Sunday, December 6, 2009

No where else

I have been mourning my friend Maze a lot lately. It has been a very private, difficult thing.

Because none of my family ever knew him. They never got to meet him or hear him play his drum, or see the gentle beauty of his soul.

The other day I was driving to work listening to my field recordings from Mali. I have one, in particular, that is a recording of Sidy teaching Maze a song he wrote.

There I was, on a beautiful sunny day, listening to this sweet music, which brought me back, instantly, to the courtyard of our house in Mali, with Maze and his gorgeous new drum. I could not hold back the tears.

Maze died in late May, and by June I was working at an incredibly demanding job. And I didn't get to go to any kind of funeral or memorial event. And I didn't get to really talk about it with anyone. And even when I did, it really didn't help. Because there is no help for a loss like this. And really, no one wants to talk about someone else's grief, do they? This is a sadness that I carry alone.

So I write on this blog, which really no one reads. Because I just have to say that

I miss Maze Kouyate.

My life will never be the same for having met him. And it will never be the same for having lost him so suddenly and unexpectedly.

Tu me manques, mon cher.


My goatskin djembe is done. After fits and starts, it has a new skin and sounds fantastic.

The first replacement sounded like crap because I didn't put it on well. Sidy tried to fix it for me, but the damage was already done. Then, when he was tuning it for me, the new head popped. What a ton of work gone to waste.

The drum sat for a long time until finally, this week, Sidy had time to do another head. This time he did the whole thing, so it is perfect. He brought it over yesterday and finished tightening the vertical ropes while I practiced sumale. I still can't get over how amazing it is to watch him work on a drum. It is a full body experience, squatting on the drum, which is lying on it's side, pulling the ropes with a hunk of hardwood stick. So much physical energy goes into it. I swear I want to build a pulling stand sometime. It would save so much work.

The drum sounds gorgeous. I tell you this shell is just amazing. And this new, thin, skin, is dry and crisp and oh so sweet, even without a full tuning. I am so happy to have it back.

I missed my drum.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Billy Konate

The son of possibly the most famous djembefola of all, is teaching a workshop this weekend and I have been going and dang, I am having fun.

Billy is a great teacher, I think. He gauges the skills of his students very accurately, then pushes you to your limit in the gentlest possible way.

I will happily write up a full report when it is all over, but in the mean time, if you have the opportunity to study with him while he is here (just three short weeks, sigh.) GO!

Oregon next. Then back to Boston.

Whirlwind gig.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Sound Session

Last week, I went to Black Rep for Afro-Sonic. And how 'bout that Sidy Maiga dragging me onstage and inviting me to play?

I had a great time, and some wonderful new blisters to show for my set. (I was playing someone else's drum. Thanks, Mike, for letting me sit in....)

I tell you what. I have gotten over my fear and all I feel when I play is JOY.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Soaked to the skin

My new goatskin is soaking in the kitchen. I love the smell of it. A gentle, slightly oily, animal smell that reminds me of my days on the farm.

This skin is preshaved, so it has the texture of razor stubble. It is very different from the oh so smooth surface of my old skin. Perhaps I will sand it smooth after it dries. Or maybe I will just play it as is.

In any case, no more spots. This was a black goat with a solid color.

I took off my old skin before it tore completely.... I was able to trim it into a circle and it is now hanging on the wall of my office. That skin taught me everything I know about drumming. I hope this new skin takes me to the next level of my journey. I hope I grow to love it as much as the old one.

The shell, by the way, is an object of such beauty in it's naked state. It, too, has a heady fragrance... the remnants of the old goat along with the strong smell of the wood itself. Inside the bowl, it is carved in an intricate spiral pattern that eases the sound down into the base. It is really a piece of art.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Oh my aching head

After 18 wonderful months, my beautiful spotted goatskin is finally coming undone. Today as I pulled it from my bag, I noticed that it has begun to split right at the bearing edge. It is now a matter of time before it pops.

So I am going to rehead this one with goatskin. I am thinking thicker rather than thinner. And it is such a swell drum I know it will still sound fantastic when I am done. I can only hope I get another 18 months out of the new skin.

It has been such a joy to play this goat. I am sad to see her go.

Monday, June 15, 2009


This weekend I had the opportunity to attend a drumming workshop taught by Mamady Kourouma, aka Wadaba.

Wadaba is from a village in Guinea and it was great fun to be able to get a different perspective on the djembe.

We started on Friday evening with a song called Sotemabandani. Since Friday was only a couple of hours, we didn't learn the dun dun parts, just three accompaniments and some solo phrases. I liked how he structured the class. At one point he divided us into three sections and we swapped the accompaniments so we each got to try all three. What a sound! We had three folks on the dun duns..... Alan Tauber was on the dununba, and two other teachers from the Drum Connection were on the Sangban and Kenkeni.

For the solo phrases, Wadaba just played and we mimicked. For this song, I found it pretty straight forward and was easily able to copy what he was playing. That lulled me into a false sense of security because the next day I got my ass kicked, LOL.

Saturday's workshop was a full day, starting at noon and running until 5 pm. That gave us plenty of time to dig into another song, Subamasoli.

This time we started on the bass drums. I had no problem learning the Sangban and Kenkeni parts because the bell patterns corresponded to the drum strokes in a very straightforward way. On the dununba pattern, however, I was completely flumoxed. I never did get the whole thing together and wound up just ignoring the bell and playing the drum. (It's that whole walk and chew gum issue, LOL. It is a very painstaking process for me to get to the point of doing two things at once with my hands.)

Again, we split into three groups and we got to play each of the bass parts in turn. What a blast!

Next, the djembe. This time, Wadaba showed us just one simple accompaniment pattern, but even that got tricky because he had half of us playing it on the up beat and the other half on the down beat. The resulting rhythm was incredibly complex, especially when laid over the three bass drums.

Things got REALLY challenging when we moved on to the solo phrases. I managed to hang on pretty well for a few of them, but then he pulled out a series of very complex rhythms in a single phrase and for the life of me I couldn't play them. He was going full steam ahead and I was hanging on for dear life. Fortunately, the players around me had better luck with the parts and managed to hold us up pretty well.

At the end of the class, we learned the lyrics to the song and did call and response with each other. For a brief time we even played accompaniment while we sang. (Another walk and chew gum moment for me, sigh.)

All in all, it was a great experience to study with a Guinea Master. I learned a lot even in a short time. And the funniest part was the next day at my regular drum class, I felt much more confident in my skills, even though I had messed up so much at the Wadaba workshop.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


I haven't had to tune my drum in over a year. It is at the exact right place for me... and one interesting thing about leaving it the hell alone is that it changes a bit depending on the weather, where I am playing, indoors or out, big cavernous space or cramped sunporch.

This drum has a thousand voices and moods. But always, always, she sounds just perfect. I think we have found her sweet spot, somewhere between solo high and middle accompaniment. Super responsive to my hands. Gorgeous, throaty voice that can be shrill if need be.

She's my drum.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


This week, the weight of the loss of my friend has been hanging heavy around my heart. It is hard to explain to my friends and family why this has been so hard, particularly since they never knew him. They never met him. And they aren't drummers, either, so the intensity of the connection is lost on them.

But you are are a drummer. I suspect that maybe you understand.

Mazé was a Griot. For him, sharing his knowledge wasn't just about teaching a class. With no words, with no words, he invited me to join him on a journey to the dawn of his people's culture. In one rhythm, I caught glimpses of his soul.... and the soul of his people. He was wide open. He invited me in and welcomed me with open arms and calloused fingers.

When I came back from Mali with his drum, I brought a tiny sliver of his essence with me. When the head broke, I spend awhile taking the drum apart. It had big thick green ropes for the verticals. Diamond by diamond, years of tuning undone. The dust of a Bamako courtyard drifted off the ropes into my living room. The smell of the old skin. Stray goat hairs wafting in the afternoon light.

Off came the rings. Off came the knots on the bottom ring. There was no fabric wrapping, just brute steel. This is not a woman's drum. But it is now.

I gently sanded the wood, while it was naked. Savoring the fragrance of the hardwood as I leaned in to work on a detail. Then the tung oil, hand rubbed.

New rope. New cowskin. A little of my own soul, maybe. Mazé took a bit of it with him when he died, too.

I know how blessed I am to have been his student, his friend.

But God. God.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


Ha. My last post was LOUD. This one is Quiet. As in, I have been pretty quiet lately.

But I wanted to check in and say that I am very busy with my drumming. I am still taking 2 classes and one private lesson each week. I go to at least 2 or 3 drum circles a month and this month played at a service at my church one morning with a couple of other drummers. I have another church gig in a couple of weeks.

I think I am making some major strides in my playing these days. I notice that I can often remember a new rhythm, and play it correctly, after only one class. Part of that is because I am starting to learn the elements that make up the rhythms. I can see how they are put together, like a kids lego toy. So things are more familiar to me, even if it is something totally new.

I am also starting to do a better job with keeping tempo... at least some of the time, LOL. The other day I played the djeli dun dun for a class for the first time and realized, shockingly, that I was able to follow my teacher even when he was soloing. That blew my mind. I also figured out how to get back in when I screwed up. Considering I have never played the dun dun with djembes before, that seemed like an extraordinary accomplishment.

So, why so quiet?

Maybe I got sick of navel gazing, LOL.

Also, I had some terrible news in the last few weeks. One of my dear teachers in Mali died unexpectedly. I took Mazé's death very hard. Today at church I was still crying about him.

Mon amour, tu me manques. Mon coeur est brisé.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


When I first talked to my teacher about buying a drum, I asked him to choose one for me.

The following week, I arrived at class with an empty bag and he had me play a beautiful goatskin djembe for class. Afterwards, he told me it was the one he picked out for me.

It was loud. A beautiful, crisp, gorgeous sound.

"I know you like to play loudly" he said. "So I chose this drum for you."

Even as I write this, there is a cowskin soaking in Sidy's plastic tub, waiting to get mounted on my latest drum shell. It, too, will be a loud drum. Probably even louder than my goatskin.

And then there is the Jeli dun dun. I told Sidy I wanted to buy his. It is a big metal can with tanned goatskin heads. You play it with one hand. In the other is a bell, which you play with an iron ring on your thumb.


Let's face it. When we play, we are expressing ourselves. Our energy. Our enthusiasm. Our joy. For me, that is pretty out there. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a quiet person.

I can be quiet, when necessary. I can sit in silence for long periods, especially when I am at prayer. But my normal 'self' is pretty high energy, which often means high volume.

My teacher knows this about me, and is teaching me to chanel that energy into my drumming.

One of the drum circle facilitators I have encountered has made it clear that I am too loud for his taste. Tonight, I was so worried about it I played badly all night because I was so self concious. It was really a bummer. As I left, he commented on how loud I was. Again.

As I drove home, I decided I probably won't be going back to that drum circle any time soon. It is just too hard to try and be something I am not. It doesn't feel good.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Now I've found it

Last night I drove up to Milford MA for the drum circle there... and I gotta say, it rocked.

There was a good sized crowd of about 30 folks. Tons of djembes. And more excitingly, people who can play them. We had great fun 'talking' to each other in the rhythms. Very friendly people... good rhythms and great energy. Nice.

I am noticing a big difference in my playing skills. I think I have finally turned some kind of corner and feel much more comfortable playing in that kind of situation. I found myself doing little solo riffs here and there, without apology. My drum is still one of the sweetest sounding in any group... and I am less afraid of it being loud and just go with it. During the break, a few folks came up and complimented me on my playing and I was really psyched about it.

Here's another thing. I played my neighbor's drum for a set, and even though it was a bit out of tune, I still managed some nice slaps and tones. I think I am finally getting the hang of this crazy instrument!

Milford Drum Circle is on the first Thursday of the month at the UU church. 7pm. Come if you can. It's a good time.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Blood kin

The other day I was playing with my teacher.

We were playing hard. The adrenaline was pumping. I was in the groove.

Suddenly he stopped.

"Let me see your hands" he said.

I reached over and showed him my palm. The tip of my finger had split and I was bleeding. I looked at the drum and saw that there was a red blotch in the middle of the skin.

"Tape it" Sidy said.

So I wound sport tape around my bleeding finger and started to play again. It wasn't until later, when I was alone, that I could feel any pain.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

No Words

I am a verbal person. Part of how I perceive the world is through language. I see and respond and describe. It is how I am in the world.

When I first started studying with Sidy, I loved it best when he would tell us things. He'd talk about the meaning of a song, where it fit into his culture, when it was played. I hung on every word. He could show me a part over and over, but what I would remember, later, at home, was his voice telling me

"Tone tone, slap slap slap."

In my mind, I would hear his words, his voice, his accent, while I grappled with a new part. I knew that the traditional way to teach did not involve telling... but was happy that Sidy adjusted his teaching for us.

In Mali, something changed.

I worked with a teacher who didn't use language to teach the drum. He taught by showing. No words at all. No facial expressions, even. Just the drum itself... and his hands. He'd play a part until I got it, then move on to the next piece. It was a rhythm unbroken by the appelle, seemlessly flowing from solo phrase to solo phrase, one into another. He'd announce the transition by emphasizing his hand position so I knew it was time to change. No words. At the end of the first day, I felt drunk with excitement. I really had no idea how my teacher felt... but I knew that something had clicked for me, in just that hour.

Yesterday, Sidy came to my lesson and we hardly talked at all. He said the name of the rhythm... but really, I would have known just by the break. We played, working over the pieces I have been learning. Then, a new one. No words, just showing me... first at regular speed, then slowly. Then bit by bit because I needed it broken down.

Then, I could play it.

No words. Just the drum. What joy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mazé's drum

I came back from Mali with a drum that belonged to one of my teachers.

I hadn't intended to buy a djembe. When I went to Mali, I thought I'd pick up a sangban or kenkeni. But after playing on cowskin a couple of times, it seemed to make sense to get another djembe to reskin with cowhide.

So given the choice of all the djembes in Mali, Sidy asked which I wanted and I selected Mazé's. No problem. I paid a reasonable price, Mazé got a brandy new one and I brought home a well loved, well played beauty with a dusty old goatskin and green ropes.

Yesterday the head popped. I was sitting in my office. The drum was in a bag next to my desk. Suddenly I heard a popping sound and panicked for just a moment wondering which drum it was. (I absolutely adore the skin on my goatskin djembe and it will be a sad day when that one breaks.)

But no. Luck was with me and it was the djembe I was intending to reskin anyway.

I spent the morning taking the drum apart. At first I was planning to keep all the ropes, but as I stripped the drum, I decided it would be lovely to really take it down to the bare rings and start from scratch. This is my own drum. It is a beautiful, heavy, round Malian djembe... and it will be great fun to rebuild it. The top of the bowl has a few cracks, so those will be repaired. The outside of the bowl is scratched from years of tunings, so I am going to lightly sand the exterior and oil it.

The rings are brutishly thick rebar which seems to be in great shape, so I will wrap them in fabric and make a new rope harness, at least on the top ring. Then I am going to get some new green rope to string the verticals. I have a cowskin coming from Mali later this month, which Sidy will help me mount.

I am excited because, while I have rebuilt drums before, I have never done one of my own. And the fact that this drum holds some of the spirit of one of my teachers makes it all the more of a joy to work on.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

New Rhythms

In Mali I worked on Suku, Dansa and Maraka.

Today I started learning Koreduga. The timing on it is kicking my sorry ass.

I can also play the accompaniments and some solo phrases from Mendiani, Madan, Sounou, Sidiyasa, and Wassolonka.