African drumming offers lessons in rhythm and culture

By Kevin Hotary - Staff Writer
East Haddam - posted Wed., Jun. 15, 2011
Carly (left) and Alexis practice the rhythm on kenkeni drums. Photos by Kevin Hotary.
Carly (left) and Alexis practice the rhythm on kenkeni drums. Photos by Kevin Hotary.

Things got a little raucous at the normally serene East Haddam Free Public Library on Monday, June 13, as Jocelyn Pleasant from the Wesleyan University Green Street Arts Center in Middletown paid a visit with her African drums for a lesson in rhythm and culture.

An independent percussion instructor with nearly 20 years of playing experience, Pleasant runs an after-school program at Green Street, as well as numerous workshops across the state, where she introduces the variety of drums and rhythms common to Guinea, in western Africa.

Quite different from typical western drums, African drums are carved from wood, and the heads are made from cow or goat skin stretched, with the fur intact, across the drum opening. The fur helps protect the drum, “just like the hair on your body protects you,” said Pleasant.  Strings running the length of the drum are used to tighten the head and change the sound.

The Djembe drum, which is played with the hands, “tells everyone else what to do,” said Pleasant to the group of children in the audience. The Djembe works together with the doundounba, which takes the place of the bass drum in western music, to play a rhythm that is “answered” by the other drummers playing the sangban and the smaller kenkeni drums.

“Call and response is a big part of West African music. That’s the key to the music. You have to rely on the people around you,” said Pleasant. One by one, she introduced a simple rhythm on each of the drums and explained how they are response to each other. Then she let the children play, leading them on the Djembe and breaking the set pattern at intervals. Those breaks, said Pleasant, are a signal to dancers following the drums to change their steps. She explained that the rhythm they were playing is one that would be used in a “rite of passage” ceremony for a boy.

“There is a big ceremony surrounding it,” said Pleasant, where the boys go out into the jungle, “and when they come back, they are a man.”

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