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"On Africans, Americans and non-Africans Playing Djembe"


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Tue Oct 24 04:25:37 1995
From: Patrick Armstrong pca2@axe.humboldt.edu
Subject: The "I'm not African" dilemma (long)

Since this can o worms has already been opened I'll take the time to express my observations and personal concerns regarding the situation that most of us on this list are in (and most of the people we drum with also). That is, the fact that I am not African yet I dedicate a large portion of my time to learning African or African-derived music. Music that, in Africa, has significant social and cultural importance. The dilemma is; how does this music fit into the context of my life and culture (white American)? Most of the drummers I relate with fall into one of two categories; the purists, those that insist on playing particular rhythms exactly as they are taught or as close to the traditional rhythms as possible, and the "free-formers" who believe that he creation of music is a dynamic process and that changing of the rhythms is not only inevitable but is necessary. Many other things that must be taken into consideration, and has been touched on in previous posts on this list, are:

1). The power of rhythm in general and the healing, spiritual qualities that expressing one's own rhythm manifests.

2). The words and opinions of our African/Cuban/Haitian/Brazilian teachers, that is, that the rhythms they teach have special significance and that, if not played "correctly" they lose that significance. Basically because it becomes something else. Many of the teachers lately have been expressing displeasure at the American tendency to "trash" the rhythms.

3). The traditional rhythms coming from the teachers are in a state of flux and that dependent on what village or ethnicity one is from the style that any particular rhythm will be different. The teachers themselves, although they know hundreds of rhythms, may not know the true significance of these rhythms as someone from the place of the rhythms origination would. Some of the rhythms I have learned are named after the area or ethnic group e.g. Bamana Foli (Bamana rhythm).

4). Except for some sacred religious rhythms, most of the rhythms we learn here in California are constantly changing in Africa. Although the general feel of the rhythm is the same, there is always something new that comes out every year.

Without getting too scattered in my thoughts, I think of my personal situation as a musician. My instrument of choice is the percussion instrument. Just like any musical instrument, one can learn and add to their repertoire various songs. These songs that we learn are the traditional rhythms. Within the context of the original song, changes can be made without losing the integrity of the original song. For instance, compare Scott Joplin's version of Maple Leaf Rag with Jelly Roll Morton's. The feel is very different, Jelly Roll "swings" it more. But the song is undeniably the same. Its the same with the African rhythms. Listen to Mamady Keita play Kuku and compare that to Les Percussions de Guinee. Same song, different style. One needs to attain a certain level of musicianship before they can pull off this trick (which is probably what most American/Europeans don't have and why the Africans get upset when we try).

The challenge for us ("us" being non-Africans) I would think is to take the music to somewhere that relates to our own cultural experience. How does a harvest song relate to a consumerist society? How do songs for a circumcision or a secret men's society relate to our experience? If I examine American culture I do see a new "rhythm-expression" making itself felt. i see it in the "New Age" movement which our new prized member of the list, Arthur Hull, (and of course Baba) had a lot to do with starting. I also see the new movement coming out of the "rave" scene. Generation X experimenting with mind-altering substances and beating the crap out of anything (metal cans, doumbeks, posts, pans). Its a primal instinct for a society to find some sort of expression through rhythm and to reach a new spiritual level, that's a lot of people do it here. It began for me at Grateful Dead concerts many years ago. That scene has spawned a new group of enthusiastic percussionists that would never consider learning parts for a rhythm, there's no spirit involved in that!;)

I feel that at this point that what I think is the ultimate outcome of this is a merge between the purists and the "spiritualists". Basically that a bunch of people can get together, with bongos, congas, djembes, ashikos, bohrans, tablas etc..., and have enough musicianship to take the fundamental ideas of the music and take it to that "place". To take the energy of a "rave-circle" and the knowledge of a West African dance class and combine the two (with song and dance of course) to create something new and relevant to our experience. Of course we still get together to play Dounounba or Rumba Guaguanco as a group of musicians gets together to play 12-bar blues or a jazz standard.

Well, I've rambled on a bit and I probably sound idealistic but this seems to be a growing concern among those I drum with as well as some of you on the list. Some of the ideas I have described probably cannot come about in this generation. But if drumming continues to gain in popularity and a whole new generation begins playing drums and beginning from a young age, a whole new positive thing must come about. I hope that we can all say that we around back when things were just starting to happen. One things for sure, our playing and expression is based on our experience and knowledge. I've learned Cuban, Congolese, West African, Haitian and Brazilian drumming. Whatever I play is not any of those, it's a fusion of all those styles mixed in with all the music I've heard over my lifetime. We're bound to create something new out of that.

Peace,
Patrick

******************************

Tue Oct 24 13:16:54 1995
From: fedstart@nando.net
Subject: The "I'm not African" dilemma

This letter by Patrick is, IMHO, just superbly thought out, distilled and expressed.

There are so many different "dippers" with which one can draw from the African rhythmic well. It's a fathomless well, and no one, not even native-born master drummers, knows or feels ALL there is to know. No matter what we WISH to drink from the well, we'll always take in other things, often without knowing or understanding that we've done so. For me, it's no "crime" to learn the parts for KASSA or MAKRU from any number of sources, African or non. It's no offense against anyone to play them with friends and colleagues, at whatever level of faithfulness we can bring to them. Most creative artists know that once the original creative process is over, the compositions "belong" to the performers, whatever their backgrounds and skills.

BUT we must acknowledge (and honor) the creators, as our own expertise and commitment allow us to do so. For me, "acknowledgment" means:

1. naming and listing the sources and paths to me as best I can, verbally or on paper

2. knowing that I am not, nor ever will be, anywhere close to the full social MEANING of these rhythms, although I want to TRY my best 3. that if I am the transmitter of a rhythm to others it's my duty to avoid saying anything like: "This is KASSA," or "this is MARAKA DON." I'll stop here, and read other responses to Patrick's letter.

John Feddersen

****************************

Tue Oct 24 07:36:55 1995
From: lrowland@metz.une.edu.au 
In-Reply-To: "Patrick Armstrong"

>
> Since this can o worms has already been opened I'll take the time to express my observations and personal concerns regarding the situation that most of us on this list are in (and most of the people we drum with also). That is, the fact that I am not African yet I dedicate a large portion of my time to learning African or African-derived music. Music that, in Africa, has significant social and cultural importance. The dilemma is; how does this music fit into the context of my life and culture (white American)? Most of the drummers I relate with fall into one of two categories; the purists, those that insist on playing particular rhythms exactly as they are taught or as close to the traditional rhythms as possible, and the "free-formers" who believe that the creation of music is a dynamic process and that changing of the rhythms is not only inevitable but is necessary.
>....MUCH STUFF DELETED
> Peace,
> V
> Patrick

Hi,
I would like to contribute to this discussion. I have been playing/ performing Ewe, Ga and Ashanti music around 9 years now as the leader of a cultural ensemble. I was taught the music, dance and singing - as well as a lot of cultural 'baggage' by a traditional teacher. I have passed through a number of phases in my relationship to this music. At first I was concerned with authenticity and adhering strictly to what I was taught. Over time, and perhaps in the absence of a teacher to keep my group on track, I have become a lot more relaxed about my playing and if things are a little different now it is not such a big deal. I play my parts perhaps better than I did 5 years ago - I have assimilated the 'Ghanaian' way of performing I suppose. Anyway, often when I perform I have a sense of having popped out of the 'traditional' head space that I was once obsessively in and while the music is very traditional, what I am doing is really out of step with my Western European derived culture and the context in which I am performing. In some ways, there is no reason, other than the entertainment aspect of it, for what I am doing and that is perhaps not enough reason to keep ripping off and impersonating African ways of life.

My analysis goes something like this: The music of any culture has no absolute value, that is, whatever mystical/magical/ spiritual/emotional evocation music has is because we think it is so. I like to cite the example of an African friend's reaction to the experience of a classical orchestra. Now everyone knows that Mozart was one of the greatest composers (crap I say). Is it surprising that my friend found it fairly excruciating to endure. However, it is a truism that anyone could be _taught_ to appreciate Mozart.

The problem for me, as I see it, in playing the music of another culture is precisely the lack of context. The music I play comes out of a culture very different to the one I exist in. In its traditional setting music takes place in a communal setting (a village) and each member of the community participates in what ever capacity they can. This participation is founded on cooperation and a music event exists to reaffirm and ritualize cooperation and membership of the community. The music is _of_ the particular time, place and people and only has relevance to that reality.

In the absence of this context, the music is either meaningless or has an entirely new meaning. The trick is to know this and not pretend to be making African music - you're not, you are trying to capture and experience some of that cultural 'reality' that we carry around in our heads - and that is probably very far from the 'reality' of the traditional setting. Even if you lived in a village for a long time and learned the language. music, customs, habits, etc., you (us) could never approach the music from anything other than an outsider.

What I must accept is that in some ways what I do is a bit of a sham show, but not be distressed by this and continue to entertain people.

Cheers
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ Lindsay Rowlands ~ Faculty of Arts ~ University of New England ~ Armidale, NSW, AUSTRALIA ~ lrowland@metz.une.edu.au ~ ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*********************************

Thu Oct 26 15:45:07 1995
From: BlairDrums@aol.com 
Subject: I'm not African; acknowledge teachers

John Feddersen wrote:
>BUT we must acknowledge (and honor) the creators, as our own expertise and
>commitment allow us to do so. For me, "acknowledgment" means:
> 1. naming and listing the sources and paths to me as best I can,
> verbally or on paper
> 2. knowing that I am not, nor ever will be, anywhere close to the full
> social MEANING of these rhythms, although I want to TRY my best
> 3. that if I am the transmitter of a rhythm to others it's my duty to
> avoid saying anything like: "This is KASSA," or "this is MARAKA DON."

Blair Hornbuckle here... I'm glad to have a chance to participate in an important discussion.

I appreciated your posting, John. I share the need to acknowledge our teachers, and the idea that I may be miles away from the social meaning, but putting my best effort into it.

I am teaching in Rochester at the request of my Senegalese teacher, who lives in Buffalo (an hour and a half away). I've long pondered the issue of spending huge amounts of time and mental space on djembe music though I'm not from that culture. For me, acknowledgment means similar things as you described.

I begin each class with three deep breaths... holding the breath... and sending thanks as we exhale -- thanks for the trees that became our instruments, thanks for the animal that gave its life, and thanks for our traditional teachers.

When teaching a rhythm, my rap is something along the line of "This is my best effort at MARAKA DON as taught to me by M'baye Diagne." I encourage my students to listen to and play with M'baye "to hear the real thing." The non-African issues are further complicated by the idea of performing. I lead an ensemble of mostly European descended people (myself included) that performs publicly. Two of the seven dancers are African-Americans. We've done lots of shows big and small, from school assemblies to a United Way awards banquet attended by 600 people (with the performers' image projected onto two 40' video screens for better visibility). We always look pretty white, especially with the intense stage lighting. ;>) In the beginning of my performing days (only about 3 years now) I felt much more ambivalent than I do now, and probably wouldn't be doing public shows without my teachers strong support.

He has pushed hard on the idea of performing: "If you are in the arts (drum & dance) you can't be shy. There is no shy with the music. People want to see you. You have to show them." The first show I did was with my teacher. I thought I was just giving him and the three other African performers a ride to the gig, a high school assembly for about 200 African-American teens. 15 seconds before walking out on stage he turns to me and says "Take off your shoes. Where's your drum?" I put on a djembe and walked out with no idea of what we'd play, my insides suddenly full of flutters.

At the shows we do without Africans I always attempt (sometimes a lack of sound reinforcement doesn't allow it) to address the audience directly about the issue of European descended people performing music and dance taught us by Africans. I try to express that we're doing our best to share what we've been taught, and it is with great thanks and deep appreciation for our teachers that we are here today. I'll often send a message of peace and love from our teacher, who was unable to be here today, and explain the purpose of djembe is to bring people together. I explain that this music is participatory, that they are welcome to be up here if they feel so moved. I offer to help them get in touch with our teacher if they want to become a student of the music. I also urge them to come see "the real thing" at one of our weekly dance classes where Africans lead the drumming and teach the dances.

Money is another way to show thanks. I use the money from my classes to buy and maintain loaner instruments for beginners, and give $ as gifts to my teachers. The gigs we do are often not paid, but a gift to the community. I try to channel paying work to my teachers because they need it, and I want to support them. I don't sell drums or other related stuff because I want my teachers to have those income opportunities also. I'll tune drums for my students, but send the rebuild (better paying) jobs to my teachers.

peace to you all,
Blair Hornbuckle
*******************************

From dougk@biosyssc.mhs.compuserve.com  
Sat Nov 11 20:55:49 1995
Subject: Not African/Notation/Communication

I want to comment on two threads that have appeared on this list, which I think are related: the "Not an African but Play African Music" thread and the recent Notation discussion.

First I want to say that I am very impressed with the love and respect for African music that I have seen demonstrated on this list in the several months since I've been monitoring it... [snip/MTF]

Like most people I know who are seriously into playing African music, I did not seek it out. 10 years ago this New Years Eve I went to a Grateful Dead concert where there was some opening act called "Olatunji," whatever that was. Suffice it to say my mind was blown, but even then it didn't occur to me that this was something that I could conceivably do. It took my (very strong willed) partner to think that crazy idea up. We started out banging out crazy free-form rhythms pseudo-African style on dumbeks. Slowly we started to turn more towards playing traditional stuff (again, mainly driven by my partner and the djembe that adopted her, but then that's her story).

A big turning point for me was hearing Baba say at a workshop that the traditional music was dying in Africa, and that we had a responsibility to do what we could to preserve as much of it as we could here in America. This really blew my mind. Why would I have such a responsibility? That got me thinking about how playing this music had provided me with a balance that had previously been lacking in my life. Even being completely out of context in modern Americana, African percussion has a vitality that is amazingly refreshing and restorative.

Its true that there is a tremendous gap in communication between Africans who grew up surrounded by the music and us 'mericans. This leads some of the African teachers to get frustrated, and even, in some cases to obscure the music. But most seem to care deeply that the true spirit of the music be passed on. And some (like Baba and Mamady) have had remarkable success in bridging that gap.

It would be foolish to try to duplicate the traditional African method of passing on the music. In a traditional village (so far as I understand) there are no 'drum classes.' Children who are interested hang around the master drummers and learn the music as it is played in that village. In America we have many masters from different places teaching the music as they learned it. Thus, there is never going to be one 'right' version of Mandjani, or Soli, or even Fanga/Funga.

The danger is when people allow this lack of conformity to be an excuse for their own carelessness. The example that Arthur gave about 'the bottom part that wasn't' shows what can happen even when the person passing on the rhythm is as accomplished and respectful as he is. A certain amount of this kind of thing is inevitable. But unless we limit it as much as possible, we run the risk of diluting the music to the point that it loses its connection with its roots.

This is particularly true when posting notation. Since the music comes out of an oral tradition, it automatically loses something when it gets written down. I often notate to help myself understand certain aspects of a rhythm, but I very rarely share my notation, particularly if I don't have an opportunity to demonstrate my understanding of how it feels by playing it.

This is not to say that people shouldn't be posting rhythms. People have different ways of communicating and it would be a little too arrogant for me to say "this is the one and only way of doing it." All I am saying is that if you are going to post rhythms, out of respect for the teachers that bring us this wonderful music, and love for the music itself, please, please, please, be sure that what you are posting clearly communicates the name of the rhythm, who taught you it, where it comes from, what the rhythm is played for, and exactly what notes are played where. If you're not sure about all of these things, you probably should not be posting the rhythm. This will help limit confusion. And, wherever possible try to go to the source. A big thank you to Arthur, Happy, Beth and all the rest of you out there who have worked hard to bring these teachers to our communities.

Doug
************************************

Mon Nov 4 11:56:56 1996
From: Lynn Walsh walsh@interactive.wsj.com  
Subject: Africans & Traditions & Fanga - reply

Djembe-L people,
I appreciate all the sharing of insights on African and American traditions. I'm inspired enough to write down my experiences, not to change opinions to but give everyone the possibility of seeing things a from a different perspective.

For example:
Djembe-L #57 dated Thu, 31 Oct 96 14:06 CST
Jasha wrote:


>I know that no African musician would be impressed by an American playing "traditional" African music, no matter how accurately, fast, or beautifully it was played. I do feel, however, that one would be very impressed by the sounds of America, even when expressed with the Djembe or any other traditional percussion instrument.>

My Reply:

I live in Hell's Kitchen New York City, there are many Africans living in my area, I have many personal African friends, my drum teachers are from Africa and I spend a year walking around Africa alone (1979-1980), so my take on your statement listed above is different.

Firstly, I have always found that whether it was my cooking of African traditional foods, my attempts to speak Swahili or Wolof or in dancing/playing African music, sewing African style clothing, that those efforts were very appreciated and praised even though the results are not always perfect.

The Africans I've encountered realize that my attempts at recognizing and emulating their culture, my obvious zeal and overwhelming love gave them pride in their culture and each has eagerly taught me a few more words, recipes, dance steps or rhythms. Sure, they were a little surprised at first, since I'm American, white and a woman, BUT it usually it takes only a few moments of interacting for me became accepted for myself, who I truly am inside. And when they see me with my African robes, toting my Djembe to class they good naturedly tease and encourage me to continue.

By far, most of my African friends DO NOT play drums, some don't even dance! When I've talked them into coming to a drum or dance class I saw them struggle the same way I do when learning something new. In fact, this is really ironic, I've had a few experiences where Africans have asked ME to teach them traditional rhythms! Yikes!

Some have even expressed their pleasure in seeing so many young Americans learning the Djembe since most of the young, "educated" Africans are not interested in the "old" ways and would rather listen and play (on tape machines, C.D.s and radios) European/American music and dance to Rock and Rap. So in a very ironic twist, even if we are not the "perfect" vessels we have become vassals of a cultural tradition which Barbara Bird highlighted with her statement relating to how mixed our culture is from the git, so it is very natural for us to assimilate new ideas and traditions as well as transform them.

Some Africans have confided in me that it is beneath their cast to play music, the Griot are respected, but you wouldn't want them in your family (sound familiar?). They ask my why I'm going through so much trouble to learn the drum. They said if they want drummers for a celebration they just hire them, or now days, get a sound system and D.J.

I offer this analogy:

In our country we also put people in little slots, things that due to their sex, education, race they are supposed to or not do well....

Perhaps like golf, where most blacks were banned from country clubs (and in some cases still are, but it is a fast changing sport), the headlines initially read: "Peter Fox first black, young golfer etc. etc. to Peter Fox, black golfer and later to Peter Fox golfer. The same for baseball, classical music, ballet etc. After a while a person becomes known for who they are not what they look like or where they come from. I assert that as we expand into different domains, and go where the spirit calls us, we too will eventually see beyond borders, ethnicity, gender in the drumming world.

[snip on other topic/MTF]

Thanks to all who took the time to read through my lengthy communication, I look forward to continuing this buffet of all you can eat - food for thought.

Keep the beat.
Boo Kunta
Lynn Walsh
Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition (212)416-3526 fx (212)416-3548 lwalsh@interactive.wsj.com 

**************************

Tue, 05 Nov 96 12:01:00 -0500
From: Light Infocon light@light-infocon.com
Subject: Re: Music Tradition

Friends from Djembe-List,

Thank you all that gave us your insights and experiences about Tradition of Music, I've collected and learned with all emails, there is so many that if I put all quotes that I wanted in this reply it would be very large! So I just thank you: Sule, Barbara Bird, Bark, Bon Davis, Nowick, Lindsay, Boo Kunta, Kim Atkinson, Michael Wall.

One question in my mind, what is the meaning of music? A quick answer would be that music express the feelings of a person or a group of person. So it is alive!

We can not express somebody elses feelings, we can not even speak foreign language without accent. Every one speaks, talk, write & play different from others. Just to be precise a musician can not play the same music at the same way twice, that is life, changing all the time.

Every time that we try to make a rigid notation on some music, in fact we are in some way killing this music, because it can not be changed, it will reflect the past.

Live in the Present! This is the main teaching of Baba and many other masters.

A real musician plays his own music, even when he/she borrow somebody elses notation. I am not against notation, I really do like them, they tell us many things about some culture at some time. But this was their culture, we can love it, but we can not express it in the exactly way, even if we try.

We have our own music our own beat, unique, only ourselves can share it.

Sharing our Drumming,V Jairo


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