Tips to learn to play this music (better).

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Search for a good teacher. Most countries now have a Djembé scene that can supply you an overview of teachers. Roam the Internet to search for teachers nearby. Typing the keywords "Djembe teacher" (in your language) together with the name of the city in which you are living in (or close by) will generally result in names. Also ask people playing Djembé in your neighborhood. A black skin does not assure you anything. I remember speaking to the minister of agriculture of Guinea who never had heard of famous Mamady Keita! A lot of Africans only started drumming once they arrived in the northern hemisphere after having discovered that they can become popular with it or even earn some money with it! Of course most of them grew up with the rhythms so that's an advantage; but that does not make them automatically experienced percussionists or even good teachers! It is very important that you enjoy the lessons. Some African percussionists are so traumatized by the way they were educated (with a whip so to speak) that they have difficulties in changing to a mode that works with "us". So take a few test lessons to "test" both your motivation and the skills of the teacher to create a good learning atmosphere. Teachers educated in the north may give more structure to their lessons and may be more comprehensive for your short comings. 

Why insist on getting lessons from famous Master drummers if you still have a long road in front of you mastering the most elementary skills. Better get a sympathetic but patient unknown guy (that also still needs the money) than a famous guy that makes you nervous because you go so slow. It is very nice if you can get lessons with a teacher that can introduce you to more than the rhythms alone. Getting background knowledge from the songs and an introduction in their culture is nice if it can be combined with the techniques of drumming itself. But do not expect too much, too quick. Most teachers will be fluent in French but much more inhibited in English. Only Liberia and Ghana were partly of the Mandingue area and now "speak" English. So scanning the Internet, reading booklets going with Mandingue drumming CD's and so on can help you a lot in getting to know what you are doing. Non-African teachers have made big efforts to get a grip on the structure of the rhythms so they are often able to offer the lessons in a more organized way to you. They generally work with rhythms written down. Africans originally did not learn their drumming based on (for instance) a 4/4 measure scale but start drumming based on a drum-melody, the most important bass-drum rhythm or even the accompanied song. They work purely out of their head.

Both ways have their advantages and disadvantages and can be learned by non-musicians. There are good and weak teachers and their origin is not of decisive importance! Myself, I enjoyed being back in Africa for an evening a week getting lessons from an African teacher but I disliked some of the bad habits they may have. A common weakness of both black and white teachers is that they are rarely true teachers. What I mean is: There are didactics involved! I even once saw an African "teacher" sitting between his "pupils" (paying him their good money) starting to drum (too difficult) and simply waiting until the rookies around him started copying him (which meant that the brightest pupils started to teach the slowest pupils). Meanwhile the teacher enjoys himself soloing and dreaming about all this money he "earns". I also had the luck to enjoy good African teachers that were not frustrated, felt honored to have pupils, felt proud to share drumming with the pupils and enjoyed the lessons! In the first few learning sessions, enthusiasm and didactics are more important than the teacher being a Master drummer!

How can you judge didactic skills ?

Does the teacher pay attention on how you stand or sit behind your drum (tense, relaxed, flexible), how you hold the sticks (doun-doun), how you hit the skin and rim of the drum with your hand (to prevent hurting yourself and to improve the sound you are able to produce)? Do they know/remember what rhythms you played the lessons before (this shows they are interested in what they are doing with YOU)? Do they seem to have some kind of teaching plan for the session? Do they insist on improving errors you make, without getting impatient or "dropping" you. Does the teacher pay attention to everybody or only some of the students? A real teacher asks herself for every series of lessons, "What are my goals (for this lesson or series of lessons) and how and when I am going to achieve this?" Things like sitting/standing position and place for hitting the skin (with stick or hand), starting on the beat after hearing the call would be items for mainly the first five lessons. Of course all this is combined with learning to play the rhythms (Dun-Dun and Djembe) of a simple theme like Soli Lent to make it joyful right from the start. Decisive about the speed with which you pick up the rhythms are your talent (feel for rhythm), the qualities of your teacher and your possibilities and discipline to exercise between the lessons.

There exist more and more lessons CD's and DVD's, I have experience with some of them. I did not appreciate Mamady Keďta's approach to start a learning CD for beginners with some of the most difficult rhythms to master. Probably done to discourage you and to encourage you to take lessons from himself instead of from a CD. First use of the instrument should be learned preferably man to man. After that you may go on with special lesson CD's and DVD's. After a number of years of drumming you will be able to analyze the rhythms on any CD and reproduce them with a band. The Links page will supply you sufficient info to find your way to get these CD's. There now exists a beautiful app to learn many rhythms published by Mamady called Djembeföla. Also you may find tutorials on Youtube, but I did not check this. Myself I just published a short video on YouTube on how to play a Dununba called "HeartbeatDununba". Simply type it in the search field and you will find it.

Recording lessons:

'To record, at least, parts of the lessons is very advisable. These recordings will help to prevent you from playing it in the wrong way when you exercise at home. Repeated listening will help you become familiar with the rhythms themselves. If your mind does not understand it, your hands won't do it properly. In other words, if you can sing a rhythm correctly it is only a question of muscular movement later on.

Drumming is loud and causes heavy vibrations. Put your recording equipment on a piece of cloth to dampen vibrations ("contact sounds"). Smartphones and other gear not specifically made for recordings may suffer from a microphone not being able to cope with the high sound pressures produced by drums and bells. Cheap voice memo-recorders (used by secretaries) are useful too, since they also do not have any moving hardware inside. Prices are similar or somewhat higher than an MP-3 player with recording option. Often an external microphone can be attached which generally increases recording quality a lot. Most logical would be to invest in a specific Music recorder. Myself I own a Tascam DR-07mkII linear PCM recorder and a compact Zoom 16-Track recorder. The Tascam being a 2-track recorder (small; mobile); the second still being still portable (laptop size) and battery operated but it allowing adding parallel tracks with the earlier recorded track(s). 

Recordings can also be played on your head set while playing one of the counter-rhythms on your drum. Most important is to listen a lot. Also listening to the recordings of the grand masters will slowly familiarize you with the rhythms. All played Mandingue rhythms can be split up in straight forward 4/4 measure rhythms (you can count 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 etc. etc. The rest (like Soli and all Dununbas) is a very rapid 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3 (as rapid as you can count). All rhythms of all songs can be set against these measure backgrounds.

If you are in doubt about your ability to develop your skills do not buy an expensive instrument but hire or lend one for the time being. The specific Djembé pages of this site will tell you everything about selecting (and maintaining) an instrument.

Also replacing a skin is extensively treated on this section of the site.

How NOT to become a nuisance to your neighbors !

Try to play at home or elsewhere between lessons. If your house touches another, the vibrations you create will go a long way and you will surely cause annoyance. To start with, put your instrument on a damper such as a dry sponge, thick rubber or a cushion. This will prevent your floor to start co-vibrating with the body of your instrument. It will also protect the floor of your house and the lower rim of your instrument. When you plug the vent pipe of a Djembe by pushing in a small cushion this will cut out all the bass sounds. These low sounds go a very long way through entire buildings! Putting a thin cloth over the Djembes skin will dampen the high pitched sounds, too. You may also consider buying a digital hand drum like the fantastic Korg Wavedrum. This will be played at home with a head-phone set (or amplifier at low volume).

A Dun-Dun is slightly more difficult to tame. A small cushion fixed on the non-played skin with an elastic band will largely dampen the sound. The played skin can be dampened with a thin cloth too. The sound becomes duller than dull but that's better than angry neighbors! The accompanying bell of a Dun-Dun is generally played much too loud by beginners. The bell creates a high pitched sound which is much more likely to damage your hearing than the lower pitched sounds of either a Djembe or Dun-Dun. I suffer from tinnitus, for 12 years now and I can say that is not funny at all (I hear an everlasting 11.000 Hz sound getting worse if I am tired, stressed or ill). Drumming in Africa is done outside which dampens all sounds very strongly. Trained players know how to dose the force with which they hit the bell and the skin. Beginners tend to hit the bell as hard as they hit the skin causing an unmeant overpowering of high pitched bell sounds and causing potential disaster for humans hearing. To prevent this simply use a 4 mm thick steel rod 21 cm (8") long. Then you do not need to dampen the bell itself and the sound will stay fine and modest. I cover half of the length with a rubber tubing that I slide over for better grip. Amateur-drumming is an annoyance in the ears of both professionals AND non drummers. Amateurs do not hear what they do wrong (that's why they are amateurs). Sometimes they are a little bit too enthusiastic about themselves... We are living in a complex and diverse society and having to listen to what somebody else thinks is African music may be as bad as YOU needing to listen to your neighbors Bavarian hoempapa music or the violin, saxophone, trumpet or punk drumming "skill" of a beginner.

It is a lot of fun to train and further develop Djembé and rhythmic skills on a Cajon or the smaller version the Cajonito.  It is a lot less noisy then a Djembé and you can make slaps, tones and basses the same way you do on a Djembé (and more). You do not need a chair because you're sitting on it. It will harden your fingers, develop your muscles since you can play out loud. It is even possible to focus on playing the Cajon of course. Since it makes a more modest sound I was able to blend in easily with a saxophone player, a Kora player and others. I made one myself with a tilted membrane (which has been done before for ergonomic reasons) but also with snares that can be switched on and of in a few seconds (a snare is common for most Cajons but not that you can set them on or off in a blink). In addition I experimented with a bass guitar snare inside, vibrating freely while hitting the membrane. This is unique too. The model is not in production yet (if it will ever happen).


Good luck ! 


Copyright: Inisoft, Gerard P.J.P. van Dijk 2015 (with thanks to Reverend R. Clark for correcting my English !)