Thursday, March 3, 2011

The (Poly)Rhythm of Life

Every Tuesday evening, I take the train home from campus,scarf down dinner, and head over to Wolf Trap for an African Drumming class. Yes, you read that right--African Drumming. I fell into the art form accidentally--but that's a story for another day. Suffice it to say that I've now taken about 3 years of lessons from a master drummer from Ghana, and I am thoroughly enjoying my new hobby.

African drumming differs from Western-style drumming, and even from the djembe-playing that I do in church, in several ways. First, African drumming is ensemble drumming. It's not a solo; even though the group is led by a master drummer, the leadership of the group circulates from one session to the next, and often circulates within the sessions themselves, as drummers tire and switch to other instruments or dancing to rest their hands for a bit (I don't dance--my knees aren't up to it anymore). All drummers know that they will spend most of their time as "supporting drummers."

Second, African drumming is based on polyrhythms. That is, part of the ensemble will play a pattern that can be counted in 4, another part will play a pattern that can be counted in 3, and a third part may play a pattern that needs to be counted in 8, or something else entirely. All parts play simultaneously, and over the several drum patterns there may also be people playing rhythms on a bell, a bass drum, a talking drum, or a shekere. The really amazing thing about polyrhythms is that you would never guess that all these patterns could be played at the same time to produce a harmonious sound--you would think instead that the result would be total cacophony. But because all the patterns converge at a single time in the music (think fractions and common denominators), the result is a rich and wonderful tapestry that has to be experienced to be believed (I tried recording a class session, but it didn't turn out, and there's no easy to embed an mp3 in blogger anyway).

Finally, African drumming, more so than Western-style drumming, imitates life on many levels. Here are a few:

1. Everyone has a specific instrument or pattern to play in the ensemble. Your job is to nail the part that is given to you, because if you don't, the music won't sound quite right. Worse, the drummer next to you might play his/her part incorrectly, and the result will now be even less pleasing to the ear. Before you know it, you have noise instead of music.

2. Roles within the ensemble change all time. The trick is knowing when you are supposed to play which pattern/role. Sometimes you know in advance. Sometimes it's sprung on you unexpectedly. Regardless, your job is to fall into that role and get into the new pattern as quickly and seamlessly as possible. This is not always easy and takes years of practice.

3. It's easier to play in pairs or groups. If you are seated next to someone else who is playing the same pattern as you, you can help keep each other stay on rhythm.

4. The music may sound impossibly complex when heard in totality, but it's composed of many individual patterns that are usually easy to learn. Drumming, like so many tasks we face in life, is easier when broken down into manageable components.

5. The more complex the rhythms are to join together, the more consistent your internal sense of tempo needs to be. Sometimes it's easy to hear how and where the patterns in a circle converge, and you can take cues from the other drummers. But there are some rhythms, like the traditional agbadze rhythm, that aren't so obvious. The first few times months you play these patterns, you have to concentrate on maintaining a steady tempo just to play your part. You don't dare listen to what others are doing, let alone try and get a sense of the whole piece. But the longer you play and the more you practice, the better your internal sense of rhythm becomes and the more grounded and steady you become, and then you can listen to the whole thing. This also takes years of practice.

6. You'll never be the master drummer if you don't practice--and you won't always be the master drummer. This one needs no further comment.

In the West, where we tend to compartmentalize our lives, music and philosophy don't often mix. It's our loss.


  1. Good life lessons here. Maybe African drumming should be a required couse for management.

  2. You may be onto teacher is a big believer in the social aspect of drumming. It really does build community and teamwork.