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!