Traditional Solos and Improvisation (from the book Roots Jam 3)
Contrary to popular belief, traditional drum soloing on the djembe is not simply free improvisation. Master djembe players such as Mamady Keita and Famoudou Konate play and teach a style of soloing based on “traditional solos,” a series of rhythmic variations each corresponding to a particular dance move. Besides being tailored to the movements of the dance, these solo phrases will reflect the underlying melody of the dununs (particularly the sangban) and the accompaniment djembes. A gifted soloist will also depart from the prearranged solo phrases to improvise with free creativity . . . always with the structure and feel of the traditional rhythms and dance in mind.
In comparing the traditional solos of different teachers, villages, or regions of West Africa, one realizes that the tradition is not fixed, nor is there a commonly agreed upon arrangement of solos (or other parts) for any given rhythm. Dance moves likewise will vary, even among “traditional” teachers from the same area. So there is some freedom for the lead djembe player or arranger to pick and choose from traditional solo parts, as well as to create and play new variations. The “djembe 1” parts in the arrangements that follow could be considered as the basic starting point for the lead djembe, with the “solos” as additional options.
To summarize: the grounding for the soloist begins with traditional parts and phrases, and when improvising, (s)he plays around the foundation melody of the supporting instruments (whatever the choice of parts may be for a given rhythm). Deep knowledge of all the parts is a definitely recommended as preparation for such a role. Then the key is to listen, and to play around that melody in various ways to reinforce, to embellish, and to accentuate the pulse and the spaces of the music. All of this happens with the ears and hands, while the eyes focus on the dance moves, to play with those. It all comes back to the dance.
The Roots Jam 3 djembe lessons continue with more tips on . . .
Breaks, Intros and Endings
Arranging Djembe Solo Phrases
Exercises (with notation) for Rolls Practice
More Soloing Tips