Rhythmic Snapshot: West Africa

Snapshot: West Africa

west africa

It’s a place where the fence between swung and straight was never built. A place where threes, fours, and fives play together like toddlers in play group. A place where the space between the notes has more merit than the notes themselves. A place where rhythm itself is meaningless without melody and context. As drummers, we know Africa is the continent that gave us the rhythmic DNA for the birth of American jazz, Brazilian samba, and Cuban rumba. With the huge influence African music has had on our own performance vocabularies as drummers, it may just be time to take the ultimate journey to the epicenter of rhythm itself.

With a lot of cultural objects being manufactured, borrowed, and traded in this Web-linked age of connectivity and travel, we see glimpses of Africa all over the place. Just think of the cajons, congas, and djembes in your local music store or the sounds programmed into electronic drum kits and percussion pads. For many of us, the instruments themselves are our first exposure to the continent. But it seems like we owe it to ourselves to learn more.


Ghana is a great place to go for first timers. Most of us are linguistically challenged, and since the majority of countries in West Africa are French speaking, it’s refreshing for Americans to go where the official language is English — and to keep our secret safe! Ghana has been extremely stable since gaining independence in 1957 and has the infrastructure to prove it. Not just in roads, buildings, and exports, but in the presence of thriving drumming workshops, camps, and institutes throughout the country, many of which are geared toward aspiring western drummers. It’s a place where you can track down legendary drummers for a lesson, carve your own drum in a village, or sit in till dawn with a group playing at a wake-keeping.

You can hit the ground running by studying kpanlogo in Accra. You can use the University Of Ghana at Legon and the Arts Council Of Ghana as resources once you land. The Ga people are among the best hand drummers in the world, and there are a lot of similarities between kpanlogo drums and congas, both in their shape and the hand technique used. Use of kpanlogo drums in pairs for highlife music is very similar to the role congas play in a salsa orchestra. Just listen to any Obo Addy and Kukrudu recordings to hear Ga drumming and its ability to cross over into the realms of jazz and highlife.

Then venture to the Volta region to study Agbadza from the Ewe people. Although Jenns Hannemann (the ├╝berdrummer persona of SNL cast member Fred Armisen) might cringe at the thought, the drumming traditions here really are complicated. The Ewe drum orchestras are comprised of many different drums all with different shapes, voices, and playing techniques. And being the land of the 12/8 bell pattern, the Volta region may very well be the place to finally unlock the mysteries hidden inside those pesky groupings of three, six, and twelve.

Next, head north up to Tamale to study with the Dagomba, where talking drums still talk. It’s a fairytale land with mud huts, princes, oral historians, nomads, and fortunetellers who will all become part of your experience. After inquiring with a local chief about drumming possibilities you might quickly find yourself playing for farmers during harvest, for villagers constructing a new mud compound, or playing long into the night during a full moon.

The Dagomba drummers, or lunci, are oral historians through whom young drummers will often learn the entire history of their people and be able to sing it long before they ever touch a drum. It’s a place where the first time they strap on a drum, the drum seems to play itself. It’s also an extremely challenging place for western drummers because the lunci remember their rhythms as linguistic phrases. A simple phrase on the drum could be a paragraph’s worth. And because the drum is mimicking spoken language, the intonation is where the rhythm derives its meaning. One wrong pitch bend and you’re “talking” nonsense. You’ll be the talk of the village the first time you attempt play a phrase on your lunga (talking drum) and break down a few seconds into it because you can’t remember the phrase. Go ahead, and laugh with them. It’s part of the experience and a great way to get schooled on the value of melody and phrasing in your drumming.

west africa

Mamady Keita, Guinea.

west africa

Dunun drums, Guinea.

west africa

Sabar drum and dance, Senegal.

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