Focus On Patterns!

I was first exposed to djembe music in 1973 when I heard Fode YOULA playing on Claude NOUGARO’s album "Locomotive d’or". A few years later I went to Africa and began to learn. Over years I have seen changes happening about the way this music is taught by Africans. Emergence of beat tapping is one of them.
Nowadays djembefolas tap the beat with their foot to avoid students getting lost. This leads to people playing the dununs and any tricky patterns beating one and three with right foot, two and four with the left. This doesn't only make them look funny but destroys any further possibility of artistic choice in phrasing, beat control freezing their musical feeling.

In this next video none of the guys playing need to tap the beat to play right. Don't miss the accompanying djembe player on the right wearing a green tee-shirt. Does he know something that beat-tapping fans don't? I think he does.
This is how things have evolved from my perspective. I met Paul ENGEL and Silvia KRONENWALD (both passed away a few years ago), who were passionate German djembe players, at the end of the eighties. Paul was totally devoted to the music. He enjoyed very much the oral transmission but being a German he spent hours transcribing rhythms, solos, trying to define the theory laid down under djembe music. They both (Paul and Silvia) had a close relation ship with Famoudou KONATE and organized workshops and concerts for him in Germany and France and succeed with the project of the "Rhythmen der Malinke" CD which came out in 1991.
The '80s-'90s Famoudou KONATE Ensemble, with Famoudou, Paul ENGEL, Fanta KABA & Silvia KRONENWALD.
Famoudou later told me how it was tiring to work with Paul because he was talking about djembe all day-long and wanted to teach him how to teach to western people. On the other hand Famoudou took benefited from Paul’s management and he finally agreed to use some of the basic theory methods Paul explained to him. It was very well received by the western audience who considered him as a first class teacher because of this ability on top of his traditional mastery. "He can tell you where the beat ist".
When I started my first lessons with Fotigui TOURE in the eighties, beats, measures and all those European theoretical terms were never used, even understood. Fotigui could tell me, for example, indifferently that the first beat was on the pickup note or on the theoretical first beat and he didn’t understand why I was so picky with words… Trying to help me to feel some pattern starting on the off-beat he even tapped the off-beat to encourage me, completely scrambling my feelings by doing this and on top of that he was shouting : "Yeeees! Now you play it right on the beat!"... So funny to remember this now... Finally I understood I had to stop fighting and learn the way I was taught, and it worked. I managed to play some rhythms without being able to get into without somebody showing me, for months(!), but I was relaxed, I enjoyed the situation and progressively I came to see the light without becoming a beat watcher.
Playing with my master Fotigui TOURE (on the left).
In the early nineties, I participated in a workshop with Mamady KEITA in Paris and then went to Brussels several times to take private lessons with him. At this time during the workshop he never mention beat-one or beat-division concepts. During my private lessons neither. He played, I followed, he just said "good" or "wrong" and showed me again. Once it happened that I played a kenkeni pattern with ease but with the feeling of the rhythm in a wrong place (see figures 1 & 2), he just told me : "You play good, don’t worry, you will feel the right beat later". And that’s what happened.

Playing a pattern with appropriate sound and phrasing is far more important than knowing where the beat is.

Figure 1


The pattern Mamady KEITA taught me.

Figure 2


How I felt it in first place.

Around 2000 I went to Conakry and took private lessons with Famoudou and one of his sons Diarra KONATE - "my youngest teacher" as I used to call him. At my first lesson Famoudou played a rhythm without any magic in the phrasing, tapping the beat with his foot and told me the first beat was here (showing an accent with his head) and he added "Its a ternary rhythm". Honestly this made me smile widely. Those facts were evident to me but I was impressed of how much he was "adapted" to western standards and how he was able to restraint his expression and send the MIDI file without any poetry just like a poorly programmed sequencer would do. I looked at him and I said : "Famoudou thank you but, I don’t need this, just show me the music the normal way". Guess what? He answered this : "Sorry, people asked me these questions every time, on every workshop so I finally became used to say it from the beginning". Then he just played with authority and taste and I did my best to get the message.

Nowadays people seem happy to watch Mamady KEITA tapping the beat with some belly-bracelet attached to his ankle when he plays even during djembe solo performances. For me hearing the beat besides his playing is like listening to Bach or Mozart with a metronome running… So annoying.
I think students should elevate themselves toward the discipline, the discipline should not be downgraded to ensure satisfaction. I think this is what is currently done in jazz, european classical, indian classical… every form of music.
I am cautious with the idea of westerners without expertise redefining how african should teach their art. Being able to play at a decent level should be a starting point to step in this.

As an experienced djembe player, I can say that not focusing on beat is a key element of the style of this music. Beats come out from patterns, we don’t play patterns on beats. This is one of the reasons it’s so used to play the same patterns over different divisions of time (watch the video again please).

Focusing on beats leads foreigners in a wrong direction. The control concept. A rhythm can’t fly as needed in djembe music with every member of the polyrhythm linking to an abstraction with fear of losing control.

The anecdote reported by Johannes BEER inside the Rhythmen der Malinke CD booklet relates a situation I encountered several times thirty years ago when discussing rhythms with Africans players : "When I ask Famoudou to show me Dunungbe he sings the sangban and dunun parts without beats, like if he was singing a melody. If I can’t find the beat and asks him to show me the beats, he has to think before singing it again clapping the beats with his hands."

Check the next video. Are those people tapping beats to control something? Obviously they just feel the patterns.
Focus on Patterns!
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