An Introduction to African Drumming and Song, by Henry Schiller

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Photos by Natasha Anstey.

On Wednesday morning I sat in a circle around variously sized djembes in the Reid Concert Hall. We began by doing some vocal warm-ups that tested the limits and durability of my vocal range. Fortunately my pitiful squawks were drowned out by far more experienced voices. This was, after all, an event for the university’s music society. The vocal exercise, along with several stretches and loosening techniques we performed, gave me an impressive boost of energy that, remarkably, remained a felt presence for the rest of the day.

We learned the three basic hand techniques for playing the djembe: ‘bass,’ ‘tone,’ and ‘slap,’ and later the more technical ‘touch’. Our djembes tilted forwards between our thighs, we practiced heavily palming the drum skin’s center (‘bass’), as well as the placing of sharp open and closed handed hits on the rim. With each call from the instructor to perform a ‘tone’ or a ‘slap’ hit, I was sure my fingertips would burst. Though the djembe is as physically demanding as almost any percussive instrument, even from the very beginning it requires a decently robust sense of rhythm to boot.
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In the short hour we were there, we worked our way from a simple iterative bass beat all the way to a multi-part composition that had each half of our group playing in delicate syncopation. Letting my mind wander away from the effort and energy it took to just stay in time with everyone else, I was able to appreciate the complex rhythmic turns that our efforts were sidling up against (sometimes in vain, to be sure). Such, I think, is one of the secrets to playing music in a group: you get the most out of it when you remember that the music you’re making is as much for you as it is for any audience.
DSC_0446Blogger Henry and others taking part.

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