What to bring and how to prepare
Some teachers have loaner drums, and some do not. Ask them
before you show up. Regge at firstname.lastname@example.org
makes djembe drums in case you need one. It costs about $400. Dunduns
(stick drums) need to be bought in a store, they are typically cheaper
than djembes. Conga drums need to be bought in a store and are very easy
to buy used, because latin music, afro-cuban music all use them. Real Congolese drums, ngomas, are expensive and hard to come by.
For dance classes, just come dressed in a comfortable shirt
and wrap, if you are female, or shorts/pants for men. Some dancers like
to wear leotards with a hip wrap. Keep it all covered and decent. African
dance is not about mooning or sunshining
anyone. Remember, this is danced in a village, in front of everyone.
And most importantly, bring the right attitude - of
community, respect and celebrating life.
What to expect
For a more formal history of African music, read the djembe article.
For informal personal experiences of someone who did this
for the last several years, and eventually with Native teachers, read
While African dancing and drumming looks very "shake my
okole" - pardon my French - to the
Westerners, just like hula does, it is not about that. It is a lot more
Sacred and very traditional activity, it is about community building and
participation, and helping the community in living daily life.
Africans (used to - with 21st century, these traditional
habits can die unless we keep them) drum and dance for every occasion.
For example, while working in the fields, someone drums a certain rhythm
which is played specifically for working in the fields. There is a
specific rhythm for every occasion - harvest, baby naming, leaving house
to get married, fishing, having troubles, going to war, etc.
So, African musical experience is not about some drum circle
where anything goes. It is a very structured, traditional, communal
experience, with exact rhythms for exact occasions, and everyone
following the exact protocol.
While some modern people can drum and dance to show off -
and yes, you might get a lot of attention from immature people if you
shake your okole with an attitude - and some
others think that it is about learning about how to shake one's okole, that is not it.
African dance will put you in touch with your body in a
healthy way - if you look at the dances, arms and okoles
and toes and head and legs and all body parts all have equal
significance, and the emphasis is not on any one of them. The whole body
moves in unity and all parts are equal. Africans understand that one
needs toes as much as okole in order to live daily
life. All body parts are equally honorable and useful. There is no
shame or "specialness" that Westerners feel about the pelvis,
coming from the Christian track record of feeling guilty about the body
and never actually being in the body. The whole Western world is all
about being in the head and thinking only. Feelings are dangerous and
body is shameful. Thus, Westerners typically do not exist below the neck
and their pelvises are very stiff. Well, relax and enjoy, African stuff
has no such ideas! It has a lot of respect for the totality of everything
and that makes it so healing.
The whole West African experience is about CONNECTING WITH
EARTH, WITH ONESELF, WITH THE COMMUNITY, AND WITH SPRIT. It is a highly
meditative experience that forces one to really relax and pay attention
at the same time. In short, meditation in motion. This Sacred attitude or
Respect and Yes! Effort is what is necessary to really get the benefit
out of African drum and dance. It puts you in touch with your body, your
feelings, and something Higher. The mind and the body get
connected. This allows for something Higher to come
in. As it is performed as a communal event, it also brings the
community together, and keeps energy positive, high, and channeled productively.
Overall, it is extremely healing. At this point, I
experience several facets that allow this healing effect.
First, the music is very "funky," it is unusual
and catches you by surprise, so it requires a certain kind of Effort and
full Engagement to follow it. It requires relaxing yet paying attention,
it requires enjoying and letting oneself fly with the music and Thinking
at the same time, it requires Awareness, and thus it calms the mind and
evokes Higher, and produces a certain meditative effect. It also builds
up concentration. It is the "yes!" kind of effort that is very
Second, it is aerobic exercise and stretching at the same
time, both drumming and dancing. It brings one into shape very quickly.
The dance or drum sessions last a long time (1.5-2hrs) and require
physical stamina and consistent effort. But it is so fun that you won't
notice how much you are sweating and losing breath :)
This concentration and physical stamina at the same is
critical. Especially drummers must stay consistently engaged, they
literally cannot lose a beat although they do not even have time to take
a sip of water, they have to play non-stop and correctly. Any
inconsistencies in drum music are heard and felt, as the dancers cannot
dance anymore. The music is the "fuel" for the dance - and vice
versa. Dancers might slip and do some off steps here and there, nobody
will notice in a large group, although if at least some dancers don't
dance correctly and all dancers don't exude the feeling of "yes!"
kind of effort, the drumers won't be motivated
to play. Dancers do have the "official" few seconds to catch
the breath while waiting for the dancing lines to start again. This is
needed as the dance is highly aerobic.
Third, there are no emotions, no dramas, no "stories,"
no games, in West African music. You know how certain traditions can
create dramas, for example belly dance is often danced in a dramatic way,
the goal is to keep the audience titillated and piqued and to show off.
(I don't think that was the original intent of belly dance but it has
become that - an ego loaded performance - in many cases. ) Eastern
European music and dances often have a sad feeling to it, or some kind of
tough standing back. West African has no games about it. It is plain
Earthly connection and the only feeling is the feeling of sheer
exuberance and joy, being rooted in the Earth and celebrating Life. In
some ways, perhaps modern gospel dancing in church comes the closest to
this feeling. One just dances for the sheer enjoyment and gratitude for
being alive and celebrating All That Is. There is no shame and no pulling
back. The whole body moves and is experienced and felt, and Something
Higher moves through as we say "yes!".
Fourth, West African is a participative and collaborative
activity. It is not something to be watched from the side while sitting
down, like in a Western concert :) It is meant to be experienced
first-hand. To be experienced, it requires Working with others in a
communal effort. The dancers dance in lines that move together, so each
dancer has to pay attention to other dancers. There is a collaboration
between dancers and drummers, as dancers move exactly on the drum beat.
The drummers have to keep the beat "up" in order to produce the
tenacity that drives the dancers. In other words, the beat has to be
exactly on time and driven non-stop with effort and tenacity in order to
produce the feeling of exuberance that motivates the dancers to keep on
moving and giving their best. This exuberance keeps the drummers engaged.
The music is kept "tight" with effort and it just "blows
up", keeps on opening up, into something that feels like flying on a
magic carpet. The drummers play together, as each drummer plays a
different pattern and all patterns have to precisely match.
So, overall, the whole West African experience is a very
organic, ecological thing, with many pieces that intricately fit in a
collaborative and participative way. There is no pulling back, there is
only giving one's best. It is a lesson in Survival as well as
Spirituality, a miniature lesson in how the Universe works. It is a taste
Drum and dance teachers do not say this. It is way more than
most audience wants to hear. I am saying it :) as a healer. I have
seen that people who are drawn to West African drum and dance because of
this healing aspect and who do not fully understand the Sacredness of it
can get really sidetracked. Drum and dance is a Doorway into Spirit. Any
activity is a Doorway into Spirit, when performed with Intent. West African
drum and dance has this Intent built in as a basic ingredient of the
activity. It was designed as a Doorway. Yes, it can be practiced
"just for fun", definitely, but then it is not
Playing and dancing African music is extremely healing
because it engages higher parts of the brain, and joins mind and body. It
heals grief and makes us relax into God.
I personally got to experience this to the fullest with
Native teachers. They have Something that non-Native teachers often do
not. Perhaps it is mastery, perhaps it is a finer understanding, perhaps
a lifestyle and attitude that is more in touch with Reality and God,
including no addictions, active prayer, a higher state of consciousness,
a better teaching technique with more giving to the students and more
demonstration, more conscious knowledge about the communal aspects, more
unconscious habit of living in a community and being accommodating to the
community, more investment into student learning in order to pass the
culture - who knows. Whatever it is, is very healing and makes me learn
very very quickly. For example, just about 4-6
classes with Moustaffa Bangoura
made me drum properly, and my dance improved too. Just a few classes with
Moussa Bangoura made me drum much more easily
and quickly, and even venture into dance solos (because I can hear the
drums better and thus can move more accurately).
What is the Native teaching strategy in case of drumming?
The teacher presents the rhythm, piece by piece. Then we follow and
he/she plays with us (so that we can hear what it sounds like). We keep
on playing many many times over, adding more
and more pieces, until we can play the entire thing (the call, the break,
the accompaniments). Then we play the entire thing but keep on changing
the accompaniment (there are usually 2 or 3) . Then we split the class
and one group plays one accompaniment, another group the next one, etc.
and then we keep on switching accompaniments amongst the groups. Then we
play solos at the end. The dance strategy is similar, except that
it pertains to dance moves.