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.