West African Drumming

(I’m writing this blog post on Monday instead of Friday because I didn’t have time on Friday or during the weekend.)

Last week I participated in a West African drumming class taught by Living Rhythms. We learned a lot of things! The biggest thing was how to play the djembe (pronounced jim-BAY). The djembe is a drum played by one person. We played rhythms, intros, and outros on our djembes.

Our teacher (and later his wife who’s name escapes me) Brother Greg also played the dunun for us. The dunun is incorporated of three different drums. The smallest is the kenkini, the medium is the sangban, and the largest is the dununba. The smaller the drum, the higher the sound is.

One of the rhythms that we played was called the Kuku. The Kuku rhythm was/is played to honor the fisherwomen in a specific West African community. One of the really cool things about the djembe and the djembe rhythms is that the djembes were created by women, as well as the rhythms. For a long time people thought that only men were supposed to play them, but it turns out that women are the reason they exist!

Before anything starts, you need to be sitting in your “don’t squish the baby position”. This basically means that you’re sitting on the edge of your chair with your back straight, your shoulders back, your chin up, your legs hip width apart, and your hands on your knees. Once the teacher nods, you put your hands in the “clean hands position”. This is where you put your hands up with your palms facing forward and your hands on either side of your head.

The Kuku consists of a few different sections.

  • The break.
  • The intro.
  • The rhythm.
  • The song.
  • The rhythm again.
  • The outro.

The break is something played by the lead djembe player. It sounds different than the rest of the rhythm so you can tell the difference even when you’re playing the rhythm yourself. The Kuku intro is a series of beats (always in the middle of the drum and loud) in a certain order. The Kuku intro is this: 2 2 5 5 6

But it isn’t constant. It doesn’t sound anything like 20 beats in a row. In between every number, there is kind of a mini break that the lead djembe plays. So it’s more like this:

BREAK (the break here sounds kind of like the drum is saying BLIP BLO BLIP BLO BLIP BALABA)

2

MINI BREAK (BALABA)

2

MINI BREAK

5

MINI BREAK

5

MINI BREAK

6

BREAK

And then you go into the rhythm. And to add to that, the six is broken into two. The first four are slow, then the last two are fast.

Now, for the rhythm. The rhythm with Kuku was pretty simple. It’s 2 slow in the center of the drum (also known as base) and then 4 quick on the rim of the drum. To keep all of us on time during our performance, Brother Greg’s wife whispered “base base” for the first two times we hit the drum.

After doing the rhythm for some time, we would see Brother Greg’s hand go up in a fist. This means that the next break he played would mean for you to keep playing the rhythm, just very quietly. We would keep playing the rhythm at the same volume during the break, but as soon as it was over we would start the rhythm very quietly.

Now it was time for the song. Brother Greg sang the verse, and we sang the chorus. The chorus was Mee Mala Jonculia. So we would play the rhythm (base base quick quick quick quick) very quietly while singing. After about four choruses the lead djembe plays the break again and the rhythm goes back to the original volume (AKA hard enough so that your hands hurt by the end).

After playing the rhythm for a little while, it was time for the end. Brother Greg would swing his arm around (not unlike how you would imagine lassoing without a rope) and that meant that after the next break we would play the outro.

The outro goes like this: 8 4 8 4 7

BREAK

8

MINI BREAK

4

MINI BREAK

8

MINI BREAK

4

take a break the length of a quick breath (no mini break)

7

This one is a bit more complicated. Let’s pretend that _ is hitting the drum and that – is not hitting the drum.

8: _ _ _ _ – _ _ _ _ There’s a quick break in between the 2 sets of (quick) 4. It sounds kind of like thunder.

4: _-_-_-_ This was more even. Just 4 evenly spaced out beats that weren’t quick at all.

8: repeats

4: repeats

shout AND (no mini break here)

7: _-_-_-_-_- _ _ 5 evenly spaced and then two quick. Take a breath in between the 5th and 6th.

Now you know the Kuku!

Here are some youtube links to Kuku. I hope you learned something!

Kuku, but with more parts. -you may or may not be able to find what we did in this video. Mamady Keita, the man in this video,  taught Brother Greg to play!

Kuku along with the dance to go with it. The drums have to stay on beat because if they don’t, they’ll mess up the dancers.

 

One thought on “West African Drumming”

  1. Wow Alona! There is really a lot that does into playing the kuku on the djembe! (Did I get that right?) I always really enjoy your writing. I think you have a gift, but then you amaze me in other ways too, such as your insight into interpersonal dynamics (i.e. conflicts between the children), your scientific knowledge, which btw, Bryon and I got 23andme kits and he wanted to know if you will have a consultation with us when we get the results! 😉

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