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The Many Benefits of Djembe Drumming

Transferred from an older blog: Original post date by Alpha (Administrator) on 08/07/10

Djembe drumming has been around for centuries and originated roughly in the area between today's West African countries of Guinea and Mali. In this region, the people have been playing this percussive music for all daily life events for so long that eventually the music blended into the culture and traditions, and has been such ever since. A Guinean traditional orchestra is composed of eight percussive instruments or more; the Djembe being one of them. The base drums of the orchestra are called Doundoumba drums. Each instrument of the orchestra plays a different percussive pattern, and when all play together, it becomes a rhythm.

Most people playing the Djembe outside of West Africa today have deviated so much from this West African orchestra model that they are missing the many benefits of Djembe drumming.

Beyond the obvious stress relief and community benefits of getting together to celebrate various events of the daily life, what are the benefits of being immersed in this percussive tradition?

If you are totally novice to the Guinean orchestra concept, and depending on the context in which you play Djembe, you may have no idea about the many benefits of traditional Djembe drumming. Among the many benefits of Djembe drumming played in a Guinean-style orchestra, we observe the following from participating students:

- Improve listening skills and develop multitasking abilities:

Listening to different repetitive musical patterns from 8 or more different musical instruments simultaneously is quite a challenge.

In a class environment, most students quickly realize the individual and group challenge of playing in a Guinean-style orchestra from the very first class.

Initially, you may only be able to focus on yourself and what you are playing, while listening to the rest of the orchestra might make you lose your drumming pattern. After a few classes, you will notice that you can begin to listen to other instruments of the orchestra, while continuing to play your attributed pattern.

After a few months, depending on the person, you may clearly be able to listen to multiple distinct patterns while easily playing your own.

Eventually, you will reach the point when you can hear the full orchestra and all of its percussive instruments; together with all its complexity, and this is when the magic happens! . You will then hear the result of centuries of perfected rhythms. You have to experience this to understand it, as it is very hard to describe.

In theory, all participants are part of the same orchestra and are all playing together, but at an individual level, each individual could be hearing something totally different, depending on the level that they are at.

- Improve the way you work in a team:

Team work and synergy are important things while playing in a traditional Guinean orchestra. In a music class environment, the synergy is so high that a slight error from any of the participants can bring the entire orchestra into chaos, forcing all players to come to a halt. Players have to constantly listen to each other and cannot just focus on playing their assigned pattern. Class after class, students will improve the way they work in a team with a group of people which initially were unknown to them.

- Improve Concentration and the Ability to Focus:

Concentration and focus is the key to playing in a Guinean-style orchestra. When playing, each individual has to hold a steady pattern matching the overall orchestra rhythm in a very precise way. Most beginner students have problems focusing. They start playing their assigned pattern, and moments later, they have to restart what they were playing, simply because they are not 100% there. The first few rhythms being played in classes are basic enough that some people may still be able to think about something else while playing, but soon enough everybody realize that they have no choice but to focus at a 100%, or they just won't be able to play at all. This is when you really start improving your concentration and focus.

- Improve short term memory:

During Guinean-style orchestra classes, students are required to remember simple to complex patterns with specific timing and melodies. These exercises can dramatically improving anyone's short term memory.

- Improve left and right hand coordination and independence:

Playing Djembe in a Guinean-style percussion orchestra involves high coordination between right and left hands, while keeping a consistent playing motion.

Eventually, you will achieve total right and left hand independence through regular practice, as long as you play with the proper hand technique passed along for centuries. Needless to say, someone has to teach you those techniques. Because these hand drumming techniques have been played, perfected, and passed along for centuries in West Africa, virtually no one can possibly find out these optimum techniques of playing and superimposing voices on a single instrument without being taught.

It is not unusual for people who hear a Master Djembe player to think that, 3 or 4 players are involved, while there is only a single person playing a single instrument.

- Communicate without words or gestures:

Communicating without words or gestures is another interesting experience of playing in a Guinean-style orchestra. Players spontaneously initiate pattern changes (call), that in turn trigger another player to change his/her pattern (response), to finally go back to the initial respective playing pattern for each of them. These self-initiated call/ responses are pre-defined complex drumming phrases that temporarily change the overall rhythm. Furthermore, a lead Djembe player plays a set of musical phrases indicating the start, the changes, and the end of a musical piece (rhythm), without any words or gestures made by anyone. Almost each musical piece of the orchestra (or Rhythm) has its own specific signaling phrase (also commonly called "break") that is used to communicate between players. Guinea alone has over 300 Rhythms, and almost each of these pieces of music has their own and unique signaling phrases.

- Develop Confidence:

Learning how to play in a Guinean-style orchestra will build up a student's self confidence. While improving drumming skills, students will learn to overcome the challenges placed in front of them by the teacher at each and every class.

- Discovering the world of improvisation and soloing:

The concept of soloing in a Guinean-style orchestra is really about hearing the overall rhythm, and embellishing it with an improvisation of your own. A steady, or core rhythm, is necessary to allow soloing. Without it, there is nothing to embellish. As one can imagine, the soloist needs to be very skilled. In a Guinean-style orchestra, a great deal of the foundation of a steady rhythm is provided by the base drums (Doundoumba).

In Guinea, and in most of West Africa, dancing is the ultimate reason the music is played, and the duo music/dance is very rarely separated. In Guinea, most rhythms have their own specific dance choreography.

The Djembe soloist follows the dancer's steps, while also embellishing the overall rhythm. This means that the soloist has to know the dance choreography as well as all music arrangements. Consequently, the soloist has to have mastered all of the skills previously outlined throughout this text (excellent hand coordination, multitasking skills, the ability to concentrate, etc.) and combine them all at once! This is why the soloist is often the most skilled Djembe player!

- Learn about Mandingue and Guinean culture / traditions:

Since the music is blended in the culture and traditions, understanding the context and origin of each Guinean rhythm can definitely help understand how the rhythm is played.

As an example, one rhythm was originally played on a shaker instrument by multiple players, and over time, it became a full percussion orchestra rhythm adapted onto the Djembe and Dounoumba drums. The rhythm has been named after the shaker instrument. When you know the origin of the rhythm it helps you play better because you know how the different patterns evolved. Each rhythm has a history and a meaning, while being played at daily life events (weddings, harvest, etc).

Different rhythms are played by different ethnic groups with different cultures / traditions, and a good Djembe drumming class should include all these components. Many articles have been written about the many benefits of Djembe drumming. However, most people playing the Djembe outside of West Africa today have deviated so much from the Guinean-style orchestra model that they are missing the many benefits of Djembe drumming.

So many countries have their own specific drums, with drumming as a part of their musical heritage. The only way to experience the many benefits of drumming is to play each instrument with its original context in mind. You will then be guaranteed to experience the many benefits of drumming. Beyond all the benefits described in this article about Guinean-style percussion drumming, are there any higher spiritual benefits to drumming?

The only thing I can tell you is that only the students who study and practice long enough will find out for themselves!

Novice Djembe players often confuse a repetitive Djembe pattern and call it a rhythm. As mentioned previously, a rhythm is the music formed by multiple patterns played by multiple instruments in the orchestra. Calling a pattern a rhythm really diminishes the size of the Guinean traditional music repertoire!

( 1 pattern for each of the 8 or more instruments in the basic orchestra ) X (300 Guinean rhythms)=Thousands of distinct individual patterns

At Alpha Rhythm Roots, we have ongoing weekly Djembe classes in Toronto, Canada, as Visit the "Drumming lesson and classes" section of our web site for further details.

Still skeptical? Check it out for yourself !

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