Tuesday, December 21, 2010

drum heads

I have reheaded a couple of drums in the last two weeks, and let me tell you, it is hard work. My latest was done on Sunday and I am still feeling the effects of it. Sore muscles in my arms, legs, back.

I remember once watching my teacher working on one of my drums. It was a moving and humbling experience. So much physical work. He was sweating and grimacing as he straddled the drum and tried to pull the rings down over the edge. His tools were simple: a big stick and his back muscles. And leg muscles. And arms.

I actually felt moved to tears that it was so much effort and that he was willing to do it on my behalf.

The thing that is crazy about heading a drum is that it is hard work no matter whether it is a beautiful Mali shell or a piece of junk from Ghana or Indonesia.

Once I found a drum shell on Craig's list for $40. I showed Sidy a picture of it and asked him if it would be worth buying so I could practice heading. He told me he could tell from the picture that the drum was crap. It's base was off center, the bearing edge was cockeyed. He could tell that the interior carving was rough, just from looking at the shape of the outside. I was so new to drumming at that point I couldn't see what he was seeing, so I just took his word for it. Now I can spot a bad drum a mile away. It might be easier to carve a bad shell than a good one... but it is just as much work to rope it and put the head on.

This week I was working on a poorly made drum that someone hired me to fix. The skin was a beauty... a spotted thick goatskin from Mali. My process is getting better. I am learning how to keep the rings even all around and pull them down to just the right level on the wet pull. In this drum's case, I don't even have to do a dry pull.... it dried nice and tight on it's own. But at the end of a long afternoon of physical work, we are left with a bad drum with a nice head.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

And speaking of dun duns

I have been playing ballet style for a couple of months now and am absolutely grooving on it. I LOVE the dun duns!

So far I know 5 songs:

Sandia Sumali

I am playing a set that includes a dununba and a kenkeni and am having a blast with them.

It's Dun Dun

Ok, I am not sure how this happened. I have heard various accounts. But once and for all I want to clarify that the name of the big Malian (and Guinean) bass drums is dun dun. It is pronounced 'doon doon'. It is not djun djun. It is not pronounced june june.

The story I have heard about the origin of this calamity of mispronunciation is that it started with Babatunde Olatunji, who is Nigerian. Somehow he started spelling dun dun with the 'j' because that is how the French spell djembe. (Which IS a 'j' sound, of course.) His mistake has infiltrated drumming circles around the world and has resulted in generations of Americans mispronouncing the name of the drum. The irony is that Babatunde isn't from a country that even has these bass drums.

Another story I heard was that a West African drummer (could it have been Mamady?) kept calling the bass drums djun djuns and when he was asked about it by someone who knew that the drums are called dun duns in West Africa, he laughed and said that he thought that was the American pronunciation of the drum and didn't want to confuse his students.

So, ask a Malian, Guinean, Burkinabe, or Ivorian how to say the name of the drum and they will tell you:

Dun dun.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Finally, after all this time, I asked Sidy to let me work on the dun duns. He has given me his ballet style set to work with and practice on. It is a huge old dununba and a beautifully carved kenkeni that get lashed together and played vertically.

Playing dun duns is a very different experience. The muscles you use are different because you are holding sticks. The role of the duns duns in the ensemble is to keep time and create a bassline melody that holds the rest of the drums together. It isn't easy for me because after 4 1/2 years of trying to follow the dun duns, I now have to stop listening to the other drums and just keep a steady rhythm myself. It is especially a challenge in class when the djembes are wandering all over the place, LOL.

I love these drums, though. I have been practicing every single day. I set the drums up in the corner of my dining room and every time I walk by, I sit down to play for awhile. My house vibrates, LOL.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Mazé's drum

It was love at first sight, really. Against the backdrop of newly painted walls and pristine tile floors, Mazé's drum was showing it's age. An ancient goatskin. Dust-caked green ropes. A few cracks in the base, repaired with wood glue and sawdust. And yet, even among the lovely new drums, this one stood out. It had a gorgeous round bowl and was made of some incredibly dense hardwood that weighed a ton. And when Mazé Kouyaté picked it up to play, the sound was so sweet and full and rich it carried me away.

I couldn't believe my luck when I asked if I could buy it and Mazé said yes. I wrapped it in towels and stuffed it with clothes and carefully fitted it into a duffel bag for the long trip back to the United States.

Within a week the head popped. I was sitting at my desk and suddenly heard the sickening sound of a skin giving way. No matter, I thought. I wanted to put on a cowskin anyway.

So I ordered new rope for it, and wrapped the rope ring in pale green fabric before looping the black alpine rope around it. I began to look for a cowskin, but my teacher said he would get one. Weeks dragged by. Then months.

Then one day, in class, my teacher got a phone call. I could tell something was wrong, but he wouldn't say what it was. He told me to call him when I got home. Half and hour later I called him and heard the devastating news. My sweet friend in Mali was dead. I was grief stricken. I cried for weeks.

And the drum sat.

A year went by. A year filled with busy, change and challenge. New job, growing children, a flood that nearly destroyed my husband's business.

Then finally, one day in class, my teacher handed me the keys to his car and said there was something for me on the back seat. It was the drum. Skinned. Tuned. Beautiful.

This is a djembefola's drum. This is a solo screeching loud bad-ass drum. It is a man's drum, for sure. Big and wide and heavy, with a callous raising cowskin head and rope strong enough to climb mountains with. And it is my drum. And Mazé's drum. And when I play it, I play better than I really am.

Next time I rehead it, I am wrapping the ring in yellow. The color of the shirt Mazé wore the last time I saw him. The color of his last drum. The color of the bright Mali sun.