I get a lot of questions from drummers and percussionists from around the world, usually about limb independence, coordination, drumming skills and other technical issues but one of the most common questions I get is from drummers or percussionist who are just beginning their path through African drumming.This includes hand percussionists coming from frame drum practice and styles and also drum set players who wish to explore and expand their knowledge.
So the question is… How does one begin his path through the huge wide African drumming world? Well the answer is very simple at least the way I see it, and yet, I can break it down into a few steps:
So now that I gave you the main steps of how to start playing African drums, let’s dive in deeper.
It always feels a bit funny when people ask me about African drumming as if its just one big style of drumming. So get this, Africa consists of 1.2 Billion people who are arranged in about 3,000 different tribes, speaking more than 2,200 native African languages.
I believe every tribe has its own tradition, food, music, ceremonies and therefor - drumming. Different drumming styles evolved from these tribes influencing each other and probably some sound similar to others but still, there’s a lot of stuff to dive in to.
There are some tribes which are associated to specific countries like the Wolof tribe to Senegal and the Sousou tribe to Guinea Conakry but tribes existed hundreds if not thousands of years before the countries formed and some tribes spread over the land of more than one country so it is important to try and get into the tribes history and not the specific country it is associated with.
First thing i recommend you to do is just listen to as many different styles of music coming from different areas in Africa. East Africa sounds very different from West Africa and Northern or Southern Africa is a whole different story. Africa is a huge world of music and drumming and its worth the research.
There is an amazing project called ‘The Global Jukebox’ initiated by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomex that maps the world’s ethnic music styles and dance styles and it is a one of kind tool for researching and finding new music styles to be inspired by. It contains field recordings and samples. Truly an amazing project.
When I say find “new music styles” i mean, old music styles that are new to you. Ancient drumming styles have knowledge that is hundreds of years old and I believe this is where we should first look in order to start our path into African drumming. Don’t go after the mainstream African drumming styles just because they are known to your ears. This research will make you be surprised.
Where I come from and in most places in the western countries, Djembe playing is the mainstream African drumming. It is comfortable, approachable and it is also a beautiful drum that has a lot of different styles of playing from different tribes and countries in Africa.
I discovered the Senegalese Wolof drumming by chance as you can read in this blog post and this made the difference for me, this was my chance to discover an African drumming style that truly got me and not only because it was popular or comfortable.
Find the African drumming style that inspires you and that speaks to your heart!
Finding the right teacher is so important in any field of study and crucial for the learning process. I’m so grateful for having my teachers, I know for sure that they were the ones to recognise my strong abilities and push me forward to take it to the next level.
I think its even more important than strengthening the weak parts. A musician thrives when he discovers his power and strong points that inspires him to create. These teachers are: Nir Nakav, Efrain Toro, Saboula Bangoura, Doudou Ndiaye Rose, Aly Ndiaye Rose and in an indirect way - Terry Bozzio.
Nir Nakav and Efrain Toro are the teachers who gave me my fundamentals to approach anything I want to play, learn or understand. I won’t get into this issue now cause it deserves an entire blog post.
Terry Bozzio is my main inspiration for the limb independence technique I developed.I learned a lot from him without taking any lessons but simply by watching his solo performances over and over again on videos and again this is for another blog post.
I want to focus on my African teachers. Let’s start with my first African drum teacher - Saboula Bangoura. Saboula is an African drum master from Guinea Conakry living in Israel and I was lucky to follow my good Ethnomusicologist / musician friend Yair Hashachar to study with Saboula right after high school.
Saboula is a humble person who has vast knowledge and a unique style of djembe playing. Unlike many other Djembe masters, Saboula is all about the magic and power of a single hit. He can make your soul open with one slap on the drum.
When he plays the Doundoun drums (the bass drums which accompany the djembe) you immediately realise what is pure groove that vibrates through your body. He is a master of flow and quality. I travelled twice to West Africa with him to learn and discover more about Djembe and Doundoun drumming.
After discovering the Senegalese Sabar drumming and deciding that this is the style I want to explore, I wanted to study with the Ndiaye Rose family and found Aly Ndiaye Rose, one of Doudou Ndiaye Rose’s elder sons. I set up 6 weeks of lessons with Aly in Dakar, Senegal in 2010 and that was in fact the most intense and important learning experience I’ve ever had.
I documented everything, from transcriptions to videos and recordings. Later I had two lessons and other encounters with Doudou Ndiaye Rose that gave me the inspiration I needed in order to take my vision to the next level.
The reason I’m telling you all this is because I believe you should go and learn from the source and do it in the natural surroundings.When you have an African drum lesson in the morning at the beach and then you have lunch with your drum teacher and his family, eating the local food and spices and then in the evening going to explore the music scene and ceremonies, you can learn and take in much more than if you were studying in a conservatory in your home town. I know, not everybody can do this, but if you can you should definitely pack your bags and find a way to study in Africa at least for a month.
What was most inspiring in learning from the masters and this is common in all ancient cultures and to traditional music teachers everywhere in the world - they have patience, they are not in a hurry in any way. My African drum lessons took 3-4 hours everyday and it was not about the amount, it was all about getting it right.
We could repeat a phrase for an hour before moving to the next. This mentality just does not exist in western schools, at least I never encountered one. People have patience but usually you have just one hour to pass or get the knowledge and then its done.
I realised that sitting for hours with no pressure, experiencing the real thing in the natural environment had a crucial impact on my learning process and results.
If you are unable to travel and study African drumming in Africa, you should find a local drum teacher that inspires you and has the knowledge of the style you are interested in. There are also a lot of African drummers and teachers around the world and it is worth the research.
After finding your teacher, I recommend to stick to one style of drumming for a long period. Good things happen we you focus on one thing for a long time, even if it feels like all the options of explorations were made and you are in a dead end inspirationally.
There is always a way to dive in more. Mastering a style takes time and it is totally ok to play other styles and explore but as deep as you will go into one style the more you will master it.
I developed my modern Senegalese drumming style as a result of a deep and long process of research and practice of one style. Ideas start to pop out after a while and you have to find more in between the cracks.
Practicing the right way is a smart move to ensure you will make good progress in your first steps in the African drumming world. a lot of people find it hard to concentrate and practice in a consistent way. I have a few tips about how to practice drumming and drumming techniques:
Slow tempo practice:
In order to embed positive and heatlhy movement of your hands and also gain progress in speed and sound, it is highly recommended to start your exercises at a very low tempo. A tempo which you can control your sound and quality of groove. When you do so and not rushing into high speeds, your brain gets to know the movement and quality and can learn it much better. You will be surprised with the results. Slowly pick up the tempo every couple of days. Using a metronome for this kind of practice is crucial so you can follow your progress.
Playing with music:
In addition to technical practice, I always put a lot of time playing with music I like. It could be traditional African drumming music or any other style of music that inspires you. Playing with music gives you the opportunity to practice playing with real musical moments which will help you develop other important skills such as: improvisation, listening while playing and creativity.
Practicing with a friend
I remember practicing with friends as a cool way of making the practice routine interesting and yet practical. Im not talking about playing together with a friend, but literally working together on an exercise or a rhythm. Collaborative practice brings outs positive competitive energy that pushes all the participators forward.