Hand Drum Lessons & Notation for Djembes, Dununs & Bells

Playing Djembe Rhythms: Tradition and Improvisation

Free sample chapter from:

Roots Jam 2: West African and Afro-Latin Drum Rhythms

Tradition and Improvisation

I play the basic form of a rhythmic figure until it varies itself.
–Correa Djalma, in Flatischler

The question of departing from strict rhythmical forms (as with other aspects of traditional cultures) is a sensitive one. Many drummers, drum teachers, and others who identify with a certain cultural form take issue with “cultural appropriation” when rhythms are taken out of context and changed.

I try to hold to the middle path that includes, on the one side, respectful acknowledgement, and on the other side, freedom to adapt to the situation at hand–ultimately to the spirit of the moving moment.

This marriage of traditional pattern and creative freedom is the essence of my philosophy in Roots Jam (1 and 2), as reflected in the title. In both collections I have tried to be thorough and accurate in my research and transcription of traditional rhythms. I also recognize the inevitable mutation worked by the various translations along the way, as a pattern migrates from the cultural time and place it calls home. To memory’s lapses are added creative patches; the ear plays tricks and the recorder’s pencil errs. When we end up, in North America in 2002, with a dozen “traditional” arrangements of “Kuku,” how can we say which one is “authentic”?

In compiling and arranging traditional rhythms here, I’ve tried to identify common elements in order to arrive at the essence of a given rhythm. In many cases that job starts with associating rhythms that come with slightly different names–whether from migration between African cultures, evolution into Afro-Latin forms, or transcription into English (often via French or Spanish spelling). Then there is the matter of identifying parts. I’ve tried to be comprehensive here rather than simple–presenting a maximum of options and variations to choose from. Where sources disagree–as they almost always do–I’ve attempted to distinguish parts (e.g., djembe 1, djembe 2, djembe 3) by a number of factors including agreement of sources, reputation of sources, and intrinsic differences in feel between parts.

African world beat drums for jamming with Strange MoonThe result is a large collection of variations that gives you the flexibility–and responsibility–to choose and arrange parts according to your own circumstances. Choose according to level of difficulty, number of players, or fullness and complexity of the desired sound. I encourage also creative substitutions of available instruments–congas and djembes, different kinds of bass drums, shakers and bells.

It’s useful also to recognize that just as a pattern will evolve over time and geography, even in the traditional setting it will be subject to spontaneous interpretation, by dancers and drummers who are also responding to each other. In the heat of the moment, the solo drummer relies on a body of “licks” he or she has previously mastered, which may even be rooted in a traditional verbal language. Yet there is still room to be carried away, into where the music wants to go, into new places.