The recent West African drumming workshop we lead at Ralph Thoresby School was slightly (and refreshingly) out of our comfort zone. We were asked to contribute towards a special school poetry day. We were to run workshops alongside some high profile writers and poets - all of whom were to run workshops with select students from the school. Ralph Thoresby School wanted us to be one the contributors. 'Great!' we said, 'we're up for it! Erm.. just one thing - we're drummers and we don't know anything about poetry.' 'That's okay,' said the school, 'just try and relate the drumming to poetry in some way.' Anyway we thought about the day and we came up with an amazing plan - we decided to concentrate on what we knew!
As it happens we realised that we didn't have to make many changes to the content of the workshop. It was simply about understanding the obvious parallel between the two creative mediums:
West African drumming is all passed on through speech - syllables of words create rhythms and special words are created to describe the sounds made by the djembe drum. As one gets more experienced in djembe playing, one can start exploring how to create a djembe solo (this is known in Africa as a djembe Kan). The best djembe soloists are the ones that can create a sound that becomes so clear and memorable it is almost as though they are telling a story or yarn. They create rhythm phrases in their solos that change and develop as if they are creating words that rhyme with each other. Also we began to discover that poetry itself can incorporate repetition, timing and rhythm. It seemed that the correlation between drumming and poetry was crystal clear! Watch this amazing video of a djembe Kan by West African master drummer Harouna Dembele. You will see how the solo is almost like a poem or story.
Our group of students in the drumming workshop were an absolute pleasure to work with. What was so refreshing was that they were all up for trying new things out. They started coming up with the ideas for drumming rhythms and they had a go at 'creating poetry in drumming' with their very own drum solos. To top it all, when the pupils performed to the rest of the school, we even had members of the group and audience jumping into the middle of the drum circle to dance! As the drumming intensified and the atmosphere in the hall became electric poetry, drumming and dance became parts of the same thing - pure energy, spirit and self expression!