Sunday, June 17, 2012


Since coming back from Mali this year, I have noticed a vast improvement in my confidence as a drummer.  I seem to have passed some sort of benchmark, where now I am no longer gripped with fear when I play in public with my teacher.  I am not sure why.  I think that this year, in Bamako, I was working with a teacher who required me to step up to the plate and I did.  It was exhilarating and challenging and great fun.  By the end of the two weeks, he had me playing all the breaks and more or less leading the class for a piece called Jinafoli.  I feel very happy that I was able to do what he was asking of me.

From that point on, I have felt a much greater sense of confidence.  I am not as afraid to make mistakes and am growing to enjoy playing in public or for dance classes more and more.  Over the last five years, I have worked with some amazing teachers and every one of them has given me a great gift.

Sidy Maiga- my master teacher.  I have been apprenticing with him for 5 years and have been hugely blessed by his incredible skill, both as a drummer and a teacher.  He is also one of my best friends. 

Billy Konaté- a great weekend workshop in Boston.  He seriously put me through my paces.

Wadaba- Old school village style from Guinea.  Loved it.

Mazé Kouyaté- Oh, my sweet friend.  In just two weeks you taught me so much about drumming and life.  I will never, ever, forget you.  And for me, Maraka will always have a special place in my heart.  And Mazé, your drum is my most prized possession.  Thank you.

Makan Koné-  Makan, you are an exuberant and joyful player and a patient and kind teacher.  It is a pleasure studying with you!

Alassane Sissoko- Thank you, Alassane, for your excellent style.

Fousseiny Kouyaté-  As gentle as your brother. 

Madou Djan Diarra- You have a special place in my heart, Madou Djan.  You built my beautiful dunduns and taught me Jinafoli.   You fixed my sticks and I carry the bag your father made everywhere.  Thank you so much.  I love playing with you!

And though I didn't take a class with him, I have to mention Yacouba Sissoko, an amazing musician.  The morning you played ngoni and we sang together is a great memory for me.  What a joyful noise we made! I felt fearless when we sang together... and it stands out as a moment of pure delight.

It is all of these amazing players and friends who have helped me grow as a musician.  I am so grateful to all of them.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Reheading with cowskin

In 2009, I came back from Mali with a beautiful old djembe from one of my teachers. Within days the vintage goatskin head popped. Since I was planning to head it in cowskin anyway, I wasn't too upset.

Well, this poor drum went through some crazy stuff. My teacher put a thin calfskin on it and it sounded awful, then popped. I bought a couple of nice cowskin rounds from Nate at One Tree and Sidy tried to put the thinner one on, but the rings were too small. So I asked my husband to make a new set of rings, but they were too small too. In the mean time, the whole thing was sort of back burnered because I had taken up dunun.

Well, to make a long story even longer, I finally got the rings adjusted and in the process of all of this, decided that since it is my drum, I am going to bloody well build it and skin it myself.

I chose the thick skin from Nate. It is going to make a great bass djembe, I think.

I admit I was pretty scared when I pulled the skin out of the water this morning. It was very thick to start with, and had swelled significantly overnight. But I rolled up my sleeves and got to work and found it wasn't really that much more difficult to work with than goat skin. My rings were a good size, the rope is the perfect thickness (Thanks, Shorty!) and all in all I just took it step by step.

Sidy had suggested that for the wet pull, I bring the skin to where I want it to be for playing. I know this conflicts somewhat with the advice given here on the forum to keep the skin high until it dries... but I decided to go ahead and follow Sidy's advice. (He is my teacher, after all, LOL)

I have a funky old pulling bar and was extremely happy to discover that I was able to pull the wet skin down just fine.

Once the skin was where I wanted it, I had to trim the excess. I was intimidated by this process, too, since the skin was so thick, but with a razor blade, it actually went pretty easily.

Finally, my next step was to shave the hair. For the wet shave, I just used the razor blade. I left the hair on the sides for later, once it is dry. The drum really looks great and I am hoping it will sound great once it is dry and tuned.

All in all, this process wasn't nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. I think I may need help with the dry pull and tuning, but I am really happy I was able to head my sweet old drum myself.

Will keep you posted on how it sounds!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The latest song list

Songs I can play on the dunun:

Mali Kadi (One of Sidy's pieces.)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rocking the Bamako Style dunun

After almost a year and a half playing the dunun, I was still finding myself choking at performances. I have wicked stage fright when it comes to drumming and it inevitably happened that when I played in front of people, I would mess up and get even MORE nervous. It was rough.

In addition, while I have good skill in terms of being able to pick up and remember dunun parts very well, I was only really comfortable playing them at moderate speed. So when I would play with Malians on stage, the speed is way faster and my mind would start playing tricks on me. (Am I in the right place in the rhythm? Can I keep up? Are my arms going to fall off?) Crash.

Last Friday I played ONE song for one of my teacher's gigs. I was up on the stage with a Kora player (Yacouba Diabaté),Nampé Sadio and Sidy. I was playing Mendiani, which I know very well. And in the middle of the song, I started worrying that my hands were cramping up. I freaked out, made a mistake, got back on track and finished.

The next day I was a mess. I was so frustrated that I have been unable to get past this stage fright issue. I actually cried, LOL. And then I started to think about what I wanted to actually accomplish.

I want to be able to play with Bamako players at their speed. Nothing fancy, just keep up and not get lost in the rhythm or scared or cramped up, just play at breakneck speed for long periods of time without screwing up.

This is such a no-brainer it is embarrassing. I realized that in order to accomplish this, I was going to have to.... wait for it.... practice. Every day. For 30 to 40 minutes. At Bamako speed. Nonstop.

Within a day or two of starting a new practice regimen, I began to realize that I don't have enough strength in my arms to be able to play for 40 minutes. My shoulders and neck were seizing up.... my arms were in pain. I discussed this with my teacher, who gave me some pointers on how to reduce the amount of muscle power necessary to make the sounds. (Mostly involving relaxing your hands so that your arm muscles don't have to work as hard.)

I tried it. It worked.

Now I am able to play for 40 minutes straight at Bamako speed with fewer mistakes, less fatigue and much more confidence. All in a week of daily practice.

I am sharing this because, well, it feels like a little bit of a breakthrough. I am not sure that I will have less stage fright next time I play out, but at least I will know that I am physically capable of playing at Bamako speed for a full set.


Who knew?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The starting point

During labor, there are several points when the mother seems to begin the cycle over again. She goes through the physical and emotional stages again, seeming to get back to square one at several points throughout the process.

I feel like I am doing that with my dundun playing right now.

Last Saturday, I was playing with Sidy, Seydou and Rob for Brown University's graduation event for the Africana Studies department. We played for 2 hours straight, no breaks. It was exhilarating and tiring and lots of fun. I felt very happy that I seemed to have broken through my stage fright and was able to relax and focus and just play. I was very happy with how I played.

But there was a moment when a door opened. Sidy started to play Sogonikun. He didn't say anything, just started to play the djembe part. I know this part pretty well. We have been playing Sogonikun in class lately. In my head, I knew it was Sogonikun... but for some reason I started to play the dundun part for Madan. Sidy shook his head at me. Within a moment or two I corrected myself, but afterwards I started to think about what had happened.

Usually, Sidy will say the name of the piece we are going to play as he starts. And I have gotten pretty good at being able to just jump in and play any of the 13 or so rhythms I know. But it is the NAME that seems to trigger my brain and arms into action. I have come to depend on the spoken name to be the switch that turns on the rhythm.

After last Saturday, I realized I needed to develop that same instant reflex with the djembe parts. I needed to be able to hear a djembe part and instantly know what to play on my dunduns. I decided I would ask Sidy to help me by 'quizzing me' with his drum.

Yesterday, I met him for a lesson and was working on a new part. When we were winding down, he told me that he was going to play djembe and I needed to figure out what to play and just come in. I was pretty amazed that he had come up with the exact same response that I had to my mistake from last week.

I was able to figure out the first two pieces, but it took me a LONG time. I had to listen and think and think and think until finally some little part of it would shout at me and I would start to play the dundun. He wasn't just playing the standard accompaniment... but rather was soloing. And yet, I absolutely should have been able to snap right to it.

By the third rhythm, I was getting confused and couldn't get it at all. We tried a couple of more and I made mistakes. I would play the wrong piece.

It was like a whole new world opened up in front of me. I realized that I had stepped into a new level, one that brought me right back to square one. Rewind 5 years and I am just picking up a djembe for the first time. Rewind 5 years and I am learning the accompaniment for Dansa, the solo phrases for Mendiani, the mind bending rhythms of Wasolonka.

I said to Sidy that I wanted to cry, but it was the good kind of cry. The kind that is going to motivate me to work on this until I get it. The kind of cry that happens because I want to be better than I am. I told him I wanted to be the best white dundunfola he ever played with. Not that I am competitive at all, but I want to kick some cracker ass.

I came home and made a sort of auditory set of flash cards by making a playlist on itunes of snippets of all the djembe parts I have recorded over the years. Then I put the play list on shuffle and listened and practiced recognizing the pieces and playing along with my dundun sticks. After awhile I realized that it has been so long since I played djembe, I was not recognizing all the solo parts, so I took out my drum and started working through the parts I was hearing. Slowly, painfully. God it would be so much easier if I was living in Bamako.

But little by little, it started to come together. Oh yeah, that is the 4th solo from Sandia Sumale. That is that weird Dansa solo that we never really practiced, but Sidy played for us once. I remember that.... that was the Madan solo we never did in class, but I learned at one of our lessons.

And so it went. Djembe on one side and dunduns on the other. I would play the dunduns if I figured out what I was listening to. If not, I would painstakingly work the djembe parts until it opened the little file in my brain that remembered them.

I played for hours. And then, today, hours more. With more to come.

I can do this. Square one never looked so good.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The new dunduns

I can't believe I haven't posted to this blog since coming back from Mali in January. I can't believe I started a blog post with the most boring first line in the history of blogging.

So, in a nutshell:

Trip was amazing. I will post pictures and more details soon.

I came back with a new set of dunduns. They are made of a much lighter wood, and are quite a bit smaller than the old behemoth I was playing. I have a small dununba and a kenkeni. I brought them back in duffel bags through the checked baggage on the airplane and they made it here safe and sound. (You should have seen me trying to wrangle all that luggage through Port Authority in NYC, though. It was hilarious. Luckily I had two unsuspecting teens with me who could help out.

It was great fun seeing my new drums go from carved shells to finished products. On the last day in Mali, Madou Jean was over at the house pulling the skins.

The advantage of the smaller drums is that they weigh much less and are easier to carry around. I have rigged up a miniature carabiner on both ends of the dununba so that I can attach the kenkeni to whichever end sounds best on that day. Then I strap it tight with a bungie cord. That way I can easily separate the drums for transport. Madou Jean even fashioned a carrying strap out of the extra tuning rope for the kenkeni, so I can toss it over my shoulder. All in all it is a very portable setup.

And the drums sound delicious.

The kenkeni, especially, has a gorgeous tone. The two drums are tuned to each other and just sound great together.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

drum heads

I have reheaded a couple of drums in the last two weeks, and let me tell you, it is hard work. My latest was done on Sunday and I am still feeling the effects of it. Sore muscles in my arms, legs, back.

I remember once watching my teacher working on one of my drums. It was a moving and humbling experience. So much physical work. He was sweating and grimacing as he straddled the drum and tried to pull the rings down over the edge. His tools were simple: a big stick and his back muscles. And leg muscles. And arms.

I actually felt moved to tears that it was so much effort and that he was willing to do it on my behalf.

The thing that is crazy about heading a drum is that it is hard work no matter whether it is a beautiful Mali shell or a piece of junk from Ghana or Indonesia.

Once I found a drum shell on Craig's list for $40. I showed Sidy a picture of it and asked him if it would be worth buying so I could practice heading. He told me he could tell from the picture that the drum was crap. It's base was off center, the bearing edge was cockeyed. He could tell that the interior carving was rough, just from looking at the shape of the outside. I was so new to drumming at that point I couldn't see what he was seeing, so I just took his word for it. Now I can spot a bad drum a mile away. It might be easier to carve a bad shell than a good one... but it is just as much work to rope it and put the head on.

This week I was working on a poorly made drum that someone hired me to fix. The skin was a beauty... a spotted thick goatskin from Mali. My process is getting better. I am learning how to keep the rings even all around and pull them down to just the right level on the wet pull. In this drum's case, I don't even have to do a dry pull.... it dried nice and tight on it's own. But at the end of a long afternoon of physical work, we are left with a bad drum with a nice head.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

And speaking of dun duns

I have been playing ballet style for a couple of months now and am absolutely grooving on it. I LOVE the dun duns!

So far I know 5 songs:

Sandia Sumali

I am playing a set that includes a dununba and a kenkeni and am having a blast with them.

It's Dun Dun

Ok, I am not sure how this happened. I have heard various accounts. But once and for all I want to clarify that the name of the big Malian (and Guinean) bass drums is dun dun. It is pronounced 'doon doon'. It is not djun djun. It is not pronounced june june.

The story I have heard about the origin of this calamity of mispronunciation is that it started with Babatunde Olatunji, who is Nigerian. Somehow he started spelling dun dun with the 'j' because that is how the French spell djembe. (Which IS a 'j' sound, of course.) His mistake has infiltrated drumming circles around the world and has resulted in generations of Americans mispronouncing the name of the drum. The irony is that Babatunde isn't from a country that even has these bass drums.

Another story I heard was that a West African drummer (could it have been Mamady?) kept calling the bass drums djun djuns and when he was asked about it by someone who knew that the drums are called dun duns in West Africa, he laughed and said that he thought that was the American pronunciation of the drum and didn't want to confuse his students.

So, ask a Malian, Guinean, Burkinabe, or Ivorian how to say the name of the drum and they will tell you:

Dun dun.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Finally, after all this time, I asked Sidy to let me work on the dun duns. He has given me his ballet style set to work with and practice on. It is a huge old dununba and a beautifully carved kenkeni that get lashed together and played vertically.

Playing dun duns is a very different experience. The muscles you use are different because you are holding sticks. The role of the duns duns in the ensemble is to keep time and create a bassline melody that holds the rest of the drums together. It isn't easy for me because after 4 1/2 years of trying to follow the dun duns, I now have to stop listening to the other drums and just keep a steady rhythm myself. It is especially a challenge in class when the djembes are wandering all over the place, LOL.

I love these drums, though. I have been practicing every single day. I set the drums up in the corner of my dining room and every time I walk by, I sit down to play for awhile. My house vibrates, LOL.