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- December 2011
A Year in the Life of a Djembe Addict
   Fri Dec 23, 2011 5:50 pm

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A Year in the Life of a Djembe Addict

Permanent Linkby EvanP on Fri Dec 23, 2011 5:50 pm

I'm Evan and I'm a djembe addict.

It's been a little over a year since I not only learned what a djembe is, but how to spell it, how to play it (sometimes/mostly), at least names/locations of 25% of the countries in Africa, and about 2% of their culture.

In January I had the opportunity to attend a Mamady Keita workshop. Although I didn't meet the minimum requirement of 1 year of experience, my teacher requested an exception for me and Ali/Mamady approved. All of the superlatives are trite and overused, but it blew my mind. I learned so much, not just about drumming and rhythms, but about pedagogy. Mamady is the best teacher of anything I've ever had. He was able, in a class of 40-50 people, to connect individually with each of us, offering encouragement and pushing to our limits (but not beyond). An added bonus was an amazing party after the second class at a local Cuban musician's house for a rumba. The energy and music was fantastic, and it was great seeing Mamady play conga along with the Cubans.

After my exposure to Afro-Cuban music at the rumba, my drum collection expanded from a djembe and a kenkeni, to a pair of congas, bongos, claves, and a full set of dunun. Of course this just happened to coincide with my fiance's travel out of town. She now is convinced drums are like rabbits and that two should never be left in the same room or they'll multiply.

Summer brought a need to have a sound proofed room to practice, so the bonus room became my daughter's bedroom, and her room above the garage became a project for cost-effect sound isolation. As I quickly discovered, sound proofing is like racing cars--speed (quiet) costs money--how fast (quiet) do you want to go? I ended up with a solid core door, gasketed with an automatic door bottom, and rigid fiberglass panels covering one wall. The fiberglass panels don't do much for sound absorption, but they do cut down on very bright room acoustics. I was able to take the sound attenuation from about 9 dB to 20 dB, and while definitely not sound proofed, it is definitely quieter in the rest of the house than before.

Of course once I had a "studio", I had to pick up a few mics, so on to Craigslist I went to pick up Shure SM57 and SM58, a large and small condeser pair, and an AT 822 stereo condenser mic. I've made a few recordings of drums, but none have come out very well. On the other hand, I recorded my daughter singing and playing guitar, and the simple recording and mic'ing gave me goose bumps--pretty cool!

Summer also gave me a chance to participate in my first performance class. I loved the opportunity to really understand all parts of a rhythm, and feel like I now really know 5 rhythms: Baga Guine, Moribayassa, Dibon, Mamaya, Kudani. I also gained confidence in soloing. Our encore performance was playing for 4+ hours for the Komen Race for the Cure, which tested all our endurance, but was a fantastic experience.

Summer also brought the opportunity to study with another master: Bolokada Conde. Bolo's pedagogy was definitely different from Mamady's, yet still was a fantastic experience. It is so wonderful to see the joy masters like Mamady and Bolo still exude after all these years.

One other major milestone happened in the summer of 2011: the decision to go to W. Africa in the winter. I get a sabbatical every 5 years at my work, and this is the first time that my work schedule is such that I can actually take it as intended. I started planning and researching. My dates were fairly fixed. Family commitments required that I not leave the US until after Christmas, which eliminated Mamady's and Famadou's camps, my first and second choices. I looked as Sidy's camp and the Djembe Hotel in Bamako, but if I went to Mali I really wanted to see Segou, Timbuktu, and Dogon country, and the political situation just didn't look good for that area. There were other Guinea tours I looked at, but then I started checking airfares. It was nearly twice as expensive to fly to francophone countries, and took 50% longer. Plus I started to seriously question my ability to deal with Guinea and Mali--I began to fear getting there and being miserable, for the longest vacation I've ever taken.

With a bit of soul searching I discovered that, while I'm not proud of it, I'm a bit of a diva. While I've traveled extensively internationally for business, I've never traveled in the third world. I don't camp, have never not used a toilet (at least since I've been out of diapers), and started to freak out a bit at the prospect. I reconsidered something I'd dismissed before--going to Ghana.

It turns out Ghana is easier and cheaper to get to from the US. It's an anglophone country, which makes it a bit easier to get around for someone that doesn't speak French. It's called "Africa Light". Everything I read about Ghana was positive. The friendliest country in the world. The only problem, djembe's not from there. The primary purpose of this trip was to study Malinke music, so it didn't make sense to go somewhere that isn't Malinke, did it? Enter Michi--my buddy I've never met. He started his African percussion experience 10 or so years ago in Mali, as did my teacher. He vouched for the tour organizers and teachers, plus made a really good point--I'm brand new to this stuff, any percussion I'm exposed to will help me grow as a musician and develop my chops. I made the decision--I'm going to Ghana.

The next several weeks were a blur. Airplane tickets, yellow fever, typhoid, MMR, tetanus, meningococcal shots. Packing lists. Recorder. Video? Camera? Fortunately my birthday was coming up, and I made a big dent in the list. This was going to be the first trip I've ever taken that cost me more to prepare for than to take!

Drumming continued, although to be truthful I fell into a bit of a slump. The performance class, while fantastic, had taken its toll, and I was a bit burned out. Of course that raised another spectre--what if I get to Africa and get sick of drumming? Four to six hours of drumming a day. In 90 degree, humid heat. What will it be like? What if I lose interest?

All it took was looking at pictures and videos. I watched Mamady's movie again. And Bela Flek's. I watched Foli. The love and interest in Africa was as strong as ever.

I leave in 3 days. I can't wait.

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