard time in the beginning, but after awhile we got pretty good together. For most of the summer, Lucia and I were Sidy's only students. We fretted that he would cancel the class. We talked about it with everyone to try and get more students. We told him we would pay him more. But he recognized we were serious about it and was willing to hang in with us, even though it meant a very small paycheck.

I have posted extensively about this on my other blog, but now I want to have a place to explore drumming in more depth. I welcome input from other drummers. I hope that this can be a source of information and conversation. Mostly I want to be able to share this amazing experience so I can encourage others to find their inner musicians.

Bang on, my friends!