The Masterful Bolokada Conde at work. Djembe Kan at the Channing Murray Chapel in Urbana, IL, March 2012. Recorded by Sonny Stubble.
There's nothing else like spending over an hour on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Asheville with the djembe master from Guinea, West Africa, the incomparable, world-renowned Bolokada Conde. No, really. Nothing.
Anita and I were fortunate to experience two performances and attend a previous dejembe class hosted by Skinny Beats Drum Shop in Asheville with Bolokada over the past two years. But, this class was a bit more special for me since I was, because of nerve damage in my right wrist that prevents me from playing hand drums like the djembe, allowed to play another West African drum called the doundounba, translated as "big drum" from the Malinke' language, during the class.
The doundounba, which is played with a rather thick drum stick, is typically about 30 inches in length, about 24 inches in diameter and is played horizontally on a stand. For a right-handed player like me, the right hand plays the skin (usually made from goat or cow hide) while the left hand plays a bell mounted on the drum with a small metal stick. The doundounba, along with its drum cousins, the medium sized sangban, and the even smaller kenkeni, are usually played as a drum ensemble providing a solid, constant rhythm "base" or bed for the djembe player(s). In this particular class the sangban was played by Skinny Beat Drum Shop owner, Billy Zanski, one of Bolokada's students who studied in Africa with him. Another female student was there at class to play the kenkeni.
I was the only one of the three with absolutely no experience playing the doundounba - none, zero, nada. Me, standing closely behind and a bit to the right of The Djembe Master of the World. Had I, once again, bitten off more than I could chew? Would I choke? There seemed to be a good possibility that I would not be able to perform my role as The World's Most Inexperienced Doundounfola (one who plays doundoun).
Bolokada quickly gave me the beat I was supposed to play, I tried it a few times (all with mistakes), and he moved on to Billy on the sangban and the woman on kenkeni who both played their parts correctly with no trouble.
I'm dead, I thought, and I have entered musical Hell.
It was like standing behind Eric Clapton with my little electric bass strapped around my neck and being expected to accompany Slow Hand with a steady bass riff as he gives a class on the finer points of playing blues guitar. Except that at least I have heard a lot of blues tunes, Eric Clapton's playing is usually in 4/4 tempo, and I have been playing bass guitar for years. The music of West Africa is, may I humbly admit, foreign to me, which is ironically why I wanted to take the class in the first place. I had no idea that I would be required to provide a consistent metronome-like tempo for the class. Yikes, indeed!
Well, to make a long story short, at the very least I didn't give up. Luckily, Billy Zanski was right behind me prompting the downbeat (or was it the upbeat?) whenever I completely lost it even though he continued playing his sangban with a different rhythm pattern than mine. I owe him my life, or at least my confidence to finish the class without bursting into tears and running from the store in embarrassment.
The best part was that Billy told me that I "nailed it". I know he lied but he is a very nice and talented man. Bolokada turned to me at the end of class and flashed me a big smile with an enthusiastic thumbs up. I really couldn't ask for more encouragement from likely The World's Best Djembefola. Great teachers encourage learning while letting you see their true genius as an attainable goal for even a mere novice like me. If I could only live another 50 years, maybe.
So, I think I'll take a few more lessons, perhaps from Billy at Skinny Drums, and see if there really is an old African guy buried somewhere deep within my Irish brain.