On African Musicianship — or how I unlearned music
Written in 2020
My journey with music began when I was five years old. Until the age of 15, I took classical piano lessons and continued jamming until I was 20. I haven’t touched the piano since then, and I’ve realised that my relationship with musical expression has been on the wrong foot all along. This was due to a strict piano teacher, the expressive dryness of replaying classical songs and the rigidness of western musicianship.
Everything changed when I started playing the djembe. Djembe is a West African skin-covered goblet drum which is played with bare hands. The djembe has a body made of hardwood and a drumhead made of goatskin. The djembe dates back to 1230 AD and was associated with the Mali Empire, which today includes Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Gambia, and Senegal.
Djembe players use three basic sounds by varying the striking technique and position of their hands: bass, tone, and slap, which have low, medium, and high pitch, respectively. Master djembe players can actually achieve much more nuanced sounds — it’s said that masters can play a single slap in 21 different ways!
Acoustically, a djembe is a loud Helmholtz resonator: skilled players can achieve sound pressure of more than 105 dB, about the same volume as a jackhammer! The frequency of the bass is determined by the size and shape of the drum body, and the pitch of tones and slaps rises as the tension of the skin is increased.
Playing the djembe feels like returning to the roots of rhythm partly because it feels very familiar. West African rhythmic techniques — while initially isolated- were then carried over the Atlantic and became the fundamental ingredients in various musical styles in the Americas: from Afro Cuban music to Brazilian samba, forró, maracatu and coco and Afro-American musical genres such as blues, jazz, funk, reggae, hip hop, and rock and roll.
This is a performance by Djembe master Famoudou Konaté.
“Many sub-Saharan languages do not have a word for rhythm or even music. From the African viewpoint, the rhythms represent the very fabric of life itself; they are an embodiment of the people, symbolizing interdependence in human relationships.” — Peñalosa 
I find the rhythm the most fascinating part about playing the djembe. Traditionally djembe is played in an ensemble which includes many other djembes and is accompanied by dununs, karignan (a tubular bell) and shekere. All instruments play a rhythmic pattern with variable cycle lengths. Djembes are also tuned to different pitches. All, this gives rise to complex rhythms, known as polyrhythms which create the overall melody.
Sub-Saharan African music traditions share some homogenous rhythmic principles or archetypes  that are beautifully interwoven. They use certain kinds of polyrhythms known as syncopation and cross beats.
Syncopation is “a deviation from a regular expected rhythmic pattern, often placing stress on weaker beats or omitting stronger beats. Cross beat is “a rhythm in which the regular pattern of accents of the prevailing meter is contradicted by a conflicting pattern and not merely a momentary displacement”. The meter in both syncopation and cross beat is in a permanent state of contradiction, but at the same time, constantly interweaved. Ladzekpo  says:
“the main beat scheme cannot be separated from the secondary beat scheme. It is the interplay of the two elements that produces the cross-rhythmic texture”.
What also strikes me is that rhythm extends beyond music. It is integrated into all aspects of African cultural and social life. Nzewi says  that African rhythmic tradition is regulated by a shared feeling of pulse, defined as “the foundation of energy and flow of African musical arts…the basic organizing factor of life and music…centri-focal to thoughts and actions.”
He also goes on to describe rhythm as a multi-sensory phenomenon:
“ Rhythm can be sensed physically, in movements and in instrumental fingering and sticking patterns; visually, by the swaying of bodies, costumes, and items in the dance space; and mentally, by singing, humming, or marking the gestalt of the parts in one’s mind. Rhythm is the cumulative sonic effect of several hundred people moving, clapping, and singing the same notational weight as other instrumental lines played by individual musicians.”
Another revelatory insight for me has been the level of embodiment that permeates African musicianship.
The musicianship is training not only to become the player of an instrument but to be a Musician. Audiation is foundational to musicianship. Anyone who has studied music has taken some Musicianship class, also known as “Ear Training” or “Solfège”. This is where we train our ears to recognize intervals, perform melodies and rhythms at sight and write down musical examples upon hearing them.
Western musicianship is based on written notation and the acquisition of executive skills in a process that I call “mastery before intuition”. African musicianship, on the other hand, first builds intuition and then executive mastery. One can see this by how African musicians insist on not using formal notation and by “playing by ear”. African drummers traditionally use the “drumming language” which is a literal vocal translation of the notes. The drum’s music is, therefore, “based on spoken phrases, on a meaningful series of words” .
Hence, the western way of reading music on a music sheet is very different from the African way of singing it. My theory is that in western musicianship, information signals are passed first through our eyes via the music sheet, then are processed in the brain and control flows through our hands. African musicianship resembles morphological computation, in that, aspects of the control are “encoded” within the body itself.
The notation is sung, players use their whole body to keep the rhythm, the humming of the songs reverberates directly in their lungs, and the rhythmic sequences become embedded into tactile memory over time. Tracking temporal structure in music also activates multiple parts of the brain , like motor networks through the precise coordination of movements and several reward-based mechanisms, such as predictive processing and conflict monitoring.
Solfege takes years of subtle work. My teacher Laurence told me that younger kids in Africa are not allowed to touch the djembe until much later in their teens. Throughout western and central Africa, children's play also includes games that develop a feeling for multiple rhythms . Children then follow the djembe masters around the village, listen to their songs, gradually get their hands on dununs and then graduate to the djembe itself. They, then, develop mastery really fast, as they have been building up this unconscious solfege for years.
Another fascinating detail about djembe ensembles is the emergence of sonic complexity from seemingly simple parts. Complexity unfolds at various levels, either at the individual parts or as a resultant texture of multiple group parts. It’s also relational, as the polymeters, cross-rhythms, additive rhythms and solos produce unfolding rhythmic tensions. The rhythms form relationships like (a) overlapping, (b) interlocking; and c) adjacent and alternating , which are synchronized into a holistic sonic output.
The emergence of rhythm is fascinating. Here, emergence has more of an aesthetic quality, but I’m wondering if there are functional similarities across scales, like for example in the emergence of rhythm in central pattern generators (CPGs). CPGs are biological neural circuits that produce rhythmic outputs such as walking, breathing, and swimming without inputs that carry specific timing information. Is there a link between how those natural rhythms are produced and how we perceive and create musical rhythms?
According to the Bambara people in Mali, the name of the djembe comes from saying “Anke djé, anke bé”, which means “everyone gather together in peace”. You can’t play the djembe alone.
The djembe circle fosters a sense of communion, attunement and connection — the rhythms coordinate people’s behaviour in a group by tapping into the brain circuits that control emotion and sensory perception.
This could be explained neurobiologically. Stupacher  writes that: “Resonance theories link pulse and meter perception with neural oscillations. They assume that when neural oscillations entrain a stimulus such as music, then high neural excitability states and the underlying pulse of the musical rhythm become aligned (Large and Kolen, 1994; Large and Jones, 1999; Large, 2008; Schroeder and Lakatos, 2009).
Vuust  showed preliminary evidence that when drummers play polyrhythms the Brodmann area 47 is activated, a brain area associated with language processing. This suggests that processing metric elements in music rely on brain areas also involved in language processing. Those theories could explain how drums unite tribal and worship ceremonies, why armies march with drums, why the speech has rhythm and perhaps why we even dance.
During my latest practice, I’ve felt the unity, communion, and attunement I describe above, which, in turn, inspired this post. The parts of the holistic composition became inseparable, my hands suddenly acquired powerful automaticity, a sense of flow that enabled me to relate to this rhythmic stream and sustain a unity which arises from the rhythmic integration — the integration of my body and mind, of rhythm and the Other.
Everything became rhythm.
*If it sounds intriguing, our community band is open to everyone and we practice every Tuesday 8–9:30 pm at Greenwich West Community Centre. Led by the excellent teacher Laurence Hill. More info here: http://www.drumafrica.co.uk/
Peñalosa, D. and Greenwood, P., 2009. The clave matrix: Afro-Cuban rhythm: Its principles and African origins. Bembe Books.
Ladzekpo, C.K. (1995). Foundation Course in African Dance-Drumming; OCLC 44366373 a: “The Myth of Cross-Rhythm” b: “Main Beat Schemes” c: “Six Against Four Cross-Rhythm” d: “Three Against Four Cross-Rhythm”
Ladzekpo, C.K., 1995. Foundation course in African dance drumming (web document). Available at httpzllcnmat. CNMAT. BerkeleyEDU/~ ladzekpo/Foundation. html.
Nzewi, M., 1997. African music: theoretical content and creative continuum: the culture-exponent’s definitions. Inst. für Didaktik Populärer Musik.
Blanc, S., 1997. African Percussion: The Djembe. Percudanse Association.
Slater, J., Ashley, R., Tierney, A. and Kraus, N., 2018. Got rhythm? Better inhibitory control is linked with more consistent drumming and enhanced neural tracking of the musical beat in adult percussionists and nonpercussionists. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 30(1), pp.14–24.
Steppin’ on the Blues by Jacqui Malone. University of Illinois Press. 1996. page 21.
Anku, W., 1997. Principles of rhythm integration in African drumming. Black Music Research Journal, pp.211–238.
Stupacher, J., Wood, G. and Witte, M., 2017. Neural entrainment to polyrhythms: a comparison of musicians and non-musicians. Frontiers in neuroscience, 11, p.208.
Vuust, P., Wallentin, M., Mouridsen, K., Østergaard, L. and Roepstorff, A., 2011. Tapping polyrhythms in music activates language areas. Neuroscience Letters, 494(3), pp.211–216.