In 2003, I attended a men's gathering where a group of men congregated in the Australian bush for a few days to talk about men's issues. There were various personal development workshops, ceremonies, yoga, singing, sports, dancing, meditation—you name it. One thing that is popular at such gatherings is drumming and, at this particular event, a group of Australians were (skilfully) playing Mandingue rhythms with a full dundun and djembe ensemble. I remember listening and being absolutely fascinated by the richness of the music, and by its depth and complexity. It was like no other music I'd ever heard before. Whenever there was drumming, I was there to listen and feel the music.
At the gathering, the musicians passed around flyers for an African concert that was taking place a few weeks later, and I decided to go along. As it turned out, Epizo Bangoura performed with the ensemble there, and I got to hear a master djembefola for the first time. This was the most jaw-dropping musical experience of my life. The emotional impact of the music was beyond anything I'd ever come across; the music touched me deeply and in ways I couldn't even begin to understand. I had never felt such strong energy and life force in any other music.
At the concert, someone had left a sheet of paper on a chair where people could add themselves to a mailing list for drumming lessons and, a few months later, I went to my first beginner's class. The first rhythm I ever learned was Kadan; my first accompaniment was the standard Ka-DiKa that is played for dununbas. While I was sitting there and struggling with my tones and slaps and with the off-beat kenkeni, I experienced a profound change: for the first time in quite a few years, I was truly happy, smiling, and completely in the moment. After 19 years of having suppressed the musical side of myself, the side that was so strong in my childhood and early adulthood, I had found the music again. It was like someone watering a desert: I was whole again, allowing my other side to live and breathe, and I had begun to heal the rift I had driven through my personality for so long.
After that first lesson, I was gone—hook, line, and sinker. I religiously went to my weekly drumming lessons, built my first djembe, went to every drum circle I could find, and started buying records of Mandingue drumming. My first CD was Famoudou Konate's "Rhythmen Der Malinke"—I remember being fascinated and bewildered by the complexity of the music on my first listening. There was so much that I didn't understand but that touched me deeply; I was determined to learn more and get under the skin of this music.
Three months after my first lesson, I heard of a week-long workshop with Wala, a performance group from Ghana. I debated with myself whether I should go for quite some time. The idea felt self-indulgent to me: what sort of responsible man would take a week off from work to bang a drum? I ended up listening to my heart instead of listening to my head and signed up for the workshop. At the workshop, the lead drummer Isaac "Tuza" Afutu was joined by the other three Wala musicians, and I spent a glorious week drumming and watching the dancers do their magic. Tuza passed around flyers for his inaugural tour to Ghana at the workshop. There was no way I was going to miss that so, less than a year after I had my first lesson, I found myself in Ghana for four weeks of drumming.
Since then, I've been drumming around 8-10 hours per week on average, taking lessons with various African teachers, and chasing workshops all over the country (as well as outside the country). I went to Africa a second time in 2008 (without joining a tour this time, spending a month each in Mali and Ghana). I drum whenever I can, whether I have a drum or not. The dashboard of my car, the kitchen bench, my thighs, and (when I'm lying in bed) my chest all make excellent practice surfaces. There is no such thing as a wasted minute in the shower or stopped in a car at a traffic light: might as well get on with practicing the latest phrase I'm working on by tapping on my thighs while I rinse off all that soap or wait for the lights to turn green. Being somewhat compulsive definitely helps when it comes to drumming…
I also found that I really like drum making, so I skin my own drums and do repairs for other people. Working with my hands like this is deeply satisfying to me, especially in contrast to all the cerebral work I do as a software engineer.
Not quite two years ago, I found myself being stuck in a rut: one of my two African teachers had left Brisbane and, shortly after that, my other teacher decided to go to Guinea for a few months. I suddenly was without a teacher and found myself stagnating: CDs and DVDs cannot replace a face-to-face teacher, and I felt that, musically, I wasn't going anywhere. In desperation, being without a local djembe teacher, I started taking conga lessons, hoping to find new inspiration in a new drum. Playing the congas was fun, but Latin percussion does not speak to me the same way that Mandingue percussion does, so I gave the congas a miss again after a while.
During the preceding year or so, quite a few people had been asking me to start teaching. I always responded that I wasn't ready yet. I felt that I didn't know enough about the music and culture, and I didn't want to become yet another incompetent "teacher" who claims to know the instrument when, in fact, he doesn't. Then two of my African teachers spoke to me at workshops I attended and told me "You have to start teaching." Mady Keïta was particularly adamant. When I told him that I didn't think I was skilled enough, he looked at me and said: "No-one but you can play your music. Not me, and not the greatest djembefola in the world. The music that is inside you is yours, and the only way I can play your music is if you show it to me. You must go and show your music to other people."
So, being stuck without a local teacher, I figured that teaching is a great way to learn, and I started giving drumming classes with Linda, a very experienced drummer in the local scene. Doing this has turned out to be a boon: by teaching, I find that I indeed learn a lot: to teach, I have to look at a rhythm in a lot more detail than I would otherwise; I have to understand and be able to play all the parts, and know the cultural background of the rhythm. Before teaching a rhythm, I hunt down all the recordings of the rhythm that I can find and try to tease out what is common and what is individual among the different artists playing that rhythm. In other words, teaching really got me out of my rut and has given me new impetus to keep moving.
And teaching has turned out to be very rewarding in other ways. For one, because Linda and I teach together and have very different energy, I think the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts: some students respond more to Linda's female energy than mine and vice versa, and our different teaching styles mean that people get two goes at learning a rhythm, picking things up from the teacher who better meets their needs. It has been very rewarding to see the two of us complement each other and having fun along the way.
As a teacher, I want to pass on the joy I get from this music, and I feel that I'm making a difference to people's lives. It is satisfying to watch our students as they arrive at a class and as they leave it: when they leave, there is a spring in their step that wasn't there when they arrived, and the smiles on their faces during class speak volumes. I am certain that, for most of our students, class time is the only time when they are completely in the moment, experiencing only what is happening right here and now, without thinking about anything else at all.
Another rewarding thing about teaching is that a community has formed around the classes: people meet at class, strike up friendships and, before you know it, they have formed this community where people meet privately, invite each other to parties and birthday celebrations, and generally hang out with each other. The classes don't just teach people drumming, they also help to enrich their social life.
Late last year, I attended my first Mini-Guinea camp with Mamady Keïta in San Diego. Mamady is the most inspiring teacher I have met. He has the ability to bring out the best in his students, giving them confidence and getting everyone to perform at their 120% level. I asked Mamady whether he would accept me as a student for his certificate in Mandingue drumming and, to my relief, he accepted. It'll take me quite a while to learn all I need to pass the exam. But, as far as I am concerned, there is no rush. Getting that certificate is a personal goal, and while working towards it, I have the perfect excuse to learn more about the music and improve as a musician and teacher.
Over the past six years, the djembe has made a profound difference to my life. I cannot begin to enumerate all the lessons the djembe has taught me, but here are a few of them:
Without the djembe, I never would have set foot on Africa. Being there taught me so much about a very different culture. Africa also was the first time I saw poverty up close and personal. Man, that is a very different thing from seeing poverty on TV… Being in Africa taught me about the human capacity for happiness. Despite being poor, many of the people I met in Africa seem to live happier lives than many westerners. Not that these people don't suffer from poverty—they do. Yet, they taught me much about the unimportance of money as a source of happiness.
I made many friends in Africa, friends who sometimes need my help. I've taken on a number of projects as a result, helping friends get an education and empower themselves, so they can take better control of their lives. This is a very direct form of charity, and helping this way is rewarding and personal—much more personal than writing an annual cheque for Community Aid Abroad.
The djembe has made me part of a community. I had few friends before I started drumming: working 70-hour weeks is not conducive to maintaining personal relationships. Since I started drumming, I have made many friends that, otherwise, I never would have had a chance to meet.
The djembe has taught me many lessons about humility, patience, tolerance, and communication. Being part of a group of musicians requires a mindset that is very different from the mathematical and rational thinking that is so important in my everyday job. The djembe has taught me about the importance and value of these non-rational qualities.
The djembe has taught me to be playful again, playful like a child who revels in the joy of discovery and wonder, without fear of failure.
The djembe has helped me to heal myself. I am now a happier person than I was six years ago; the djembe was an integral part of this process.
The djembe has changed my life, and continues to change it. I have no idea where it all is going to lead. And I don't care—the djembe has taught me that the journey matters more than the goal. I'm thankful for that lesson: without the djembe, I might never have learned it.
Last edited by michi on Tue Mar 30, 2010 12:00 pm, edited 2 times in total.
11 Comments Viewed 173069 times
Thanks for sharing your beautiful story of self discovery. I think a lot of people can learn from reading your story.
I really enjoy your honesty and openness!
Excellent, really deep at times and really touching.
Thank you for sharing.
If you want to see me kick some butt, just tell me about all the things you think I won't be able to do
great stuff Michi, looking forward to drumming with you again
I want to see some of your Soap opera videos !
Founder of African Drumming – Center for West African Music and Culture - Simon Fraser has spent the past decade years studying, performing, recording and teaching throughout West Africa and Australia.
Hi Katrina, will you be there again this year?
Nice one Michi, thanks for sharing the story. The djembe has taken me on a wild and totally unexpected 4 year break from academic philosophy and I have no idea where it's taking me but I'm happy to go there!
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