I realise as I drive home from what is probably my 15th, or 16th or possibly even more, drum camp over a roughly 12 year period that drumming has taught me a lot about life. As well as the obvious joy of learning a musical instrument, drumming teaches respect, humility, patience, strength, pride, and so much more. But it is the journey of learning to drum that has had the ultimate learning potential.
My journey as a drummer began at the same time I moved into my current house, nearly 13 years ago. A group of neighbours had begun hand percussion classes with a local teacher and every Tuesday night we would gather at one of the houses, on their back deck, and practice what we had learnt. I apologise to all the neighbours who had no choice but to join us on this weekly journey of discovery.
I then took a trip to St Kilda to purchase my first djembe (and in the process discovered the Drum Retreat! That weekend away with nothing to do but drum and eat, repeat!). My first djembe…I still love her, several re-skins on! But her first incarnation with full hairyness was the best.
As a totally non-musical person my journey has been a slow one. I always felt I was in for the long haul and made the early decision to sit back and enjoy the ride and not to focus on the destination. I have seen people come and go. I have seen many that have been in a rush to master the djembe, but ultimately the djembe is the master, as these people disappear from the drumming world. They may become what could be considered good, even exceptional drummers but I feel they lack respect for the process, for the journey that is drumming.
My djembe journey has been a journey of growth. I have spent many years as a quiet follower, relying on the people around me to lead the rhythm and I would just blend in, hoping not to hit the drum out of time and be heard. Gradually, I began to grow more confident, but to solo still bought its fair share of anxiety. I have been called rythmically challenged, I sometimes get glares, when my enthusiasm to take off has been mistimed and presumptuous, or sometimes even slightly behind. And to get up and play the Dun’s, well that means holding the music’s tempo together and that’s way out of my comfort zone, much easier to shy away, to plead ignorance.
But a new teacher has given a different perspective and understanding of the journey I am taking and has bought about a slow but steady growth in confidence and understanding of the djembe music. And this is where I am also learning about what the djembe can teach us about life. There is a synchronisation of my own personal journey with his style of teaching, but it has not been an easy pairing, given my lack of musicality, and his place as djembefola…or master drummer. He is a passer on of the traditions of the djembe, and unfortunately, sometimes, my responces are somewhat lacking in the respect that the rhythms deserve.
However, regardless of my musical ability and failure for my hands to replicate what my ears are hearing (or is it that my ears are hearing something entirely diferent), I would like to share some of what I am learning. My teacher often says, “We all have our own song, and as long as your song fits, I can say I don’t like your song, but I cannot say your song is wrong.”
This way of understanding the song of the djembe is similar to the great paradox that is freedom. You cannot have freedom without the structure that surrounds it. Freedom can not exist on its own. We want to feel free to make the choices we want but really we must always take into consideration how your choice or decision affects the people around you. So you should choose your own song as something that represents you and feels true to you but also fits in to the music and marks the spot, then you have the freedom you desire but you also fit into the society in which you live, you form relationships and connections with the people around you. As you do when your song becomes part of the music the group is making.
My teacher argues that many drummers in the West want to learn too quick and get to be accomplished and fast drummers and then when they join in the drum circle they play really loud and are often really good but ultimately they are just making noise. They do not respect the music and the other players. He says that people cannot dance to this and if there is no dancing then there is no music, it is just noise. Understanding this element of drumming and the drum circle is to understand what it is to be human.
In a good drumming circle the music is paramount, the individual takes a back seat to the goal of the group – to make good music together, and to get people moving or dancing. No one person is more important than another, everyone gets the opportunity to sing their own song when they are ready. And everyone else listens to that person’s song and plays quieter so it can be heard and respects the song. The ultimate reward to the circle is the addition of dancers, if the music is good, the people will dance. It is about listening and empathy and understanding the other person’s view.
Another gem with which we can take from my drumming teacher and apply to life in general is his criticism of counting. “What is this 1,2,3,..?” Westerners take the African music and change it to fit our ways of thinking and playing music and that includes breaking it all down and counting and writing it down and trying to over analyse it. Instead, perhaps we should change how we learn and adapt ourselves to the situation rather than adapt the situation to suit ourselves.
As my teacher says we should listen less and hear more. And by this the hearing is a deeper hearing, a feeling of the music and an instinctive knowing when it is right and when it is wrong. To get there we need to undo and unlearn and then learn to trust and have faith in yourself, the music, and the group. And it is this trust and faith that keep coming up as recurrent themes in my life. Having trust and faith that the path and the choices you have made are right and things will work out and be OK.