Friday, December 26, 2008

Ok, I just have to say it

I love the shape of Mali drums best of all. Guinea drums are beautiful, it's true, but there is something so wonderful and luscious about the big round bowl of a Mali drum. I especially love to see them naked, without ropes or skins or even rings... just the wooden shell in all it's sculptural, curvy beauty.

There, I said it. I hope to get some good photos of shells while I am in Mali. I'll post them here when I get back.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Mali Bound

It's official. I have my tickets, got my shots, and am heading to Mali in January.

So, here's the scoop so far:

Tickets via Royal Air Maroc. We fly through Casablanca with a 15 hour layover... but will be put up in a hotel for the time we are there.

Yellow fever
Polio booster
Regular flu shot

Last year I got Hep A and Typhoid, so they are still good.

I also have a prescription for anti-malarial drugs, Cipro for diarrhea and Ambien to sleep on the plane and help with jet lag.

Travel insurance: Check.

Still to do:
Register with the US Embassy.
Get some gifts for Sidy's parents.
Arrange for the Visa with the Malian embassy in NY.

I am flying with a couple of other students. We have a few folks planning to join us in Mali. Sidy is going to meet us at the airport and that is a moment I am really excited about, stepping off a plane into the warm Malian night and finding my teacher standing there waiting for us. What a scene.

Allons y!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

New piece

The beginnings of another solo part to Mendiani. LOVE it!

tttsssssssss, tttsssssssss, tttsssssssss, tttsssssssss, tsstsstsstsstsstsstsstss...........

Or something like that, LOL.

We'll see where this goes. The funny thing is I didn't really understand the underlying structure of Mendiani until I started playing this... and then suddenly, like a lightbulb, it went off. I wonder if it will help me play the rest of the solo parts better. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

My Hands

My hands are changing.

Where once was soft, smooth skin, now strength.

Callouses. Suddenly the creases in my palm are so pronounced I think a palmreader could read them blindfolded, just by touch.

From the top they look like ordinary hands. Long thin fingers. Nails painted. You might wonder where my rings are.

But turn them over and you know.

These are the hands of a drummer.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Because I am six at heart

I have been sitting in on Sidy's children's class because I open the church for him. Lately there has only been one student... but that little boy has been very dedicated. He practices every day and comes in excited every week. He is six.

This little boy is very cute when he plays. He tells Sidy how easy drumming is, even when he is struggling to get a new rhythm. Sometimes he cries when it is too hard. Often he has a little swagger and it is clear that he is itching to solo.

The other night I told Sidy I was just like that little boy. I get cocky. I get taken down a notch and cry. And I really really LOVE to play those drums.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Back with, well, a bang

I was in Nova Scotia for a week with the family. I brought a drum for practicing, but since we were in a tiny cabin, wedged in next to other tiny cabins, I couldn't really practice much. Only once, when the weather was dry, was I able to take the drum to the beach and find a rock to sit on and play for awhile.

It is amazing how much I was jonesing. I don't think I realized how much playing has become part of my life.

When I got back, I jumped back into class with great enthusiasm. I felt like I was playing better than I had for a long time. Maybe the time off was good.

Yesterday I went to see my teacher and his uncle, Issa Coulibaly, play at a park in Providence. They played with a couple of his uncle's students. It was really interesting. I had never actually seen my teacher perform with another Malian player before. They obviously play together pretty frequently because they are very tight together. Issa was on the dun duns and Sidy was playing solo djembe. The two students were playing accompaniment.

Issa soloed quite a bit on the dun duns. Clearly he is an excellent player. It was fun to hear how he worked the rhythm, holding the main rhythm for the rest of the players while simultaneously moving around within it.

I learned something from watching the students, too. One of them seemed to be struggling a little bit. Frankly, I couldn't hear any big errors, but he had a bit of a 'deer in the headlights' look about him that betrayed his nervousness. I realized that I probably look exactly like that when I play with Sidy, LOL. It suddenly became clear what Sidy is talking about when he says he would rather have me make mistakes than be nervous. I need to learn to relax and have a good time, even when I am making mistakes. And for God's sake, I have to remember to smile even if I am bombing!

And of course, watching Sidy play was amazing. I especially liked it when he stood up and played with the dancer. They faced off and had a great time together. He was speeding up and she was matching his pace. They seemed to move back and forth in a beautiful give and take. It was wonderful to watch.

What a treat to come home to!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Last weekend I asked my teacher if I could play the accompaniment parts for class, rather than work on the solos. I did this for a couple of reasons. First, it seems that the accompaniment is always the part that gives me the most trouble, especially if I am having a hard time hearing how it meshes with the dun duns. Second, I wanted to take a step back and just work on listening to whole rhythm working together. And finally, I always play accompaniment when I go to gigs with Sidy, so I wanted to work on them a bit.

What a great experience. It was awesome hearing all the parts layered together, and wonderful to be a part of the rhythm section with my friend Lisa. I found myself sliding off the beat a couple of times, but was able to find my way back to her. I loved being able to speed up and slow down, too.

At Monday's class we did the same thing. I accompaniment for awhile before getting back to the solo parts. I left feeling much better.

Back to basics. Good stuff.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

genuine gross me out

I worked on a drum today.

The ring had broken, so first off, I sent the ring off to the welder for repair. Unfortunately, it was the rope harness ring, so I had to remove all the rope and then replace it once the ring came back. Twice, because I measured wrong and ended up with too few loops.

Then I got the skin out of its bath and noticed it didn't smell good.

But I am game, so I started working on the stinking skin and getting it on the drum. I re-roped the uprights. And, oh God the thing reeked.

Shaving it was perhaps the most disgusting thing I have ever done. The hair was just falling off it in clumps. And stink. Oh, stink.

Finally I was done with the shaving and decided to pull it a little bit before it was too dry. So on it's side, I pulled the verticals, holding my breath and gritting my teeth.

I lift up the drum and.... CRAP.

There was a huge gaping hole in the middle of the stinkiest skin in the Universe.

I couldn't stand undoing the whole thing while it was wet, so I just stuck it in the garage and hoped there were no vultures hanging around.

I think the moral of the story is that a really stinky skin must indicate that it has rotted at some point. Which means it isn't good drum material. Next time I will just toss it and start with a new one.

AfroSonic in the New York Times today

The NY Times had an online piece about Providence that featured the AfroSonic Collective at Black Rep. The article had a great picture of Sidy.

Dance crazy

Drumming and dancing go hand in hand.

On Fridays, I have been going to AfroSonic at Black Rep to listen to my teacher and friends play drums to the amazing deep house played by the DJs. Often, during the first set, I am the only one dancing. Tonight I was having a hard time hearing the drums, so I just waltzed out to the middle of the dance floor, closed my eyes and let go. I was completely alone out there and I didn't give a shit.

I don't care if I look like a goofball. When I close my eyes and listen, really listen, to the rhythm, I am transported to another world. My body responds to the beat of the drums and the thud of the DJs. I feel the music in my bones, in my soul, in my body and just let go.

I try and listen for the subtle underlying beats, I sing along with the rhythm, I mouth drum accompaniments and feel it all flow through.

I think, as a drummer, it is good to dance to music.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Crying Game

During class on Sunday we were working on our old standby rhythm, Dansa, and I kept messing up the accompaniment. The accompaniment. We were playing fast and I couldn't stay on rhythm and I was getting psyched out.

There was a moment, when I was struggling to play this simple phrase that I know so well, this phrase that is embedded in my nervous system, that has become a part of my body, when I was struggling to play this thing, when I had a vision. I saw myself, years from now, still unable to play. I saw myself plugging away so hard, working so hard, and coming to realize, like the kid who dreams of playing soccer for living and finally comes face to face with the fact that it won't happen because he is just not, nor will he ever be, good enough, that I might never be good enough.

Not good enough.

And in that moment of doubt, I wondered if it is simply not possible, physically, to play as strongly or as fast as I want to play. Maybe my 43 year old body just can't keep up with the young guns, the lean, powerful, incredibly strong, 30-ish year old African men, even as an accompanist. Even as an accompanist.

In that moment I had doubt. A crack of doubt.

In that moment, I felt such a sense of loss, such grief, I had to get up and walk away because if I sat there and faced what I was feeling, I would have wailed like someone who had lost her best friend.

And the crazy thing is, even if it is true that I will never be a strong player, it doesn't mean I won't still play and love it and work and learn and get better. The process is amazing and is, truly, an end unto itself.

But in that crack of a moment, I felt a dream imploding and I felt so sad for the loss of it, I had to cry.

And I know that no one understood why I was crying. They thought I was frustrated or beating myself up or being hard on myself, or whatever... all of which was true, but those weren't the reasons I was upset.

I think Sidy might have understood, though. Maybe he has been there. Maybe it is part of the process to hit the wall and realize that it is going to get a lot harder before it gets easier and there are always going to be those cracks of doubt along the way.

Last night, I was back on my game, plugging away, laughing at my screw ups and silently thanking God for my little successes. I can't stay in the doubt. I have to just focus on the process and let things unfold, and work hard and try my best and most of all, have fun along the way.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

I just have to keep reminding myself

that humility is good for the soul.

I am not at all sure how humiliation ranks up there, but I will pray that it, too, is good, cause I sure have been getting a dose of it lately.

Sidy called me and asked if I wanted to play with him this afternoon. Yes! I said. Of course!

So he gave me directions and told me to meet him there at 4pm.

I was early. I pulled up to a park and realized with not a little horror that we were playing at the Nigerian Festival in Providence. As in, everyone in the audience is an African. As in, Oh My Freaking You-Know-What.

I tried not to get nervous. I tried to just remain calm and kept telling myself that Sidy wouldn't invite me if he didn't think I could do it. He wouldn't purposely set me up to fail, especially since it would make him look bad, too.

Lisa and Sidy showed up and we started to assemble under the trees. The stage was in the blazing sun, of course. (Why is that always the case, I wonder?) Another drummer, OB Addy, arrived to play with us. I know him from the Black Rep, and I was happy to see him.

We got on the stage and things started out ok. But I couldn't hear the dun duns or OB and I felt myself sliding off the beat. Sidy made a couple of attempts to get me back on, but finally, at one point he just told me to stop playing. On to the next piece. I swear, I felt like I had never picked up a drum before. I just wobbled around like a newborn goat up there. Somehow I managed to keep a smile plastered on my face, even as I was crashing like the Hindenburg.

I wonder if I will ever get better at this? Will I ever be competent enough so that I can play with Sidy without wanting to throw up afterwards? I told Sidy as we were heading out that I have to just get used to failure because if I let it get to me, I will put the drum down and never pick it up again.

Yup. Sucked in front of a hundred Africans. Good one.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hotter than....


Seriously. According to the BBC website, Bamako is about 85 degrees today. We are in the upper 90s with hellish humidity.

And in Bamako we'd be sitting around drinking beer and playing djembes.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sit, Stay, Bad Drum!


I screwed up on the head of my first bad drum. Nothing earth shattering, but a few rookie mistakes that I definitely won't make again.

First, I cut the skin a little too small to be able to fold a flap of fur over the edge, which is how I wanted to finish it. Especially on these drums, with the ridiculously oversized rings, it would have been nice to have fur hiding the mess underneath.

So, I had to clip the skin close to the rings. My mistake was that I did this before pulling the uprights, so the skin slipped a bit and I am not sure it is going to hold. I'll ask Sidy to inspect it for me tomorrow.

The next problem was that it was my first shave job with a double edged razor blade. I nicked the skin in a few places. I don't think it caused any structural damage, but I would have liked it if my shaving had come out nicer. I'll keep you posted on whether I have to rehead the drum again.

Even with those mistakes, I will say that the new head looks good. I will be interested to see if I can pull it tight enough to play.

Edited to add:

Sidy inspected the drum and said it was fine. Yippee!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Even a bad drum has something to teach

I am reheading a couple of drums that were poorly made. The rings are too big. The wood is cracked and badly carved. They were made from cheap softwood. The roping is a mess. When I took off the old skins they were filled with insect eggs. I think these drums were meant to be coffee tables, frankly. I almost feel bad putting new goatskins on them. I take some solace in the fact that said goats were made into stew that fed some families in Mali, so their lives were not completely wasted for the sake of bad drums.

But, I will say this, even working on a bad drum is a learning experience. In this case it is mostly what not to do... but even that has value.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

By the book

I am a geek. Really.

When I get interested in something, I am the type who looks stuff up on the internet, checks books out of the library, joins online forums about it, researches the history and culture. I immerse myself in learning as much about something as I can.

Back when I read tarot cards, for example, I learned a lot about the history and cultural influences of the tarot. I knew a lot of fellow geeks online and spent countless hours debating whether the cards were European, Indian or Arabic in origin. I learned about the various characters involved in their development and, of course, started collecting historically significant decks. (One of which I sold to finance my trip to Mali in January.) But at some point, all the reading ABOUT tarot wasn't going to teach me to read the cards. For that I needed to actually DO it. A lot. With others. Maybe even study, gasp, with real, live teachers. (Being the geek that I was, I traveled to New York City to do that, but that is an entirely other story.)

The reason I am bringing all this up is because over the weekend I met folks who are trying to learn to play drums by reading books, studying videos, and downloading rhythms off the internet. They were, in other words, drum geeks. But strangely, when I suggested they check out a class with a real, live, teacher from Africa, they seemed almost, well, offended. There was an awkward silence, blank stares, mild horror. I laughed about it all the way home.

One of the great things about learning to play drums with a teacher is that you... learn. Like, my slaps and tones, today, are clear and distinguishable. I can play a very subtle rhythm correctly because I have been corrected by my teacher over and over again until I get it right. I learned a new rhythm last week, heard it again this week and now can more or less play it without having had to write it down or record it. (A major accomplishment if you ask me.)

I am certainly a person who learns comfortably by reading about things. But when it comes to playing an instrument, especially one as subtle as the djembe, I do not think it is possible to learn it by reading about it. I think you have to pull out the drum, go to a class and study with a teacher who knows what they are doing.

But maybe that's just me, lol.

And by the way, I am a member of no fewer than 3 djembe forums, have the books and download stuff off the internet all the time. But then I spend 12 to 14 hours a month in classes and practice every day.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


Do you find yourself feeling vulnerable when you play? I have found that learning to play drums puts me in an extremely vulnerable place. I think it is because opening yourself up to be willing to try something new, with it's attendant mistakes and screw ups, you have to be willing to fail. And when your heart is really in it, failing requires that you drop all your normal defenses.

Last week, I drove to Fall River for a class with Sidy and on the way home, I was on the verge of tears, for no reason at all.

Actually, the reason had much more to do with what was going on that week in the rest of my life. I had been visiting a sick friend. My kid was out of town. My brother got laid off. My plans to visit my parents fell through. All kinds of things were bubbling away under the surface and when you sit down to play, you open yourself up to all that shit and up it comes. So the whole week's worth of emotions just came pouring out on the car ride home.

The inescapable fact is this: Playing djembe takes courage. It isn't for wimps. Because if you actually care about what you are doing, it is going to be hard. And to be open to failure requires that we break down all our normal walls.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Push comes to shove

Sidy has been pushing me lately.

In class, he'll sit with his head bowed, listening to me. Sometimes watching my hands intently. Then, he will lift his head, signal us to stop and tell me what I am doing wrong. "Your tones and slaps are muddy. They need to be clearer." or "That rhythm is off. You know you know it, but you are thinking too much and aren't able to play it."

I find this, frankly, thrilling.

I know he worries that I feel he is picking on me, but it is the exact opposite. I feel like I have reached some kind of threshold, where suddenly, it isn't about me ham-fistedly banging out the basic rhythms, but indeed, finessing the real essence of a piece from my drum. It is a refining process. It is, in other words, the kind of work that someone beyond beginner stage gets to do.

And believe me, it is a stretch. If I think about the tones and slaps, I mess up. If I think too much about anything, I lose my concentration and mess up. I am at the stage now where it works best for me to imitate what Sidy plays, rather than try and sort out what is a tone or slap, count the number of strokes, etc. I used to need to write it all down in black and white so I could wrap my brain around it. Now it is better to just listen and see if I can hear what I need to play and then try to play it. Over and over again.

Rhythms build slowly. First, it is a matter of remembering the handing. Then, the tones and slaps. Then, the swing of a piece begins to emerge. Then I listen to Sidy play it again, and it becomes painfully clear that it will be years before I can play it as beautifully as he does.

But that, too, is thrilling.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The drum is done!

I couldn't pull the uprights tight enough, but went ahead and threw a couple rows of diamonds in so I could check out the sound.

Sidy came by for a lesson today and pronounced the drum good. He even played it for awhile. Let me tell you, that was a complete thrill, listening to a djembefola playing a drum I rebuilt.

After he left, I took the diamonds out again and pulled the verticals tighter.... but I think I need a tool to be able to get them really tight.

I made a homemade rope pulling tool, but I broke it yesterday! Ha!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A new djembe head


I spent the day putting a new skin on my friend Lisa's drum... and let me tell you, it's hard work! With this one I was starting from scratch: new rings, new red fabric wrapping the top ring, new rope harness and verticals. The hardest part was getting the rings to stay even on top. Sidy might tell me it's not right and make me take it all out again.

But at the end of the day, I am excited that I was able to do it. I pulled the uprights tight enough so that the rings slipped down a little, where Lisa likes them. And I have wrapped the fur ring in an Ace bandage so it will dry nice and close to the drum.

Next up: shaving it and tightening some more. Then tune it up and hand it over to it's patient owner!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Making peace with my arms

I have always had fat arms. It runs in my family. So even for the 3 months that I was skinny in High School, my arms were chubby.

I hide my arms a lot. I wear 3/4 length sleeves, or at the very least, short sleeves. I am shy to wear tank tops, even on the hottest days. This is especially true when I am playing my drum because all the fat jiggles around and calls attention to itself.

But lately, I have been noticing that underneath the layer of extra flesh, muscles are forming. I can feel them. It makes me realize that even though they aren't pretty, my arms ARE the things that allow me to play my drum.

So I think it is time to make peace.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Rebuilding a drum

I have never been one for crafts or art. I just don't really have the attention span. My dad, for example, will attack a carpentry project and spend months on it, going over every detail, making sure it is beautiful and functional when it is finished.

I have never had the temperament for that. I rush stuff. I throw things together. I want things to get done.

So why, dear readers, do I love messing with fixing drums so much? This has been a complete revelation to me. A couple of months ago, my teacher started letting me work on drums. He started slow: tune a student's drum, unstring one with a broken head. Restring one that he had replaced a head on.

This week, he gave me my friend's drum to rebuild. It needs new rings, a new head, the whole deal. I measured the drum to fit brand spanking new cold rolled steel rings. My husband is having them made for me. I soaked the skin to get the old rings out. I undid all the ropes. And as soon as I have the new rings, I am going to wrap the rope ring with red fabric and string the rope loops and mount the skin on the flesh ring and run the uprights and pull them tight.

And for some reason, as I do this, step by step, I don't feel rushed at all. I don't feel like I want it to be done already. I am just enjoying each part of the process.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Finding my inner djembefola

At the drum circle in Cumberland last night, there was a point when a few of us djembe players strapped on our drums and stood up to play a slammin' rhythm that had the belly dancers going crazy.

I was the only woman, but baby, I manned up.

Now, before my drumming sisters out there give me grief about this, let me say that there is, for me, something kind of masculine about soloing on a djembe. I commented to my friend Sam that I felt really macho playing with the big boys and he laughed and said he tells his women students that when they play a djembe, they have to get in touch with their masculine side.

Am I saying that a woman can't be powerful? Not at all.

I experienced this same sort of phenomenon when I played roller blade hockey with a bunch of men in their twenties. I was the only woman on the team and had an absolute blast. There was never a point when I forgot that I was a woman, but it felt great getting into it with the boys and being able to play with them that way. (Until my husband nearly elbowed my teeth out!) And then I got pregnant and that was the end of that. But for one brief summer I would strap on my skates and grab a stick and check the guys and it was a blast. I felt great playing what was traditionally a man's game, with men.

I feel the same rush when I play the drum. Djembe is an instrument that has been traditionally played by men. It is great fun to jump in and go toe to toe (or hand to hand as the case may be) with a bunch of guys with big loud drums. 'Cause I got a big loud drum, too. And baby, I am not afraid to use it.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Finding the beat

I have been practicing to the house music I downloaded from Afrosonic's blog.

It is fun! And good because I can experiment and mess up and not feel self conscious about it.

So every day, I play to the music for awhile. And I take the music on my ipod when I go to the gym. And everyone must think I am off my rocker because I am mouthing drumbeats while riding the elliptical machine. And I don't give a damn because I am learning to hear the rhythms between the rhythms and that



Sunday, May 18, 2008

A much better night

I decided to head over to Warren to see if I could redeem my drum circle disaster from last night. This time the drive was only 25 minutes, the sky was clear, there was a beautiful moon and the drumming was fine.

I had a great time, playing very hard and doing little solo riffs. I experimented with my slaps and tones and could hear a big difference between them. When I loosened up, I played all over the drum head and even threw in a couple of solo parts from Sounou. It was a small group tonight, but we had a good time and sounded great.

I hadn't planned to go because two drum circles in a row seems like a lot, but I am so glad I did.

Afterwards, as I was leaving, I bumped into my former step father and his friend and we had a great chat.

It was da bomb, baby.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Maybe I am ruined

for other teachers. For other styles. For other classes.

I drove 1 hour and 25 minutes to a drum circle north of Boston last night. In the pouring rain. Thanking God for antilock brakes as I hydroplaned along the highway.

It was false advertising.

This wasn't really a drum circle in the traditional sense. Drum circles are when you gather and someone starts a rhythm and everyone jumps in and plays along and there is sometimes chaos and sometimes an amazing groove, but always the freedom to mess around. In this case, there was clearly a teacher and he was teaching us rhythms to play and pretty much wanted us to stick to what he was teaching. I tried playing around with the rhythms a little bit, experimenting with playing inside them. But during the break, the teacher came over and told me that I was taking over as the leader when I did that and it meant that he couldn't change the tempo.

'Sorry' I said.

So for the second half I just played what he told us to play. Except when I didn't because I was bored out of my bloody mind and would have gotten up to leave except that the room was so small I felt it would have created a scene to do so.

On the way home from the drum circle which was really a class, sort of, I called Sidy.

'I just want to tell you that I am so glad you are my teacher' I laughed.

$20 in gas. $10 to get in. 3 hours of driving in the pouring rain.

The first time in a year that playing a drum wasn't fun.

Friday, May 9, 2008


No, the angels didn't blow trumpets. The sky didn't crack open with sunbeams. The earth didn't shake.

But Sidy did lean over and hold out his fist for me to punch when I finally got the 3rd solo part of Mendiani down.

'You can feel it, now, can't you?' He asked.


And then we went on the 4th solo, which, remarkably, I really HAD remembered after hearing it only a couple times in class. I had a few little mistakes, but I was pretty darn close on the handing. Which means that now that I practiced it for a little while with Sidy, it's mine.

Lisa was here today too... which was fantastic because we are working on being able to jump in on each other's part. (She's on the dun duns.) We are trying to get so that we can just pick up in the correct place by listening to each other.

At the end of the lesson I felt great. Like, yeah, this is hard, but I can do it. We can do it.

And we rock.


(And maybe the angels were blowing a few horns. Who knows?)

Thursday, May 8, 2008


Here's a sample of Habib and his band from their Brussels concert.

Habib Koite in Providence

Last night the parents, kids, husband and I went to see Habib Koite at Lupos. What a great show!

Habib and his band played mostly stuff from the new album, Afriki... which by this point I know by heart, LOL. It was very exciting to hear the songs played live. Habib and his band are extraordinary musicians.

I will say that for me, the highlight of the night was listening to Mahamadou Koné, the talking drum player. He was simply spectacular, running around on the stage, madly playing a tiny drum wedged under his arm with a stick in his right hand and his left hand flapping against the skin at a crazy pace. The sounds coming from the drum were totally otherworldly. He clearly was in touch with the spirit of that drum!

Sidy came with us, but quickly disappeared to hang out with his friends from Mali. At one point, though, I bumped into him as he was leaving the bathroom and dragged him over to meet my friends Emily and Bill.

At the end of the concert, a few Malian musicians from the audience were invited onstage to play. Moussa, Sidy's friend from Boston, played djembe. Baila, another talking drum player, jumped in. And at one point they all started asking Sidy to come up, but he hung back. Later he said that there were already enough musicians up there. Perhaps that is true. For Sidy, it is not about the ego. It is about the music.

It was a great night.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Street Cred

When I first told my brother that I was taking up African Drumming, he chuckled. All he could imagine was a bunch of middle aged white women getting together to get 'spiritual' at some kind of drum circle.

Even after he met my teacher, he really didn't understand. He knew I was serious, but I think he had a hard time taking my playing seriously until he actually saw me play with Sidy. One night, Sidy and I sat down and played Dansa together. From that point on, Jake knew that this wasn't some American middle class dumbed down version of African drumming. It was the real deal.

I have come to face the fact that I will probably always have to prove myself as a drummer, not just because I am American, but because I am a woman, I am white and I am over 40. I have, in other words, no real credibility EXCEPT my skills. I did not grow up hearing this stuff at every wedding. I have no innate sense of rhythm. I have no cultural connection to this music. The only thing I have is dedication, hard work and the willingness to practice every day. Play every day. Take lessons 2 or 3 times a week. Eat, dream, sleep, wake up in the middle of the night working through a rhythm, every day. The only thing I have going for me is my love for this instrument, the culture it came from, and my amazing teacher.

I know there are people out there who don't think I deserve to play a djembe. There was a whole series of articles, recently, at Culture Central exploring this very issue.

Part of me is very sad about this. Part of me is angry. I feel compassionate, too, because I think I understand where it all comes from. But mostly I feel that the only way to prove that I deserve to play this instrument is to be the best player I can possibly be.

At the end of the day, there is really only one thing that matters. My teacher thinks I deserve to play. For me, that is the most important thing.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The suck factor

It is true that there are times when I feel discouraged by the fact that my skills on the drum are so limited.

After playing at Black Rep for a couple of songs on Friday night, I felt humbled. Playing to house music is a completely different skill than playing an African rhythm, and I felt like I wasn't really getting the beat... and wasn't finding a groove to play against it.

Yesterday I downloaded a few tunes from the Afro-Sonic blog to practice with and spent the morning trying to improvise to them. Then, I got out my metronome and practiced my Mendiani rhythms at different, faster, speeds. In both cases I was acutely aware of that gap I was talking about awhile ago: The difference between where I AM and where I want to be as a player.

But last night in class, I played really well. I was very focused, totally owning the rhythms... even the third solo that has been keeping me up nights. And the piece de resistance was that Sidy taught us a very complex 4th solo... and while I don't have the swing of it yet, I am pretty sure I remember the gist of the handing, which is, in itself, huge. I came home and started practicing it right away so that I wouldn't forget it.

I said to Sidy afterwards

"I do NOT suck."

But I wasn't telling him that. I think he already knows that. I think I was telling myself.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Pied Piper


I have to write another post about this morning. The more I think about it, the more blown away I am at how great Sidy is with kids. Picture 250 kids under the age of 12 sitting on the floor of the gym hanging on every. single. word.

It was pretty remarkable.

I got a sense that some of the kids Sidy picked to come up and dance or play were kids that usually have trouble concentrating or following directions or sitting still or whatever. But you know what? They had no problem whatsoever with dancing or banging a drum. They were engaged. Respectful. Excited.

The truth of this was apparent at the end when the children were asked if they had questions.

They had questions. Tons of them. Incredibly insightful questions.

Why are the drums so loud? (So that the neighboring village can hear them!)

Are there special outfits to wear at particular events?

What are the names of the dances you taught us?

How do you (the drummers) know your own parts and not get confused?

What a sweet, wonderful bunch of kids.

This is different

I know what stage fright can do to me.

A couple years ago, I studied piano. Julie, my teacher came to my house once a week and we labored through Mozart, Handel, some hymns. I practiced between classes, but most of the time had to force myself to do it.

One day my teacher suggested that I should play in public. She had a hymn sing coming up at the Unitarian church we were members of at the time. I had just learned the 'old 100th' music.... you know... 'praise God from whom all blessings flow.'

Sure, I said.

I practiced a lot. Every day. All day. I played it over and over again so I wouldn't be too nervous.

The day of the service arrived and I got to the church a little bit early so I could practice on the piano there. My teacher was working on something, though, so instead I decided to play it on the big pipe organ. Why not, I thought. It's the same keyboard, right?

So I practiced on the organ a few times and felt pretty confident that I could do it.

Then my turn came. I began well enough. The congregation was singing along. I was playing along. Then, all of a sudden, my stomach lurched and I was staring at the notes on the page realizing that I didn't recognize the music. My hands started flapping around on the keys. The wrong notes started bellowing out of the dozens of pipes at the front of the church. Full scale panic set in when I realized that I was not going to recover. I had forgotten the music... had forgotten how to read music...had forgotten everything I had studied for the past two years.

Afterwards, people were very kind to me. They said nice things to try and make me feel better. But there was something terrifying about the fact that I could screw up that badly on a piece I KNEW that well.

Fast forward to yesterday. Sidy called me and asked if I would play with him at a school gig this morning. Of course! I said. But at some point in the conversation, I confessed that I was a little nervous.

Don't be nervous, he replied. You won't be able to play. Don't worry if you make a mistake. His exact words were "I would rather have you suck than be nervous."

I put on a brave face and showed up with my drum.

But as we were playing today, I realized something. This is different from playing an organ for 100 people. In this case, the drums are the focal point, yes, but everyone within ear shot is somehow a part of the experience. They might be tapping their feet or rocking back and forth. They might be dancing or clapping along with the beat. They might even be just listening, but they are a part of the performance in a very real way. They are right there with us. For me, that changed the dynamic completely. The minute I began to play, I lost my nervousness and just started to have fun. I let go of my fear and tried to listen to Lisa on the dun duns and keep in time with her. It was a dun dun part I had never heard before, so I had to listen to where I was supposed to be and then stick to it. And, for the most part, I think I did it.

Meanwhile, Sidy was incredible with the children. They hung on every word. They danced, clapped, played a little bit. It was a wonderful, wonderful morning.

And yes, I think I sucked a little. But I wasn't nervous at all.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Gap

I once was talking with a friend about the gap between where you are and where you want to be in life. We were discussing spiritual growth, but I think the concept works for anything you are trying to develop.

I have been acutely aware of the gap between my playing skills as they are and the skills I want to have.

The other night, for example, I went to a drumming circle in Warren and one of my new Malian friends showed up. For part of the evening I sat next to him so we could play together. It was great fun, but left me realizing just how far I need to go before I am the kind of player I dream of being.

Vouloir, ce pouvoir.

I want to be able to play solos. I want to play stronger, harder, faster, longer, better.

But I also want to enjoy where I am right this minute... and not let the gap frustrate me too much.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Master Drummer Speaks

Abdoulaye Diakite talks about the djembe. LOVE this clip... especially the part about not pulling your ropes on a Friday night.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Learning a new rhythm

I love learning a new rhythm, even when it is so hard I cry.

When, at 3am, I wake up in the night with a rhythm playing in my head. Learning to sing a new rhythm. Using the stretched membranes of my vocal cords as a miniature drum to create the tones and sounds of a complicated pattern. In this I am learning the drum language of my teacher. Not the predictable (but useful) go do pa ta of the Nigerians, but the 'biddy ba, biddy biddy ba' of Mali. Or maybe it is just Sidy's drum language, but it is the one I am learning to speak.

I love driving home from class with a fresh rhythm in my heart, playing it on the steering wheel so I won't forget it before I get home.

Hearing Sidy play a new rhythm. I want to pull close, closer still, as though if I am right there, right there next to him, I will hear it more clearly... it will sink in more completely. I will smell it and feel it and sense it better. Because when he plays it, the sounds dance and sing, his drum's voice teases and cajoles and beckons my drum to follow.

I love the feel of the skin, even when my hands are sore. I close my eyes and feel the goat's backbone skin, thicker and, on my drum, curved, like a meandering path that leads to sonic bliss.

I love when I turn the corner on a rhythm. When it goes from unintelligible movements and sounds to a pattern. When I can spontaneously sit at a drum and just 'remember' the pattern without having to think about it. When it becomes woven into the fabric of my being and suddenly, unexpectedly, it is mine.

I love learning a new rhythm.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Malians

Two of Sidy's friends joined us for class last night and the energy was unbelievable. We played the Mendiani parts harder and faster than we ever had before. Lisa was slamming on the dun duns. I was slamming on the djembe. I think the Malian drummers were impressed at how good we were. And you could tell that Sidy was having a ball. Maybe he was even a little proud of us.

It was funny, but lots of the other djembe students don't have the parts yet, so the sound was a little cacophonis...but I hung onto Lisa's dun duns for dear life and it kept me on track with the rhythm, which is exactly what the duns are supposed to do. She later told me that she was listening to me, too. It is a little like mountain climbers who rope themselves together for safety. In the midst of the multitude of drum voices, we are listening only to each other and to Sidy and are able to cling to the side of the mountain without falling into the abyss. And when one of us did fall, the other was there to help pull her to safety.

Let me tell you, the view from the summit was spectacular.

It was great fun playing with Malian drummers. I can't wait to do it again.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Shea butter is my friend

My hands feel rough, so today I am putting a ton of shea butter on them.

Now my keyboard and mouse are greasy!

Or not

I felt so high after the drumming circle last night. The big boy djembe players came and played fast and furious and I kept up with them pretty well.

For me, the highlight of the night was when I started playing the Sounou accompaniment and got 30 drummers to find the groove. One guy in particular actually figured out the handing and was playing away next to me. Then, when it was well established, I started playing the solo riffs. It was AWESOME! Playing solo to 30 back up drums was such a gas. And I think Sidy would have been proud that I even improvised on the phrase. And I was playing in the rhythm.

So how strange that today at my lesson I was having such a hard time with the third solo voice of Mendiani. I just could not get it. I couldn't even hear how I wasn't getting it. I just knew I didn't have it. At one point, I actually felt myself tearing up. The funny thing is I don't know exactly why I wanted to cry. I wasn't mad or frustrated. Just kind of sad.

Later I called my teacher and asked him to sing the part to me over the phone one more time so I could try and figure it out. But I am still not sure if I have it.

Up the mountain and then crash.

Maybe I am fighting a cold.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Jesus and drumming

My friend Swandive dropped by and commented that the drumming seems to be a vehicle for transformation. I couldn't agree more. My friend Lucia and I are always talking about the parallels between being a Christian and being a drumming student.

The big one, of course, is humility. I am learning that true humility is possible when you are fearless. Or maybe it is that you can be fearless when you are humble. Doesn't that seem oxymoronic? (Or maybe just moronic, LOL!)

But really, when my teacher says I am not ready to do a certain thing, like play out with him at a gig, instead of feeling sad or disappointed, I feel great joy that the implication is that someday I will be ready. And I feel safe in his assessment of my skills... like he won't set me up to bomb. He will take care of me and give me just what I can handle... or maybe a little bit more so that in my mistakes I can grow.

God pushes me that way, too.

An another thing- I am learning to accept the fact that I may never be a great drummer. Maybe I will be just ok. But THAT is ok, too. Because I am the best drummer I can be. As a Christian, I can't possibly hope to be 'great'. That isn't the nature of a spiritual walk. I am just the best I can be and that is enough.

And sometimes I stumble. I falter on a beat. I get tired and have to stop. I lose a rhythm and can't find it again. Or, as a Christian, I act like an asshole despite my best intentions. I screw up. Yet even in those mistakes, there is the Grace of being able to learn and improve and sometimes deepen my understanding of the relationship because I am humble enough to be


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Too much is never enough


Eat. Sleep. Play. Work. Rehead.

A djembe, that is. Today I am stringing the uprights on one of Sidy's drums. It is my first go at it and I am fully aware that I might have to take the whole thing apart again if I do a bad job. When I formed the loops on the bottom ring of the drum, I had to take it out and redo it three times to get it right. But when Sidy asked if I wanted to give the drum back and let him finish it, I asked if I could keep it for awhile longer.

I love drums.

Monday, April 14, 2008


I am not sure what is going on, lately, but I am noticing that I am sounding a little feisty in my posts about drumming. Is my swagger keeping pace with my callouses? Am I feeling too big for my britches? Am I discovering my inner djembefola and she's one tough cookie?

I am not sure!

Over at the Big Dunk, I almost never get feisty in my posts. I am mostly writing about the awe and joy of my relationship with the Big Guy. But here, it's like I have discovered I have a dual nature. A drumming Jekyll and Hyde.

Do I need to tone it down a bit do you think?


Sunday, April 13, 2008

And now for something completely different

Today I drove to Worcester to take a Bodhran workshop with Mance Grady. Bodhran is an Irish frame drum. You play it with a single stick called a tipper. The drum I borrowed from my friend Tom was actually made by Mance, who is a well known player, drum-maker and teacher here in New England.

I know one workshop isn't enough to really understand an instrument, but I found myself missing the complex, heady brew of African rhythms I am used to.

We played a couple of pieces during the workshop. A reel, a jig and even a polka. Tappety tappety tappety tappety.

I got back to Grace church this afternoon, just in time to sit down with Lucia and practice the new Mendiani parts for an hour before class time tonight.

For whiskey, I might pick Ireland. But for drumming, I'll take Mali!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Banga Banga Bang Bang

I must respectfully disagree with an acquaintance's assessment that drumming should be slow and steady, 4/4 rhythm, meditative, trance inducing... you get the idea.

What about energizing? What about getting you out of your chair and dancing for hours because you can't possibly sit down while the sound waves are scrambling every molecule in your body. What about communicating the complexities of life in a rhythm with so many layers you can not possibly begin to tease them apart? What about ecstatic, crazy, bouncing in your seat, smashing your fingers to a pulp because you can't feel them anymore, energy?

No, drum circle friend. That might be true at circles. But that is not how drumming 'should' be all the time.

I tell you, all of Africa can't be wrong about this.

Naked drums and the whirling dervish

The naked drum:

Regular readers (as if I actually had such an animal) might remember that several months ago, while tuning his cowskinned djembe, Sidy broke the bottom ring. Well, fast forward through a trip to Mali, a bunch of new drums and a busy schedule and it might not surprise you that the drum was, as of a week ago, still sitting in a corner of Sidy's apartment, forlornly waiting to be repaired.

Enter Nguyen, my husband. Or more precisely, his friend Dave, who graciously welded the ring, gratis. I facilitated this by stripping the ropes from the drum. So, yesterday, while attending my lesson, I spied the naked drum sitting in the kitchen. I asked Sidy if I could try to restring it, knowing full well that my handiwork might stink and need to be redone. But how much fun! The top ring still has it's loops... all 31 of them. So, this morning, my challenge was to try and fit 31 loops on the bottom ring without running out of rope. (Trying to use the original rope is proving QUITE difficult.) I'll keep you posted on my progress.

The Whirling Dervish:
Last night I went to Black Rep for Afro-Sonic to play with Sidy and Lisa. It was fantastic. There were several other drummers. I tuned my djembe down a bit so I would be able to play more softly in the crowd. It sounded good. Unfortunately, after the second set, I made the mistake of offering my drum to a guy from Ghana. He never gave it back! So, rather than interrupt him to get my drum back, I just stood in front of the players and danced like a madwoman for over an hour. Note to self: Do NOT wear clogs for dancing, you dingbat.

I got home at three am and was so wired I couldn't sleep.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A Mendiani ass-kicking


Learned the accompaniment and first two solo parts to Mendiani tonight and all I can say is, well, wow.

I recorded them, but truthfully, I am not too sure I am going to be able to make heads nor tails of the recordings. I'll have to ask my teacher to give me the hand positions so I can write them down.

We made a little agreement in class that if we learn the parts really well, he will demonstrate the dance for us. You can bet we'll all be practicing! Ha!

In other news, one of Sidy's drum heads split as he was tuning it and I offered to unstring the ropes for him so he can replace the head. So tonight after class, I sat and watched cheesy tv while undoing impossibly tight diamonds made with incredibly scratchy rope. I had to use a flathead screw driver to pry the ropes apart, but even so my hands are sore. The incongruity of sitting in front of the tube doing something that has been done for millennia was not lost on me.

Next I want to learn to string it back up again.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

THIS is what I am talking about

Check it out:

Sidy Maiga, my teacher, jams on the djembe.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Freaking HUGE

blisters on my ring fingers and pinkies tonight. I mean, big, fat, full of liquid blisters.

I think I will have to tape them up to practice this week, so they don't burst all over my djembe.

Oh, yeah, baby. Badges of honor.

I wonder if I will ever get past feeling happy when my hands get trashed while playing?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sore fingers

We had a great class tonight. We met at the church and left the front door open, so periodically, folks would step in off the street and listen for awhile. One guy, who I think was drunk, sat in with us until he got too disruptive and we had to take his drum away. Too bad.

But oh, I just can't believe what a joy it is to play a djembe. Lisa, our dun dun player, is taking lessons and has been getting really good really fast. Sometimes I am grooving to her beat so much I just want to drop my drum and dance with her. But it is even more fun to play the djembe part against the duns and hear how the rhythms play against one another.

I couldn't stop singing the new part we learned... all the way home: TTSTTSSS... I didn't want to eat dinner, just play. Didn't want to talk to my brother, who was over. Just play. I'd be playing right now if it wasn't so late.

Lord, God. Thank you for my drum. My teacher. My fellow players. Thank you.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Splitting head ache- part 2

Not toilet paper, as James suggested in his comment. But yes, super glue. Who'da thought?

First Sidy took a flexible double edged razor blade and scraped across the skin to create some dust. I joked that he was mostly getting dried sweat, but no matter.

He made a little pile of the dust on the split at the edge and then impregnated it with super glue and let it dry.

That's it. It will hold for as long as it holds and I am fully reconciled that at some point my beautiful goatskin will have to retire. In the mean time, I am going to order some kevlar rope so that when it does break, I can be ready, as some of the rope on my drum is a bit frayed.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Big Mali Adventure

North America? Check
Europe? Check
Asia? Check
Africa? Bring it on, baby!

I think this might actually happen. Sidy is planning a 2 week workshop in Bamako in January, 2009 and I am thinking that unless some kind of disaster strikes, I am going!

He is going to arrange for a house for us to stay in and we'll take drumming and dance classes every day, then go to social events and parties in the evenings and on weekends. Want to come? Check his website for updates as the details start to come together. You can email me, too, to get on a mailing list for information.

Bamako 2K9.

Oh yeah.

Playing with kids and a goodbye of sorts

Last night Sidy was sick, so he asked me if I would teach the kid's class.

Uh, Yeah! It was great fun. I asked the kids to teach me the rhythms they have been working on and they did. At one point we were floundering a bit, so Sidy came over and showed us the proper way to play it, but after that we were on our own. It was good fun.

Later, for the adult class, we were working on Wassolonka. We got a new part to it, which I like a lot, even though it is very simple. But Sidy told us that next week is our last week playing Wassolonka before we move on to a new piece. It has been three months now. Time to say goodbye to it.

I am excited about what is next.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A splitting head-ache

There I was, happily playing away this afternoon, when I noticed a bump on the head of my drum. How very strange, I thought as I leaned over for a closer look.

Then, to my absolute horror, I realize that the bump is in fact a tiny bit of the skin that is splitting on the edge. My heart stopped. My throat clutched. I looked around for a bag to breathe into.

Then I called my teacher to ask if there is a way to prevent the whole thing from splitting apart.

He reassured me that even if it splits, he will put a new head on it for me. He has beautiful new skins from Mali. And I know he loves this drum as much as I do. He will do a great job.

But, I LOVE my drumhead.

I guess as a player, I have to get used to the fact that these things don't last.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Vouloir ce pouvoir

Roughly translated "If you want it, it can happen" Or perhaps it is more of an imperative.... "If you want it, make it possible"

Sidy told me this Malian saying when I told him that I want to be a better drummer.

Today, as I requested, we worked on my repeating edge patterns. First, I have to get better at making distinctive tones and slaps. I need more practice with this.

Next, we started working on some of the subtle rhythms from Wassolonka. I am training my ear to hear how it is supposed to sound. He has me singing the part then playing it. We were working on the 6th voice of the piece, which I learned last week. I realized, finally, that I was over-emphasizing the initial bass and had to put the emphasis on the tone that follows instead. That shifted the sound enough for the rhythm to start to emerge. I can't tell you how cool it is to work on something and then finally get it.

Of course I will probably forget it by Monday's class, but I think now that I have played it correctly, it will be easier to get it right next time.

What joy this is.

Tonight I am going to the drumming circle at the Blackstone River Theater. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Playing my drum to sing

There are a few rhythms that have repetitive edge hits. Dansa has one, Wassolonka has one... Sounou, too.

When Sidy plays them, it is like the drum is singing. It is beautiful. When I play them it sounds like someone slamming a 10 penny nail with a 1 lb. hammer. It is a sad story.

Part of the difference is that Sidy's tones and slaps are very distinctive. Part of it is that he is varying the tempo as he plays to give it texture. In my case, I am neither playing distinctive tones and slaps, nor varying the tempo. I just pound the edge of the drum in time and hope for the best.

So tomorrow, at my lesson, I want to work on the repetitive parts and see if I can get my drum to sing a little, too.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Jones

All weekend I have felt like a cat in a cage. Restless. Yesterday I finally figured out that I wanted to play drums. I looked online to see if there were any drum circles going on. No.

Today I got a tiny tease. We played at my church for the Palm Sunday service, but only for a few minutes. I wanted to play more.

I am restless.

I could practice. In fact, I WILL practice.

But it isn't the same as playing with my peeps.

I have the jones. Bad.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Habib Koite is coming to RI!

I just got word that Habib will be playing Lupos in Providence on May 7th. Tickets are $35 each for adults and $20 for kids and will raise money for the Global Alliance to Immunize against AIDS, a local RI Foundation that does much work in Mali.

Here's the info:

Host: Annie, Sophie, Robert and the GAIA Vaccine Foundation *
Location: Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel
Washington Street, Providence, RI 02903 US
When: Wednesday, May 7, 8:00PM
Phone: 401.453.2068

I'll see you there!

Toughen up

I practiced a lot today and my hands are starting to get their callouses back. Yeah.

This morning I went to the demon-spawn Walmart and bought some cotton webbing to make a djembe strap. I bought 7 yards, but 6, or even 5, would have been enough. The webbing is much thicker than the strap Sidy uses, but I like it. It is more comfortable, especially with my big, heavy drum. I spent some time playing standing up today to get the feel of it.

Also, Sidy and I are starting to talk about the trip to Mali next winter. We are going to set up a 2 week intensive class in Bamako and invite people to come. I am really excited about it. I'll let you know as the details emerge... but it will be a great time. Not only will we play drums every day, but we'll get to go to social events listen to other drummers, take dance classes and generally immerse ourselves in the culture of Mali for a couple of weeks. Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in getting more information.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Readers of my other blog, The Big Dunk, know that this has been a tough week. One of my husband's sisters died over the weekend and it has been a very sad time. Yesterday, the last of the formal rites of passage, the cremation, took place.

So today, when my teacher called to ask if I wanted to get together for a lesson, I said yes.

This was the first time since I got back from Vietnam that we got together and I was amazed at how relaxed I felt. Usually for a private lesson, I get all nervous. I think that too much has happened in the last few weeks for me to get twitchy about drumming at this point. I was just happy to see my teacher and excited to be playing my drum.

He taught me a new part to Wassolonka, which was challenging. Normally, I can't get a new part when I first learn it. I get all flustered, make tons of mistakes, which gets me more flustered, and then have to abandon it until I am alone to work through it. Today, though, I just kept trying until I more or less had the handing and then started to listen for the rhythm. I was excited that I was able to get it the first time out, especially since it is a tricky piece.

My drum sounds fantastic. While I was in Vietnam, I think Sidy tuned it even higher than it was before and I am delighted with how expressive it sounds now. I am really beginning to hear the difference between tones and slaps and am finding that by using the correct one, the rhythm of the piece is easier to grasp.

And yes, when I was listening to my teacher demonstrate the part, I was, again, blown away by how beautiful it sounds when he plays it. I laughed and said I sound like a sledge hammer.

But truly, it was sweet to just pick up a part and play.

Another cool thing: This Sunday, Palm Sunday, at my church, Sidy and my fellow students and I are going to play during the service. I am so excited for my churchy friends to get to hear my drummy friends.

If it wasn't Lent, I would say Hallelujah.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Cham drummers in Vietnam

Aside from the fact that they are beautiful, they were amazing players, too.

The drums are headed with goatskin on one end and buffalo hide on the other. The drummers mirror each other, with their upper hands on the goatskin head and a drumstick in their lower hand beating the buffalo skin.

The rhythms were complex. They were layering 4 different rhythms at a time. It was really amazing!

I am going to try and find out about buying one of the drums and maybe set up a lesson with these guys next time I am in Vietnam.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

I'm back, baby

After three weeks in Vietnam, I am home and had my first djembe class last night. What a blast!

First, I got to see my drum again after a long absence. It looked beautiful, but more importantly, sounded great. Sidy had it while I was away and I actually had a nightmare that it broke while I was gone... but nope, it is in fine shape. I had to laugh because my hands got very sore while playing last night. They are way out of shape.

Sidy's new drums came in while I was gone, too. They are just gorgeous. I saw a few of them last night and can't wait to see (and play) the rest of them. One of the kids in the children's class bought one of them and it is about the prettiest skin I have ever seen.

During class, Lisa was playing the dun duns and it was wonderful to be laying the djembe parts over the bass drums. It helped to make us aware of the rhythm and timing. I felt like we were really starting to dig into the intricacies of the piece we are working one. Lisa was using real African drumsticks, too, which are shaped a little like hammers and are made of a very light wood. (Almost as light as balsa, really.) They were very cool indeed and she sounded great with them.

We had a couple of new students, too, who were able to pick up the rhythms very quickly. It was kind of unbelievable, actually, because Wassolonka has such complex rhythms.

So, I am back. I am happy to be playing again.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Practice makes...

...well, not perfect, but better that before.

I have been running through all the pieces I know over the last couple of days. First Wassolonka, then Sounou, Dansa and Sidiyasa. It is interesting to play them all in a single session. Altogether it is about 20 rhythms. I want to do this while I am in Vietnam so I don't forget them while I am gone.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

3 more days....

I have three more days before we leave for Vietnam and I am debating whether to bring my small drum. Honestly, I think I will try and pack it if we have room. It seems impossible to imagine nearly three weeks without playing, especially since I have been hearing the dun dun rhythm in my head all day.

Which, by the way, leads me to make this statement:

Beware of redheads with drumsticks. And I don't mean chicken legs.

I asked my son Noah if I could borrow the drumsticks I gave him a few months ago so I could practice the part I learned yesterday. I have been walking around the house banging on any surface that isn't breakable. I remember the two parts, but still can't figure out how to put them together without my brain exploding.

3 more days.

I wonder if the folks sitting in coach on United Airlines flight 743 to Hong Kong will mind me banging on the back of their seat for 16 hours?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

It's always fun until someone ends up in tears

The other night Sidy warned us that when we are faced with a difficult piece, we may cry because it is so hard. I laughed, knowing it is true.

At my lesson this week, I cried.

Sidy had his dun duns with him for another lesson, so I asked if he would teach me the dun dun part for Sounou. I figure it would be good to know.

Dun duns are the big bass drums of Mali. They are large wooden cylinders with cowskin heads. He plays his with regular drumsticks, but he holds them backwards, with the tapered end in the palm of his hand.

Well, let me tell you. Dun duns are freaking hard. For Sounou you basically have to play two different rhythms, one on each drum, at the same time. I just couldn't get it. I tried. I tried. I tried. I could more or less play each rhythm independently, but when I tried to put them together, my brain froze and I was like a deer in the headlights.

Then, in a moment of compassion (or exasperation), Sidy had me play an easier piece.... where the hands work together. It WAS easier, but in the middle of it, I just lost it and couldn't find the rhythm again. No matter how hard I tried, it was gone.

Which is when I started crying.

Sidy said he was glad I cried about drumming. It shows that I recognize how hard it is.

I say I'll cry every day if it will make me a better player.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Timing is everything

In class last night, we started working on the details of the pieces we are playing. We practiced the pick ups for all the parts. Over and over we played them.

"You're coming in late" Sidy would say.

We'd try again and again to come in at just the right moment.

Then we learned a complicated new part that we had to play at half speed until we could get the handing. Sidy laughed when he said we would have to play it almost twice as fast.

"This isn't supposed to be easy" he smiled. "Sometimes you are going to cry because it is so hard."

I believe him.

Speaking of timing, I found out today that Black Rep's Sound Session festival is the same week I am supposed to be in Chicago for a conference. What a bummer of a dilemma!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Gym Dandy

I have been working out for the last few weeks. I joined a gym in order to get in better shape for the Big Trip to Vietnam, but a bonus side effect is that I am building my upper body strength so I will have more endurance when drumming.

I want to be able to play for hours without faltering.

Also, if any of you know anything about drums in Vietnam, please clue me in. There appears to be virtually nothing online about it.

Inquiring minds want to know.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The nose

I used to have an employee who disparagingly called me 'the nose'. (I won't get into why she called me that!)

My sense of smell has always been one of my keenest senses.

So one of the things I love most about my African djembe is that it still smells like the goat it is made from. I love the way my hands smell when I play. I love that the fragrance wafts up when I am hitting the skin.

After I lent my drum to my teacher for a week, it came back smelling like cologne. I am not sure if it was his, or if he lent it to a friend to play, but the skin smelled sweet and perfumy. I worried that the goat smell was gone for good.

I am happy to report that after a week of airing out, the goat is back, baby. That earthy, goaty, animal woodsy barnyard dusty dirt road in Mali smell is stronger and more beautiful than any artificial cologne could ever be.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

8 months

After 8 months you would think I could play a decent slap. A distinctive tone. A bass that doesn't wobble.

But nope.

Now that I can hear them on the recordings, I am painfully aware that I can't do it. I hear them teasing me from Sidy's drum: Slap, here, sister. Tone there. Hear how it sings when you do it right?

Yeah, I hear it. I can hear it.

But damn. I can't play it.

I can't play it, but I love that I can hear it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A long way to go

Last night during class, my teacher was demonstrating how to play the third rhythm of Wassolonka. I sat and listened, and was simply blown away by how beautifully he played it. It is easy to be impressed with his soloing. He is a powerful and exciting player and when he moves around a rhythm there is really nothing else like it. But this was different. Here he was simply playing a straightforward rhythm to demonstrate how it is done.

Perhaps my ear is improving. I found myself able to hear the tones and slaps and noticing how they affected the timing of the piece. I could hear the tiniest hesitation between a tone and bass. I sensed a subtle difference in how hard he was hitting the skin, which affected the rhythm oh so slightly. It was like listening to Yo Yo Ma warm up on the cello.

I found myself awestruck, really. I could hear 15 years of playing in that phrase. Years and years of working with some of the best teachers in Mali. Years and years of practice. I could hear generations of players, each teaching, laughing, scowling, reprimanding, ignoring, encouraging. By contrast, I could hear myself, ham fisted, sounding like I was driving a sledge hammer. My drum is waiting patiently for me. I know it may be years before I grow into my drum. Before my skill matches it's beauty. It's power. It's subtlety.

And strangely, I don't find it discouraging at all. Quite the opposite. There is something incredibly exciting about being a novice with a beautiful instrument. It is as if I am earning it every time I improve, even the tiniest bit.

Someone on the djembefola forum once asked how good a player we want to be. I joked that I aspire to mediocrity. But after last night, I have to admit, I dream of making my drum sing Wassalonka like Sidy's does.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Out with the old

Just for kicks I decided to listen to my recording of Sidiyasa, which was really the first rhythm I worked on for any length of time. (And boy, we worked on it for months!)

It was humbling. After playing these parts every week, over and over again until I could hear them in my sleep, today I was totally confused by what I was hearing on the recording. I had to go find my notebook to sort out the handing of the rhythms. That floored me. In some cases it was like I was hearing them for the first time.

It was a powerful lesson that I will have to keep practicing the old rhythms even while I am learning new ones, or I will just lose them. It also reinforced the value of writing them down, even though now I don't have to do that to be able to work on them. But months from now, when Sounou is a distant memory, I will likely forget how it works if I don't keep a record of it somewhere.

I have found that with the piano pieces I knew, too. At one point I could play them blindfolded, from memory. Now I can only remember little bits and pieces, and even looking at the music, it is like trying to read Greek.

So, today, I am going to write crib notes for Wassolonka and Sounou and Dansa so that in the future, I won't lose them.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The good, the bad and the not-so-ugly

The second time anyplace is always easier than the first. Now I am not a newcomer. I recognized people at the Blackstone River Theater drum circle last night. The belly dancer. The guy with the orange congas. The facilitator. The older women who introduce themselves by their spirit names.

Lots of new faces too, including a guy I recognized from Sidy's class. He came only once, but played Dansa pretty darn well. Last night he had a dun dun that he made out of a barrel. It was great.

There were a couple of other djembe players there. One mild mannered guy with a nice, out of tune drum. And another guy who came with his djembe and what I think was sort of an electric blue bougarabou who proceeded to tune his drums right there in front of God and everyone. He was using a boat clamp to pull the ropes, which reminds me that I want to stop by the marine store and pick one of those up for my teacher.

So, the good: I love any opportunity to play. We went on for three hours straight and it is excellent practice to try and find rhythms within rhythms, especially for someone with no percussion background at all. There were points when I really started to play with variations on the rhythm and that is fun. But, I am definitely NOT solo material at this point. I tend to find a rhythm and stick to it for dear life. I make a good backup djembe player, I think.

The bad: I think it is that nature of a drum circle, with it's wide range of skills, that the rhythms tend to be very simple and almost plodding. By the end of the night I was getting a bit bored with the sound. It is particularly true when you compare the simple drum circle stuff to the wonderfully rich and complex rhythms of West Africa. For me, the absolute highlight of the night was when blue bougarabou guy struck up a West African rhythm that a couple of other folks apparently knew. Much livelier.

I considered playing the accompaniment to Sounou to get things going, but I learned last time that if a rhythm is too dense, people find it hard to jump in. Maybe next time.

The beautiful: I love the belly dancers! It is so much fun to play for people who are dancing to your music.

Oh, and one other thing. My drum is still tuned way up and man is it LOUD. I had a very hard time trying to stay in the background. Next time I go, I am either bringing the Toca or tuning down my African drum a bit.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


The piece that was kicking my butt last night was Wassolonka. My energy was so low I just couldn't focus at all and was messing up even the pieces that I did fine with last week. Then, we learned a new part that is actually three elements strung together. None of them, on their own, is that difficult, but for some reason I was just completely unable to put it together.

Today, I sat down with the recording and worked my way through it. The key, for me, is practice. I have to get to a point where I don't have to think about it anymore. It has to stop being cerebral and work it's way into my muscles, my heart, my body. Then I can play a piece without errors.

I still have a long way to go with Wassolonka.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Dive bomb

I suppose it's inevitable to crash after such a high as last Friday. But yikes I bombed in class tonight. It was so strange. I felt completely unfocused and out of it. I kept messing up the rhythms we were learning, even though last week I was able to play them all pretty well.

It's a funny thing, learning an instrument.

Humility is good for the soul though. So tomorrow I'll practice and see if I can do better next week.

For tonight, bed.

snap crackle pop

I thought my drum was tightly tuned before. Now it is like playing on concrete. But wow it sounds crisp! I like it. I am not sure I want to keep it that way, though. I might want to tune it back down when my teacher is finished using it this week.

In the mean time, I have it back and have been experimenting with using the strap to play standing up. Surprisingly, the strap that Sidy attached fits me pretty well. What I lack in height I apparently make up for in width, LOL. So the drum hangs at about the right height for me. But dang it is heavy. My drum is really a brute. I think if I was going to be playing standing up a lot, I will have to work on my back muscles, or perhaps have a second, lighter, drum. One great thing about playing standing up is that you can swing along to the rhythm.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Beauty shot

Yeah, Sidy is handsome and all. But look at my drum!

This should be illegal

The gig last night was a huge success. And I have never in my life experienced anything quite as exciting. Three of us students played back up to Sidy at Black Rep for the big reopening party. It was an incredible experience.

More later.

When a good tuning goes bad

Yesterday I was so excited and anxious about our big debut at Black Rep I couldn't eat. In the morning I went to the gym and worked out. Later Sidy came by for my lesson and tuned his drum while I played all my Sounou parts for him.

The drum tuning was interesting. Instead of two ropes at a time, he was pulling in sets of three. He explained that this was because he was tuning a cowhide, which needs to be much tighter to sound right. At one point I asked him if I could try pulling the rope.

"I don't think you can do it." he said.

But he pushed the drum towards me on the floor. I took off my shoes and held the drum with my feet. Because of the triple rope, you actually have to pull the rope through in two stages. I wrapped the rope around a metal tool, like Sidy showed me, then leaned back into my chair, bracing the drum with my feet. The first two ropes snapped into position. But the second two simply wouldn't budge. I leaned back harder and realized that if I pulled too hard I might hurt myself.

While I was playing, Sidy pulled an entire row of the three rope diamonds. Then he tested the drum and decided it still wasn't tight enough, so he started on a second row. Each diamond makes the whole operation progressively harder. By the end, I really can't believe how strong he has to be to make it work.

All this time I was playing my parts, working the transitions, practicing the breaks. Now and then he'd take his drum and play a bit for me to show me what I was doing wrong. Then he'd go back to pulling more diamonds.

All of a sudden, there was a terrible snap sound. At first I thought his rope broke, but soon realized that he had put so much pressure on the drum the bottom iron ring actually snapped apart. The welded seam gave way.

Oh no! Suddenly, Sidy was without a tuned drum for the show last night. So of course I gave him mine. He tuned it up a bit higher (assuring me he wouldn't break it!) and at the end it sounded high and crisp and very tight.

I have asked Sidy in the past if I could help him rehead a drum sometime. After yesterday, I am not sure I will be physically strong enough to do it. But if it is anything like the tuning, I would love to see it.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Playing out!

After a couple a couple of weeks closed for repairs, Black Rep in Providence is reopening tomorrow night with a big celebration. The festivities begin at 5pm and go on until closing time.

And here's the kicker: Sidy called me today and said he wanted to play with some of his students! So tomorrow night a few of us, including my kids, will be gathering at Black Rep and drumming in the new year together. It has been one of my goals since starting to play and I couldn't be more excited. I promised my teacher I would try not to embarrass him!

The fact that it is my birthday tomorrow is just, well, cake.

Come on down and dance with us! We'll be there between 7 and 9pm or so.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The language of the djembe

I think I have reached a significant milestone. This afternoon, while practicing, I remembered one part of the rhythm we learned last night.

In the past, I have been able to remember bits and pieces of a part, but usually not the whole thing. Today, though, I am pretty sure I am playing at least one of the parts we learned in more or less the correct rhythm. I definitely got all the handing in there.

It feels like there are stages of development as a new drummer. At first, it all seems like the linguistic equivalent of gibberish. Trying to reproduce the sounds and movements without painstakingly writing it all down or recording it (or both) is nearly impossible.

Little by little, though, one begins to discern patterns. Recognizes a word here or there. Can put together simple sentences from memory. Like a language, there are building blocks that provide the foundation. Once you are familiar with the building blocks, it becomes easier to put them together into something meaningful.

And like a language, you begin to dream it when you sleep. I remember the dreams I used to have when I studied French. Strange conversations that felt far more natural than anything I could summon when awake. Now I dream in rhythms. In my dreams I play my drums. I see my hands on the skin and hear the sounds. And sometimes they get so loud they wake me up at night.

What is amazing is that my 7 year old can already speak this language. This morning he sat at a drum and showed me all three rhythms they learned last night. The 11 year old argued about the handing of one of the parts and Emmett simply corrected him.

Could I speak this language when I was 7? Am I, at nearly 43, reclaiming a tongue that comes naturally to children? Or is Emmett just particularly good at it? I don't know. But I know that learning this language, which is so difficult for me, is one of the most joyful things I have ever done.

Monday, January 7, 2008


Class tonight was incredible. There were 7 of us in the class, most of whom had some drumming experience by now. Sidy taught us a new rhythm and it was just amazing. The whole group gelled. Even the brand new student picked up the rhythms quickly and was able to play along. Sidy joked that she will be teaching him someday.

I love this class. There is something astounding about playing with others. We held up the groove while Sidy, even jet-lagged from his long flights, played stunning solos.

Later, I told Nguyen that watching and listening to a great drummer is very exciting, but playing with him takes you to a whole other place. I am not sure I'll be able to sleep tonight. My adrenaline is still pumping 3 hours later.

I am very excited about the class. (can you tell?) The students are good. The teacher is incredible. We are going to have fun.

I didn't record the rhythms tonight, but I will post them when I get them so my fellow students can practice.


Sidy's djembe classes start tonight

I am getting excited.

My teacher is home from Mali and our class meets tonight for the first time in over a month. I can barely contain myself. (Deep breaths...)

Yesterday I ran through Sounou and Dansa with barely a wobble. Even got the pickups and breaks right, I think.

It looks like the classes will have a bunch of folks, too, which is exciting. The kids class has 6 and the adults will have around 8, I think.

On New Year's Eve I had a bit of a shock when I walked past Black Rep and realized that they were closed. There was a cryptic sign on the door saying they were closed until further notice due to construction. Later I found out that the ceiling had fallen in over the stage. Thanks to God that it was a few hours before the performance and no one was hurt. Since Black Rep is still closed tonight, we are meeting at Grace Church for the classes. I think it is going to be wonderful!

So, if you are planning to come down, Grace is on the corner of Westminster and Matthewson, a block down the street from Black Rep.

For Children's Djembe, get there at 6pm. Adults are at 7pm.

I will see you there!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Back where it started

On New Year's Eve, Grace church had an 11pm service and invited me and my fellow drummers to play on the church steps for a 1/2 hour before hand. It was an absolute blast. 6 or 7 of us showed up with our djembes and sat in chairs in a semi circle on the sidewalk in front of the church.

Since, as a group, we have a wide variety of experience playing, we decided to go more or less drum circle style. I played a steady African rhythm and other folks either joined me or played counterpoints to it. It's true that we were a bit wobbly at a few points, but overall I think it was a big success. The folks on the street loved it. A few even sat down to join us, since we had a couple of extra drums. We even drew a few people in to the service. And my friend Peter put a basket in front of us and we made $3!

In an odd way, it felt like coming home. Playing on the church steps last spring was what motivated me to buy my first djembe and start taking lessons. How amazing that that was less than a year ago. I feel like I have been playing forever.