Silence and the Drum

I discovered something at last weekend’s monthly drum circle. I attend on a semi-regular basis because I enjoy getting out and drumming in a non-performance group setting, plus a friend runs it and I like to support my friends.

Usually the focus is on raising and channeling energy with the drumming, That works well as a rule. Friend has a spiritual practice leaning toward shamanism and healing with drumming, and does it well. That type of playing is really about playing what Spirit moves you to play. There are always new people, and people with very little experience, in the circle, and they can blend in with just a simple foundation of DUM DUM DUM DUM without being overwhelmed. It almost always seems to work well, to come together harmoniously.

This month, though, Friend decided to try something different. He wanted to play with a more traditional West African-style where different people played different specific parts to create what you might call a composition. Cool! I thought. That’s exactly what we do in our Wednesday morning West African drumming class, with traditional West African rhythms. I wanted to hear this in a different context.

Then Friend demonstrated the two basic parts, with half of the room playing each, and a third part that he wanted as an accent played by one or two people. Friend stated that these were basic beginner patterns, but as I heard them I was thinking “um, whaaaat?” They weren’t what I think of, after eight months of studying djembe, as basic. They weren’t anything I recognized at all. But even though I was tactless enough to openly express a bit of skepticism,  I listened, and learned, and drilled:

Part 1:  B B B tttttttttt        B = Bass, in the middle
Part 2:  ttttttttB ttB tt        t = tone, on the rim

Well, my drum, Asase-Ya (yes, she has a name), is a BIG drum. I have some experience, I can play a solid Slap on djembe, and I recognized the accent part from class, so when it all came together I volunteered for the accent part: Slap—-Slap—-Slap—-SlapSlap, with a swing to it so it syncopates with the basic rhythm.

So we put it all together and…oh, dear. For me it was just a cacophony of noise; nothing meshed or flowed. I soldiered on, but it just didn’t work musically for me. Nor did I feel like it worked energetically, nor was the energy there being channeled anywhere — it was just swirling chaotically. If the energy had been coherent it would have been at least okay, but it wasn’t.

Of course, me being me, I had to analyze it and figure out why it didn’t work. During one break I asked Friend if the rhythm had a name, hoping I could go home and look it up in my resources. After all, in every West African rhythm I’ve worked with, the disparate parts have come together beautifully to create a whole. However, Friend said it was something he had made up earlier that day. I remembered that Friend’s past percussion training was primarily with drum set and Latin percussion (congas, bongos & the ilk). Then I remembered something that comes up periodically in both my Middle Eastern and West African drumming classes and workshops. Music isn’t just the notes; it’s also the SPACES BETWEEN THE NOTES. In all the rhythms I’ve studied in both traditions, the rests are just as important as the strokes for the rhythm.In fact, I just looked in my djembe manual, and out of the 32 rhythms notated there, there was ONE with no space at all in the rhythm (and that is because it’s a 12/8 rhythm with one djembe part keeping the “swing” feel going).

Look back up there at my notation. There are pauses in each part but they do NOT sync up, so it creates a constant sound punctuated occasionally by a deeper, heavier bass sound. Add to that the fact that sound dynamics don’t generally come in to play in a drum circle —  most people tend to play at one volume, LOUD — and it’s no wonder my ears got tired and my musical sensibility felt assaulted.

There’s probably several lessons here on multiple levels, but let’s just make this the takeaway:

Music is both the notes, and the space between them.