On the Beat: African Drumming

Class: African Drumming

As I walked down the long hallway to my African Drumming class, this is what I heard and then saw.

I had to miss the first half hour of class and figured that must have been a significant loss if everyone was already jamming away on their drums. Still, I sat down, moved the drum in front of me and went, “tap-tap-tap…tap-tap-tap…tap-tap-tap.” After about 10 minutes, the nice man next to me leaned over and suggested that I get some instruction about how to drum. Yes, well. I agree?

Drumming class and one of the writing classes were the two that I was most anxious about taking. My challenge was not a fear of rhythm. I like math and fractions, studied a bit of music theory, and got the majority of my awesome dance moves from watching Soul Train as a kid — that seemed like a good foundation for understanding rhythm. My hangup was that I second guess my hand-eye coordination, aim, and timing. I’m more comfortable responding to and anticipating a beat than creating it.

Hand hand fingers thumb. Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum. Just relax and hit the drum, I told myself after our instructor, Andy, reviewed the proper ways to hit the drum for bass, tone, and slap. For me, getting maximum sound out of the instrument was kind of like hitting golf balls at the driving range. After a successful few drives I start thinking I’ve won, but really I haven’t even stepped onto the course yet. Those successes have to be linked together to play the game, or play the drum.

As we learned traditional African beat patterns, I tried to stay with a beginner mind like I had done for the yoga retreat. I just needed to watch and listen and then repeat. I had to trust my arms to guide my hands to actually hit the drum in the right spot at the right time. We worked on polyrhythms and syncopation (which are sugar to a fraction- and beat-loving brain) and I could see our class really getting the hang of both patterns and improvisation in percussion. They got the beat. Surrounded by twenty other drummers, maybe I did too?