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.

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