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.