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.