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?