African drumming - finding your Way with your foot!

Comment

African drumming - finding your Way with your foot!

Tapping your foot to mark the pulse in African Drumming

How important is it to tap ones foot when playing African djembe drumming?  

There are arguments backwards and forwards regarding its merits and pitfalls.  Personally I think the eventual goal is to reach a place where no foot tapping is required at all - to reach a place where your body’s sense of the pulse has become completely internalised and your hearing and motor memory is ‘locked in’ to the overall rhythm arrangement.  Many of the African musicians I have observed through the years have easily reached this stage in their playing.  Having played at such an early stage in their life, their sense of the pulse has become complete second nature.   That said, foot tapping is not alien to African musicians and in fact many musicians have the added ability to tap in more than one time signature to the same rhythm; switching from 4/4 to 12/8 during tricky solo phrases.  

Using ankles bells is a great way for you to hear your pulse marked by your foot as you play.  

Using ankles bells is a great way for you to hear your pulse marked by your foot as you play.

 

Personally I love foot tapping.  It is such a great exercise.  It helps you improve your ability to multi-task and create independence in your coordination.  In my own practise, it is only when I can play rhythm patterns, solo phrases or break passages while keeping the independent beat tapping regularly and consistently that I truly feel in control in the music.

But foot tapping is just one way to mark the pulse against a pattern.  You can also practise singing a rhythm while marking the pulse with hand claps; play a pattern with one hand while marking the pulse with the other or alternatively play a pattern while singing the pulse (something I had a go at recently and found rather tricky).

Whichever way you like to do it, playing a pattern against a pulse is really the best way of checking that you are hearing something correctly.  Without a clear pulse being marked, an awful lot of time can be wasted along with lots of frustration as one realises that a rhythm you think you had nailed was being heard the ‘wrong way round’ because your sense of the pulse was misplaced. 

Here is a perfect example of what can go wrong when the pulse is not defined in a rhythm.  A few years ago I was in Senegal, West Africa where I was observing a drumming class with European students who were being taught the basics to a rhythm called Dundunbe from a local musician. The problem really stemmed from a clash of cultural understanding between the western students and the African teacher.   It started when the teacher demonstrated a rhythm on the Dundun drum (large cylindrical bass drum played with a stick).  The pattern he was playing had two pairs of double beats in the cycle that went “bubum bubum”; followed by a short rest and then another “bubum bubum”.  The African teacher was an outstanding musician at the top of his game, but was less experienced in teaching African Drumming to European musicians.  He knew his material inside out as it had been literally ‘drummed’ into him his entire life. He instinctively knew where the beats fitted together in the music to such an extent that he in fact had no concept of ‘pulse’.  Hence he began to demonstrate the rhythm without a pulse, thinking that if he just played it, the students would hear exactly what he heard.  

However without a pulse provided, such as a hand clap or a foot being tapped, the students heard something completely different. When they heard the double beats, they heard the same beats as if you were listening to the “Awimbawe” chorus in the classic song ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.  In this song the rhythm structure consists of double beats where the first of the doubles is before the pulse and the second is on the pulse. This plays out as “And one - And two – And three – And Four….” (or if you prefer “Awim  Bawe  Awim  Bawe…”). If this is all sounding like technical jargon, listen to the song to hear the “Awim Bawe” - that is the kind of rhythm the students were hearing.   Meanwhile the teacher heard the beats the way they should be heard – not as ‘And one – And two’ but as double beats that were in between the pulse, so they go like “one AND A two AND A three…” The teacher and students played the same pattern for half an hour completely unaware that they were hearing it differently.  

The trouble really started when a djembe pattern was introduced to play alongside the dundun pattern. This djembe pattern really defined the pulse which meant that when the teacher demonstrated the original ‘double beat’ pattern against this, the students heard something that was completely ‘turned upside down’.  It was so different they in fact thought that the teacher had changed the rhythm which of course he hadn’t – he had simply introduced something that marked the pulse so it was heard in the correct way.  

This episode not only shows how differently people from African and Western Cultures can approach music, but underlines how important it is for students to understand the pulse at the early stages. Likewise I think it is a good lesson for any djembe musicians at the top of their game (in Africa or elsewhere) who find themselves teaching a rhythm to beginners or improvers.  It is important to appreciate that if something is played without a pulse or another pattern to mark the pulse, you can’t assume that the students will be hearing what you will be hearing. 

The device I currently use to mark the pulse with my foot when playing.  I can't really recall what the device is called but it attaches to a drum pedal to create a sharp consistent clear sound - the clarity of which gets missed with ankle bells.    

The device I currently use to mark the pulse with my foot when playing.  I can't really recall what the device is called but it attaches to a drum pedal to create a sharp consistent clear sound - the clarity of which gets missed with ankle bells.  

 

So that is why I am personally a big fan of foot tapping and regularly tie on ankle bells so I can hear my pulse or use a drum pedal to mark the pulse on a jam block while I play.  I know it is not everyone’s cup of tea and yes I have met many teachers who don’t like it, but to me it is an essential way in to a rhythm which one day I hope to play without any foot tapping at all.  Until then I continue shaking and tapping those feet!

Comment

Playing or teaching African drumming? Here is a tip which could really help.

5 Comments

Playing or teaching African drumming? Here is a tip which could really help.

This blog is for the benefit of anyone actively studying or teaching West African djembe drumming and for those who attend an African Drumming class.  It could also be useful for teachers as well – expert instructors, school teachers and anyone who uses West African drumming to support their teaching profession. 

Helpful tips for learning African Drumming in groups

I have a simple model for learning African drumming rhythms. My three word mantra is:

Ears

Mouth

Hands

For me these words represent the most effective stages for learning and processing a new rhythm.

What does this mean?

An alternative way of putting it would be Hear it, say it, then play it’

First – hear it and really listen to it– without playing!

Next – vocalise the rhythm - still keeping those hands off the drum, hard as it is!

Finally – play the rhythm with your hands

Do not skip the first two!

To varying degrees I have used all three for years.  Only now I am recognising that in my most productive periods I am applying all three in the right order.  It is beautifully simple.  Of course you can’t learn to play something if you haven’t heard it (or in the case of deaf musicians literally ‘felt it’).  But if I look back at those times through the years when the material I was learning defeated me, I could honestly say that the learning process was ‘hands first with a minimal degree of ear afterwards’ and as for the mouth (oral reciting) forget that - it didn’t happen. 

I have been researching, performing and teaching African djembe drumming for over 20 years. This has involved attending intensive African Drumming courses in the UK and West Africa; teaching students in primary and secondary schools; and using African drums and percussion to motivate company managers and employees in business. In all these different situations it is fascinating to see the ways in which people learn and process this musical form.  With many people experiencing African djembe drumming for the first time, it is impossible to ignore the wonderful tactile appeal it has.  ‘Drum rumbling’ is a truly cathartic, therapeutic and a liberating experience - your hands just want to play and make some noise! For many people in these early stages it can be hard to stop and give yourself time to listen, as there is a natural impulse to just start the hands playing as quickly as possible.  But when people give themselves some initial time to listen and do some vocalising of what they have heard (either by using words or making phonetic sounds) they can learn very quickly. 

Let’s look at this ‘Ears, Mouth, Hands’ learning model in more detail:

Ears

In African Drumming classes, some initial time spent listening creates fantastic results.  Give it a few minutes and a rhythm can sound completely different to the way you heard it the first time round.

In African Drumming classes, some initial time spent listening creates fantastic results.  Give it a few minutes and a rhythm can sound completely different to the way you heard it the first time round.

It is so simple that it could be easily missed.  If you want to learn African drumming – listen to it.  Listen and listen again – without playing or doing anything else.  

A friend who now works with me at Unbeatable Energy did exactly this when I first met her. She came to the drumming class I was running.  Most of the other students were already familiar with the drum repertoire, as they had been attending the class in previous weeks. After a fair bit of trial and error, they had managed to learn some quite challenging material.  My friend had started the class halfway in to the course so was unfamiliar with everything previously covered. During the first 10 minutes of the session she didn’t touch her drum.  Initially I interpreted this as her being overwhelmed, but 10 minutes later she was playing everything perfectly and seamlessly.  Far from being overwhelmed or confused, during that first initial period where she didn’t play, she had simply been listening and taking everything in.  As a result, what had taken other students 10 weeks to learn, she had managed to play in just 10 minutes!  All because she gave some time to calmly listen without doing anything. 

Some initial time spent listening creates fantastic results.  Give it a few minutes and a rhythm can sound completely different to the way you heard it the first time round.  If we rush this precious period in learning, our mind can play tricks on us. Rhythms can remind us of other things we have heard before and this can get in the way of hearing something the way it should be truly heard.  The problem is not what we don’t know but trying to get the stuff we already know out of the way. Regardless of any formal music training (and whether you like it or not); if music has been in the background of your life (i.e. on the tv or radio), your mind has processed it, learnt and memorised it.  Your mind can then recall this as a way to interpret something new.  It is exactly the same as the way our memories shape the way we interpret and judge situations and people.  Past memories can be useful but often don’t provide an accurate interpretation. Experienced musicians can also fall foul of this - some have a tendency to ‘rush in’ using their existing skills and pre-conceived knowledge of how to play something new.

If we give a new rhythm a bit more ‘listen time’, we start to hear things which break these assumptions and we can start to hear the rhythm in a different way.  Consciously or unconsciously, we start to reconsider the way the pattern fits around a pulse; the sound or pitch of the drum beats; the length of the pattern’s cycle; where the pattern begins and ends and the swing or ‘feel’ of the rhythm.  The more attention one can give to these considerations in your listening, the easier it becomes to process and correctly recite the new rhythm. 

Finally as regarding spending time to listen.  It is crucial that you hear things against a pulse – this really matters.  The pulse gives a rhythm its context.  Without it, a rhythm pattern is completely ambiguous and open to misinterpretation. I will be posting a story about this soon - watch this space! 

Mouth

Vocalising rhythm is a really effective way to quickly grasp the feeling in African Drumming.

Vocalising rhythm is a really effective way to quickly grasp the feeling in African Drumming.

Once you have listened really carefully, it is the time to keep sitting on your hands and open your mouth instead. Reciting rhythms orally often gets missed – it may be that people are embarrassed to do this in the way they might be embarrassed to sing in public. I am sure that X-Factor has not helped! It is a shame because the muscles in your mouth are incredibly versatile – most people can reproduce a rhythm more easily with their mouth than through coordinating two hands and arms, so it is a good place to start. You can either vocalise using sounds or use words split into syllables to make the rhythm easier to remember. As an example I often use a catchy phrase with school children to learn a West African rhythm called Kassa which goes “and a little bit here . .  and a little bit there . .”

As you take on more advanced material such as learning the multiple phrases in a passage of drum solo, your mouth becomes a brilliant tool to process and recite things quickly without being impeded by the restraints of hand and arm motor skills. This is particularly the case for advanced students who are attending intensive drumming courses, as there is a lot of material to absorb in a short space of time.  Using phonetics (vocal sounds to mimic the sounds of the drum) you can quickly recite a phrase that a teacher has played and then compare it to what you hear when the teacher repeats the same phrase again. As you become more confident you are getting it right, you can try vocalising as the teacher plays.  If you vocalise quietly (which the other students will appreciate), you will quietly hear your vocalising against the teacher’s louder playing, so you are more likely to hear any discrepancies that need correcting. If you drum instead here, you may be so loud you won’t hear what you are doing wrong.

Use vocals to teach African Drumming to school children

Finally a warning to school teachers.  Once children start vocalising, they often get really excited and start raising their voices until the room becomes a shouting match.  Encourage them to vocalise clearly without shouting and help them to appreciate what the object of the exercise is – to use words to make rhythms; not to be louder than each other.  As children get louder, all their energy goes into the power of their voice and the rhythm very quickly loses momentum and slows down.

Hands

How important is hand coordination when learning African Drumming?

How important is hand coordination when learning African Drumming?

Finally the hands can start to come in to play. The important thing to understand at this final stage is that your ears and mouth should be in charge.

Use your ears to monitor everything you can hear, checking that your sound matches that of the teacher’s and, if you are in a class, try and keep your playing light to ensure that you are always quieter than the teacher and everybody else - even if this means using one’s fingers as opposed to hands.  Playing loudly is one of my weaknesses.  I have a very powerful slap technique and I have to be careful this is controlled so that it doesn’t ‘drum out’ the teacher or the rest of a class.  One of the biggest complaints in drum classes is that people struggle to hear the ‘right stuff’ because the ‘wrong stuff’ is so dominant!

Keep vocalising while playing.  If you find the dual process of vocalising and playing difficult, then practise it.  Your vocalising should guide what your hands do.   This may sound tricky, but if you put the effort into vocalising you will quickly find that it becomes second nature.  I have a drumming friend who is always singing what he is playing.  He seems completely unaware that he’s doing this, but I’m sure that this is one of the reasons why he manages to play flawlessly.

Probably the reason why many learners are so quick to use their hands before their ears and mouth for a new rhythm is that they become very focused on the technicalities of hand coordination.  There are lots of techniques to African Drumming which, if mastered, allow you to play efficiently and with speed.  In the early learning stages, coordination is simply about being able to maintain control when alternating the left and right hands.  Later on people discover that many of the rhythms and phrases require very specific movements and techniques where you will use a hand twice as opposed to alternating ‘left, right, left, right’. For many people the coordination can be a huge learning obstacle as you have to teach one’s hands to move and coordinate in a way which goes against its nature.  It is like trying to write your signature with the opposite hand. 

Of course there are limitations to how your ears and mouth can help you with this, but I would argue that when learning something new, people can become over preoccupied with hand coordination.  If you are so preoccupied with coordination you can also become over preoccupied with looking (at the teacher’s coordination) and this can often be to the expense of hearing.   I’m not saying that there should be no attention to coordination and the things you see, but it should never take precedent over what you hear

It is true that coordination, along with sound definition, can be wrapped into a rhythm in such a way that it can become very difficult to keep up in the tempo.  Some rhythms and solo phrases have very specific hand movements which, without mastering, can stop one in one’s tracks.  It’s never fun to be left behind in a class, let down by hands that are locked into a certain way of doing things.  But the thing to recognise here is that if you are actively listening and vocalising you are playing the rhythm.   You are also more likely to remember the new material if you set the listening and vocalising as a priority as opposed to ‘seeing it and doing it’.  

Often with a strong focus on vocalising, one’s hands can intuitively play out a new rhythm, even if they don’t have perfect coordination and efficiency.  The coordination might need revising but this can be amended at a later stage – habits can be broken and changed! Moreover with more advanced levels of drumming, there are several acceptable ways to coordinate a given phrase anyway. In fact many African masters are ambidextrous and will change their coordination for a given phrase throughout their playing.

But let’s suppose you are a ‘doer’ who feels that without actually playing the rhythm out with your hands you really aren’t learning it.  Consider the motives for having a lesson or attending a class in the first place.  It is wonderful for our confidence to learn something new and feel that we’ve pretty much mastered it by the end of the session.  But is this what it is really about? Getting things right first time?  (If that was so I should feel completely disillusioned by now!)  If it is about the long term vision of improving ones overall playing over time, the consideration is not what you can achieve at the time, but what you take way for continued practice.  You can easily forget what you saw the teacher do, but what you heard and verbally recited will stay with you.  If you can get the permission, make a video recording of the teacher’s coordination and technique so you can look at this for a later date, and not be burdened with this during the session.

So finally - how has this three word mantra Ears Mouth Hands worked for me?

How good listening and vocalising has helped my African Djembe playing

How good listening and vocalising has helped my African Djembe playing

In the last 12 months I have been attending some seriously intensive African Drumming courses with a renowned teacher in the UK.  This teacher has travelled throughout Mali and Guinea Conakry in West Africa and has a vast wealth of skill and knowledge of Djembe and Dundun drumming.  During the three day intensive course, the teacher explores two or three rhythms in depth, looking at their many accompanying parts, variations, solos and songs.  There is a huge amount of information covered over the three days.  Everyone can take or leave what they want to learn according to their level, but if you are like me and enjoy learning it all, there is a huge amount of material covered in a short space of time.  The first time I attended the course I managed well on the first day.  The second day my mind began to start feeling full and by the third day I was accumulating so much information I felt overwelmed.  At the end of the course, my mind wasn’t just exhausted – it was truly ‘fried’! 

The great thing about this teacher is that he provides transcriptions and video recordings of everything covered in the course, so for the next 6 months I studied the rhythms and incorporated the material into my own evening class sessions.  During this time I did two things – I emphasised with the students in my class the importance of initial listening and vocalising.  I also encouraged them to join me for the teacher’s next intensive course – which many of them did.  If you are a teacher you know full well the importance of practising what you preach – the hard part is putting what you say into action.  So considering that I would now be attending the class with my students, I knew I had to be true to my word or risk being super teased by my students!   As a result my experience at this course was entirely different and I really found that listening and vocalising helped enormously.  It was still hard and I’m not going to claim that I really mastered everything there and then.  (I know I still have a fair bit of work to do on capturing the ‘swing’ in the rhythms taught.)  But in comparison to the previous course, I was able to remember so much more of the material.  More importantly I enjoyed the course much more and my brain was not fried at the end. By the last day, I could vocalise full passages of even the most advanced material and could honestly say I could have attended another intensive course the next day! I was astonished by what I was able to take in and yet realised that what I needed previously was just a different way of learning – relying less on seeing and doing and more on hearing and vocalising. 

If you also play and teach African music, you will also know how wonderful it is to learn and master new things and also how frustrating it can be when you or your students struggle to hear and recite something properly.  If so, I hope that this post is useful to you.  Why not drop me a comment with your own thoughts and experiences.

5 Comments

4 Great Reasons to have African Drumming and Dance in Schools

Comment

4 Great Reasons to have African Drumming and Dance in Schools

Whether your school has experienced one of our workshops before or not, you might never have considered the many ways that African Drumming and Dance can benefit children’s health, well-being and ability to succeed. Here are four reasons why an Unbeatable Energy workshop can help create a success in your classroom:

African drumming creates smiles in schools

 

1. African Drumming and Dance brings cultural topics to life! 

An African Drumming and Dance workshop provides a fantastic activity for Black History Month, an Africa topic or to include in a Cultural Diversity Day.   

It is an exhilarating experience for pupils and teachers alike when they make that first rumble all together with the African djembe hand drums.  As each pupil plays on their hand made drum, they discover a whole world of history, tradition and culture - not just by passively listening or reading, but by actively playing and participating.  This way they really experience the ethnic tradition and culture of West Africa.  To quote a recent Headteacher at one of our schools ‘it is the hands-on activities like African drumming which children really take away and remember from cultural topics because they become active participants in the music as opposed to merely spectators.’  

African Dance boosts children's confidence

2. African Drumming and Dance boosts children’s confidence!

It happens frequently in workshops – a child who really struggles with maths and literacy, or is shy and socially disengaged in class, completely transforms in a drumming session.  It is as if they have finally found the thing that ‘pulls’ them emotionally and gives them a sense of release.

African Dance is also a fantastic way for children to build their self-belief. Dancers normally perform to a crowd either on their own or accompanied by one or two other dancers. In our workshops, children are invited to dance to their peers in the space inside the drum circle.  This part of the workshop is entirely optional for pupils, but we provide some gentle encouragement by saying that the experience will make them one feel great afterwards. After a few of the more confident children have given it a try, we start to see a cascade of other children all wanting to have a go. In this way, some of the most shy and reclusive children amaze everyone by jumping into the circle and sharing their joy of the beat! The smiles on children’s faces after this session speaks volumes about their sense of achievement!

3. African Drumming and Dance gets children active which improves the brain!

African Drumming and Dance is a fantastic way to for children to exercise and channel their energy.  African djembe drumming builds strength and stamina in the upper body while dance improves cardiovascular fitness and is an all-over body workout.  Obviously this is great for enhancing children’s fitness and wellbeing, but studies show that such exercise sharpens the mind; makes for happier children and improves their performance in other areas such as maths and literacy.  

African Drumming improves children's listening skills

4. African Drumming and Dance improves listening skills – not just in music!

It is a typical thing which you hear a teacher say in class music lessons – ‘listen!’ For good reason too because good listening is crucial.   Like all music, learning African drumming is great for building a variety of listening skills. For example the ability to focus listening on an individual pattern within a poly-rhythmic piece of music (multiple rhythms being played simultaneously) or developing the listening skills required to understand the feeling of a rhythm when hearing against a regular pulse.

Whatever the type of listening required, there is a common personal attribute that becomes essential for any budding musician - the ability to give oneself time to reflect and process what has been heard. Experienced African drummers who are learning something new always give themselves time to listen before they start playing, because they are all too aware that their mind can quickly make wrong assumptions of what they have heard, based on what they already know.  Although the children often find it hard to resist playing straight away!

The great thing is that children can not only improve their listening in music through African Drumming, but can also apply the same skill to social situations – for example in conversation. By giving yourself time to hear what someone is saying, you can stop one’s internal chatter from making assumptions; truly absorb what someone is being said and then create a greater sense of rapport – this is called ‘active listening’ a great life skill for a child to learn at an early age!

If you are a school who would love a day of African drumming and dance workshops for your pupils or have an Africa Topic or Black History event coming up and think we could help, we’d love to hear from you!  Contact us to make a booking or find out more here. 

Comment

The power of group drumming to manage grief.

Comment

The power of group drumming to manage grief.

Drumming provides a safe way for people to process their emotions in grief.  Feeling and hearing the powerful drumming rhythms creates a strong sense of release, while the sense of social empathy in group drumming allows people to combat a deep sense of isolation often felt with the loss of a loved one... 

Comment

African Drumming Evening Class performance footage from Sheffield’s Sharrow Festival 2016

Comment

African Drumming Evening Class performance footage from Sheffield’s Sharrow Festival 2016

Here is a great video of our African drumming students performing at Sheffield's Sharrow Festival last weekend.:

The rhythm we are playing is called 'Degu Degu' which was a popular dance rhythm in Mali, West Africa in the 1980s. It was taught to me by Hans Sutton who was himself taught the rhythms and solo parts by Malian musicians Drissa Kone and Matche Traore.

Hans Sutton writes: “ ‘Degu Degu’ is not a traditional rhythm and is rarely played now.  Dances like ‘Degu Degu’ and their accompanying rhythms sometimes spring up and then burn out quite quickly.  Sometimes they are creations of African dance ballets that achieve a short-lived popularity.' 

Nevertheless it is still a beautifully funky rhythm which I’m sure deserves a come back!

Did you know we run African Drumming evening classes with special sessions for complete beginners as well as sessions for Improvers and Advanced.  Find out more here or get in touch for further details.

 

Comment

Scout Camp African Drumming Performance - great things happen if you put your heart into it!

Comment

Scout Camp African Drumming Performance - great things happen if you put your heart into it!

What a great time we had this weekend playing African drums at a big scout camp at Walesby Forest in Nottinghamshire. 
It was amazing what the scouts managed to put together in such a short space of time!
These kids were really dedicated to the beat!  See for yourself - here's a wonderful video which really captures the magic of the final performance at the end of the day!

Nice video yeah?  But it just got better.  Here is a wonderful message we received today from a mother of one of the scouts who attended the session:

"My son Philip had a fantastic time with you at the scout camp at Walesby. He phoned every family member to tell them about the performance & practicing for it. Philip had been really homesick in the morning & wanted to come home but was so glad he stayed. Philip isn't usually bothered about being in the limelight so I'm sure this has really helped his confidence, a huge thank you from a very happy mum 😊"

What a wonderful story - this is the what things like this a really all for!

Want to put the beat into your event?  We run drumming sessions for Scouts, Guides, Cubs, Rainbows and Beaver camps all round the country.  Why not give us a call?

African Drumming Performance at Walesby Forest Scout Camp, Nottinghamshire

Comment