Saturday, June 4, 2011

The starting point

During labor, there are several points when the mother seems to begin the cycle over again. She goes through the physical and emotional stages again, seeming to get back to square one at several points throughout the process.

I feel like I am doing that with my dundun playing right now.

Last Saturday, I was playing with Sidy, Seydou and Rob for Brown University's graduation event for the Africana Studies department. We played for 2 hours straight, no breaks. It was exhilarating and tiring and lots of fun. I felt very happy that I seemed to have broken through my stage fright and was able to relax and focus and just play. I was very happy with how I played.

But there was a moment when a door opened. Sidy started to play Sogonikun. He didn't say anything, just started to play the djembe part. I know this part pretty well. We have been playing Sogonikun in class lately. In my head, I knew it was Sogonikun... but for some reason I started to play the dundun part for Madan. Sidy shook his head at me. Within a moment or two I corrected myself, but afterwards I started to think about what had happened.

Usually, Sidy will say the name of the piece we are going to play as he starts. And I have gotten pretty good at being able to just jump in and play any of the 13 or so rhythms I know. But it is the NAME that seems to trigger my brain and arms into action. I have come to depend on the spoken name to be the switch that turns on the rhythm.

After last Saturday, I realized I needed to develop that same instant reflex with the djembe parts. I needed to be able to hear a djembe part and instantly know what to play on my dunduns. I decided I would ask Sidy to help me by 'quizzing me' with his drum.

Yesterday, I met him for a lesson and was working on a new part. When we were winding down, he told me that he was going to play djembe and I needed to figure out what to play and just come in. I was pretty amazed that he had come up with the exact same response that I had to my mistake from last week.

I was able to figure out the first two pieces, but it took me a LONG time. I had to listen and think and think and think until finally some little part of it would shout at me and I would start to play the dundun. He wasn't just playing the standard accompaniment... but rather was soloing. And yet, I absolutely should have been able to snap right to it.

By the third rhythm, I was getting confused and couldn't get it at all. We tried a couple of more and I made mistakes. I would play the wrong piece.

It was like a whole new world opened up in front of me. I realized that I had stepped into a new level, one that brought me right back to square one. Rewind 5 years and I am just picking up a djembe for the first time. Rewind 5 years and I am learning the accompaniment for Dansa, the solo phrases for Mendiani, the mind bending rhythms of Wasolonka.

I said to Sidy that I wanted to cry, but it was the good kind of cry. The kind that is going to motivate me to work on this until I get it. The kind of cry that happens because I want to be better than I am. I told him I wanted to be the best white dundunfola he ever played with. Not that I am competitive at all, but I want to kick some cracker ass.

I came home and made a sort of auditory set of flash cards by making a playlist on itunes of snippets of all the djembe parts I have recorded over the years. Then I put the play list on shuffle and listened and practiced recognizing the pieces and playing along with my dundun sticks. After awhile I realized that it has been so long since I played djembe, I was not recognizing all the solo parts, so I took out my drum and started working through the parts I was hearing. Slowly, painfully. God it would be so much easier if I was living in Bamako.

But little by little, it started to come together. Oh yeah, that is the 4th solo from Sandia Sumale. That is that weird Dansa solo that we never really practiced, but Sidy played for us once. I remember that.... that was the Madan solo we never did in class, but I learned at one of our lessons.

And so it went. Djembe on one side and dunduns on the other. I would play the dunduns if I figured out what I was listening to. If not, I would painstakingly work the djembe parts until it opened the little file in my brain that remembered them.

I played for hours. And then, today, hours more. With more to come.

I can do this. Square one never looked so good.

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