My friends, Jamie and Ana, invited me along to a drum circle in Katonah that they had come across on Facebook. It’s a diversion that has become popular due to the simple joy that people experience when they hit something that is disinclined to hit them back.
I pictured a bunch of dudes playing the drum solo from “Moby Dick” on bongos, all starting at a slightly different time. But it wasn’t like that at all. This group employs a West African tradition called djembe, which translates to “gather in peace.” Makes total sense except for all that racket from people banging on drums.
Our instructor, Matt, taught us about them. In West Africa, the bongo is an antelope, not a drum. These drums are made of cherry or aspen wood, and covered with goatskin. Here’s a word of caution: goatskin sounds great, but wait until it is stretched over a drum before testing it out. I tried doing paradiddles on a goat at a petting zoo, and the damn thing chased me all over the place and I had to hide under a llama. If you ARE a goat, consider leaving your skin to a drum maker upon your death, and give back to the community.
While we’re on the subject, I signed an organ donor card, but I want to make clear that not all of me should be used upon my death. Most of my organs are holding up OK, but my eyes are quirky, my knees are a disaster, and you might want to stay away from my brain. If anyone wants to stretch my skin over a drum I think I’d be okay with that. While I’m alive, I don’t think I’ll be donating a kidney or anything, because it would be just like me to develop a kidney problem the week after I donate one, and then I will have to ring on somebody’s doorbell and ask for it back with a sheepish look on my face. I do have an electric organ that I’m trying to learn how to play, and my wife has offered to donate that as soon as possible.
Anyway, Matt taught us some simple phrases to play, using the three different sounds, a bass sound hitting the middle of the head, a tone that produces the tuned pitch of the drum, and a slap that fills in beats by hitting towards the rim.
In Mali culture, the drums are used ceremonially, and not for communication, which was good news for me. I pictured myself drumming something entirely inappropriate, such as your daughter needs braces, and having a tribe elder come by and hit me over the head with a kudu antler or something.
Some of us, and I’m not mentioning any names here (Rick Melén) had trouble remembering the rhythms, and so Matt had a saying: “If you can say it, you can play it.” Meaning, just come up with a simple phrase to help you feel the beat. In this case, he chanted, “Please pass the chicken sandwich,” and we all played along perfectly. Except that then I couldn’t remember if he said “chicken salad sandwich,” and then I started thinking how great chicken parmesan would be for dinner. After everyone else ended I had about 13 extra beats while I straightened out the menu. Never play the drums on an empty stomach.
What about people who can’t keep a beat? I knew a gal who used the rhythm method of birth control and she had six kids. But Matt said that everyone has a sense of rhythm at its most basic form: your heartbeat. If you can’t get THAT together, you’re probably not going to live long enough to pass the chicken sandwich.
Join the Free Hand Drumming Class brought to you by Katonah Space at the Katonah United Methodist Church Thursdays from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Say hello to Rick Melén at email@example.com.