Before you go, the first question to ask yourself is whether to go it alone, with a couple of buddies, or as part of an organized workshop. For a first timer, especially one with time constraints, an organized workshop is a way to quickly learn the drumming skills and make contacts on the ground. Plus, workshops are a great way to support the very artists who’ve brought their craft to the rest of the world. But if you are with a group, remember you are less accessible, and sometimes intimidating. Don’t be afraid to venture off on your own even if it means wandering around the market or taking a daytrip to the countryside. If you choose the group experience, stay on for an extra week beyond the workshop because you’ll doubtless have numerous invitations into peoples’ homes and villages before it’s time to leave.
But if you have more time, consider going it alone or just with a friend or two. The old travel adage is true: the smaller the group the more you’ll see. Not only is it easier to cram into shared taxis and arrange for private lessons, but a local player might be inclined to invite one or two people back to the village for a few days, whereas a large group might make that experience impossible.
The more vulnerable you are, the more locals will feel comfortable with you and the easier it will be to create the relationships that will take you deeper into the world of music. Two of the craziest experiences I’ve had in Africa started with me being alone and striking up a conversation with strangers. One was with a Fulani nomad from northern Ghana I met at a bus stop. Ali invited me to go back with him to meet his family, which turned into two months of living with nomads, milking cows, farming, riding bicycles through villages, and drumming. When it came time to leave they gave me a paper sack with guinea fowl eggs, some local juju to keep me safe, and a fist full of money. I told them I couldn’t take it, and they said, “You are a traveler just like us. We are the same people, and we know it is difficult, so please take this and be safe on your journey.”
The other time was when I stumbled upon a group of drum carvers who needed a truck battery so they could listen to music in their workshop. After a long discussion about what brought me to Africa and what I hoped to learn, they invited me to live and work with them. I bought them the truck battery and commenced a four-month apprenticeship making and playing drums in the village. Needless to say, neither experience would have happened if I hadn’t ventured out on my own.
A good way to prepare for study in Africa is to attend workshops in your local community before you go, and to start asking around about trips abroad. I’ve purposely dropped a ton of names and places in the preceding paragraphs to get the process started. These artists are a great point of entry, to not only get familiar with the music or inquire about workshop opportunities, but most have Web sites and Facebook pages full of information. Many of these artists are recognized by their peers as masters, and together they have influenced generations of players. But before you go, there are a couple of classic books written by American ethnomusicologists worth picking up. Check out John Chernoff’s African Rhythm And African Sensibility and Eric Charry’s Mande Music. Both open a window into how Africans see music and offer insight into ways to approach the study of music in Africa.
Whatever you have to do to get there, just get there. Besides being the continent that has influenced generations of our heroes like Elvin, Tito, Papa Jo, Mongo, and Airto, this is most of all about you. Sometimes when we see African instruments in stores we forget to connect them to the culture they come from. One of the side benefits to hopping on that plane is to learn about Africa with its young nation states and their own struggles with modernization, technology, religion, and the shift from rural to urban living. It’s a place to confront colonialism, race relations, and the misconceptions many of us have. And as a result, you’ll probably learn more about yourself and where you came from than you will about the music you went there to study. Besides, wouldn’t it be cool to tell people you’ve actually been to Timbuktu?