Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Djembe: The Tambourine of the New Milennium

My late friend and mentor Larry Hefty gave me my first opportunity to play contemporary Christian music, having himself toured the U.S. for seven years with his band Shekinah. I joined Shekinah just as they were winding down, so we didn't tour much, and they had already completed their first album, so I didn't get to play on that, either. (Larry later produced the first album I did play on, and many of the others I played on later.) But here I was, under the tutelage of a guy who had played perhaps thousands of concerts, mostly in churches, and it was my big chance to learn.

It soon came to my attention that, upon arriving at a church, Larry would discretely round up any tambourines that might be in the pews and squirrel them away somewhere until the concert was over. Most of you have already guessed why, but for both of you who are too innocent to guess, it's because the tambourine is in fact a musical instrument, same as a saxophone or a guitar, but most people don't treat it as a musical instrument. Since, like a baby's rattle or a car horn, it makes noise with minimal effort on the user's part, anyone can do it. And, since it's associated exclusively with musical settings (even if it's just a Hare Krishna gathering), it must therefore follow that here's a musical instrument that anyone can play!

Larry knew better. Having endured early Shekinah concerts accompanied by the jangling cacaphony of tambourine-brandishing church ladies, he simply defused the situation by insuring that the only instruments heard would be played by the band themselves. (Note: Men are more apt than women to shy away from tambourines,which have been associated with the latter ever since Miriam prophesied on the timbrel in Exodus 15:20, incidentally making her the first drummer mentioned by name in the Bible.)

Tambourine playing itself runs the gamut between crisp accents at the end of every other measure (as in The Who's "Bargain") to frenzied flailing with nominal regard to the song's actual tempo or structure. Indeed, some tambourine wielders seem equally dedicated to delivering a visually flamboyant performance, whether done expertly (as per Ray Cooper, British percussionist to the stars) or badly, as many of you have doubtless witnessed if you've ever been involved with the 'right' sort of church. Just for the record, a properly played tambourine can do wonders for a rhythm section, or wreak havoc. I'll wager that sources like YouTube can provide ample input for anyone who wishes to acknowledge the tambourine's status as a genuine musical instrument, and who has a heart to learn.

But what's this? No girly-man instrument, the djembe. Back in the early 90's, when men were groping back toward the masculinity we'd misplaced in the 80's, drum circles became a symbol of that search. (Anybody remember Hasbro's "My Buddy" doll, marketed back then in hopes that little boys would play with dolls if given the chance? Sheesh.) Having gotten in touch with our feminine side and found it to be a chimera, we now needed an outlet for our testosterone, and all-male drum circles seemed like a great way to reinstate the "No Girls Allowed" dynamic we'd enjoyed for centuries. The djembe became the de facto hand drum for the novice: it easily produced a manly thunder, and even made different sounds with minimal effort or skill. And it was so African. Congas and bongos beg for specific strokes and techniques if you want to sound Afro-Caribbean, but the djembe lent itself to free-form flailing, and shrewd hand-drum makers wordwide were quick to capitalize on this craze. Oh, and don't forget portability - you never see one bongo, and rarely one conga - you need two. The Djembe Stands Alone, so to speak.

As a drum teacher, my credentials are spotty at best, but I do stress discipline - practice and listening skills loom large in my lessons. If I were to find it necessary to teach djembe, I’d immediately find the best instructional sources possible. Better still: explore better-documented hand drums, such as congas (which posess a much longer New World tradition than most hand percussion), and discover what Stravinsky’s “structure = freedom” dictum really meant. Your djembe will either become a much more serious instrument for you, or it may vanish altogether from your arsenal as you instead explore the rich Afro-Latin musical tradition. I don’t care which of the two paths you djembe owner/operators may take, but please take one, and treat your djembe as you would a guitar or a sax - a seriously deep musical instrument, not a shortcut to musical participation. You, and your audience, deserve better.