A thunder of drums!

Tonight, I attended a ‘West African Drumming’ Workshop at the Pinelands High School. It formed part of the Continuing Education Programme run by the PHS on a term-by-term basis.

Our teacher was Janis Merand, and she was accompanied by four of her intermediate students, who have trained with her for about 2-3 years. The rest of the attendees were a mixed bunch, including two music teachers and a couple of people with experience in playing percussion instruments, but fortunately I was not the only one who had never played a drum before (being in the Orff instrument school band decades ago doesn’t really count) and – thank goodness – not the only one with coordination difficulties.

Janis started the class off by giving us a bit of a background on the use of drumming in African culture, stressing that it has always been an integral part of tribal customs and rituals, and that musicians always carried their musical instruments with them, just in case an opportunity presented itself to play! Can you imagine, if all of us Westerners did that in Cape Town? Eish…

She then introduced us to the various drums that she had brought along. She said that the djembe drums they use came from Mali in West Africa, and that they were fortunate to have visiting teachers from there. She had been taught by Sidi Sangare, master djembe player from Mali, and has been teaching private groups in Cae Town for over 7 years.

There were three bass drums lying on their sides, each with two odd-looking cowbells affixed ontop: the largest of these was called the Doundoun (a nicely onomatopoeic word). It had the deepest sound. She explained that this was the ‘mother’, which gave the rhythm, to which all the other drum beats returned again and again.

The second bass drum was the Sangpan; I think she said this was like the young man who had left home to become a warrior, but who returned back home after fighting his wars in the world outside. The third one, with a slightly higher tone, was called the Kenkeni (pronounced Konkeni), which was compared to the young teenager, who was full of playfulness and youthful exuberance.

The rest of the drums were all djembes. These are shaped like old-fashioned goblets, with the top part covered by a tightly stretched goatskin. The bottom end is open, so that the sound can resonate downwards. The drum itself is carved out of a single tree trunk – which I presume takes a fair bit of patience! The drums are clasped tightly between the knees (which is sure to firm up those wobbly thigh muscles!), at more or less a 45 degree angle. Janis and her group all had red bands tied around the waist of the djembe, with one band going around the back, underneath the armpits, and the other going around the neck – I suppose to get some extra support.

The group then gave us a brief performance. Apparently a piece begins with an elaborate ‘call’, whose purpose it is to ‘call’ the villagers to the ‘village square’ to participate in the drumming, dancing and singing. The drummers (always men – except of course in our culture!) and the dancers (always women) compete playfully with each other, with the drummer following the rhythm of the dancer’s feet. Sounds amazing! There are musical pieces and patterns for all kinds of rituals and celebrations – the birth of a child, first menstruation, going to war, setting off on a hunt, saying goodbye to someone, preparing the fields, harvesting the crops, honouring an important person, etc.

Finally, it was time for us to make our own drums speak. I had noticed, while holding my drum and lightly touching its skin with my fingers to get used to the sensation, that it vibrated in harmony together with the other drums while the group was performing. It was an odd, quite magical sensation, almost as though it had a life of its own.

Janis explained that there were three basic notes: The ‘slap’ is literally a light, sharp slap just at the edge of the drum, with the contact point being the crease between the palm and the fingers. The ‘tone’ is played with more of the fingers, inward from the outer circumference of the drum. It has a rounder and fuller sound than the slap. The ‘bass’ is the lowest tone, and is played right in the centre of the drum, where it can resonate more deeply.

Then she taught us a couple of rhythms – the principle being that you start with your right (dominant) hand. You don’t always alternate your hands, though – it depends on the pattern. Unfortunately, this is also where I discovered that my hands were thoroughly confused about this left-right business! Thankfully, I got most of the patterns right eventually. The trick is to tune in completely into the pattern, until the left brain is tuned out and stops ‘thinking’ and interfering. It’s almost as though I have to trust my body to remember the pattern.

Two very brave people volunteered to play on two of the base drums – which made a huge difference to the whole energy! Suddenly, the sound was fuller, more complete, more harmonious… Janis stood in the centre of the circle like a conductor, giving us different patterns to play with, encouraging and praising us when we got it right. It was almost magical how all the different rhythms fitted into each other.

To end the class, she asked whether we were interested in attending another class.

The answer:


Wikipedia has quite a nice article on djembe drums, although it’s a bit thin. For a more formal article, read this

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